Monday, August 21, 2006

Yea, Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Dolls

By Tony Buchsbaum

Even after almost 40 years, Valley of the Dolls remains the camp classic it was practically created to be.

Based on the must-read novel by the master self-promoter/author Jacqueline Susann, the movie stars Patty Duke in her first adult role, the luscious Barbara Parkins fresh off the set of TV’s Peyton Place, and the soon-to-be murdered Sharon Tate. Each one of them seems to attack her role as if it were a matter of life and death—and maybe, at the time, that’s exactly what it was.

At just over two hours, Dolls follows the rise and fall of three ultra-determined women in the show-biz of the late 1960s. In New York, Parkins arrives ready to make the city her own. Her first day, she meet the viscious stage legend played by Susan Hayward in a part that once belonged to Judy Garland, until she flamed out. She also meets Neely O’Hara (Duke), just starting out; she’s got that early Streisand thing going, all voice and moves and desperate edge. And off in the shadows, if only for the moment, is Jennifer (Tate), a showgirl who follows the doomed Tony to Hollywood.

Hollywood, of course, is where all three girls end up: Duke leaves Broadway for the tinsel of the west, Parkins becomes a world-famous beauty-products model, and Tate finds herself widowed by Tony’s debilitating illness and left to care for Tony’s sister, played by Lee Grant (whose features are so severe that they look positively whittled). Trouble is, Duke’s hooked on pills and booze, Parkins can’t get her love-life together, and Tate has to do “art” films to pay the mortgage.

Needless to say, the elevator drops a lot faster than it rose, and all three girls are left to make their own way back to sanity after the Mack truck of life broadsides them but good.

Throughout, the film’s tragedy is laughable—but that’s pretty much the point. It’s perfectly distilled pulp fiction, only the crimes these women perform are all aimed at themselves. Needless to say, even among all the dolls and drinks, the real drug is ambition. It’ll get ’em every time.

Eventually, all three come to their senses just as the film begins to overstay its welcome. Perfect timing, perfect lessons learned.

As famous as Valley of the Dolls was, just as famous was its theme song, performed by the young Dionne Warwick, whose voice symbolizes the hopes and dreams and even regret these girls endure. The song has become a classic, and it’s used here not in the version we know, but broken up in verses and versions throughout the picture, almost as punctuation.

The first-ever DVD, recently released, features a beautiful transfer of the film, audio commentary by Barbara Parkins, dishy behind-the-scenes documentaries, photo galleries, trivia, screen tests, and more. Fans of the film would have been thrilled with just the flick; Twentieth Century Fox’s bonus gifts are a classy move.

A titillating snapshot of Hollywood filmmaking in the late 1960s, Valley of the Dolls is priceless entertainment. Much like its cousin Melrose Place and other entertainments of that lineage, you’ll love it…even as you wonder why.

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