Camp in film is deliberate, exaggerated, often irreverent send-up of popular beliefs, opinions, entertainments, and sacred cows. There is intentional camp (the movies of Mae West come immediately to mind, as do those of Marlene Dietrich. Her BLONDE VENUS, THE BLUE ANGEL, SEVEN SINNERS, MOROCCO are film textbook lessons in how to cannonball gender, sex, music up into the stratosphere. Bette Midler’s stage shows fairly drip with it (Midler’s schtick is the epitome of campy, nasty fun). This brand of entertainment suggests there are alternatives to the staid ways in which we view our daily lives, our culture, and our habits. It forces us out of our comfort zones. Masters of camp (John Waters is a another brilliant example) have their finger on the pulse of what people don’t want to see or know to then show them exactly that, the result being that people end up loving and embracing what they thought of as taboo.
But there is accidental camp, an unintended element to films where the creative team’s efforts for various reasons go horribly, surprisingly south. The great fun of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and movies like it is that while they washout as legitimate drama, they achieve redemption when audiences embrace them as something else, elevating them into the realm of camp. We have all heard the expression, “It’s so bad, it’s good” or “It goes from the ridiculous to the sublime”. This fate (for better or worse) brought VALLEY a cult status that lasted for many years after the movie’s release and made it a “must-see” for anyone interested in cinema of the ridiculous.
Mark Robson’s 1967 adaptation of the wild bestseller, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS by Jacqueline Susann, is a prime sample of accidental camp. The story of three innocents who long to find fame and love in the world of show business very quickly bypasses serious drama to dive headlong into not only soap opera but bad soap opera. But how? It has three attractive female leads (Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara, beautiful British-born Barbara Parkins—she had come to public recognition in TV’s phenomenal Peyton Place—and the stunning, voluptuous goddess that was Sharon Tate.) It has Susan Hayward, a great star. It has a screenplay by Harlan Ellison, a great writer. As mentioned, it is based on a failsafe book by Susann, one of the most successful pop writers in publishing history. So where did this movie go wrong?
VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is bad because it tries to elevate pornography to art, and instead succeeds in turning an already lurid tale into a genuine, honest-to-God trash bin. Sex isn’t destiny—sensible women fail and fall not because their lives are fatally clinched, but because they make one stupid choice after another. Rather than admiring the star of her first Broadway production, Helen Lawson (Hayward), Neely provokes her jealousy and insecurity causing Lawson to have her canned from the show. Jennifer (Tate) devalues her gifts by peddling them out to cheap porno sleazebags who of course want only to use her. Even Anne (Parkins), the sensible one of the three, slips in her belief that a married man will leave his wife for her. Choices such as these lead not to success but to near-ruin.
The film has a cocktease element—it purports to worship sex and the power sex can have, how dirty sex can be but it never delivers on its own premise. Real sex never appears. Ultimately, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS believes that sex, indeed, is dirty, to be hinted at, winked about but never shown. Look, don’t touch! The filmmakers are too scared to give life to their and Susann’s battle cry—that sex, really down-and-dirty sex, can be glorious, can be your pleasure and your weapon. They chicken out.
Mostly, then, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS chooses vulgarity over sex—the shots of Sharon Tate doing bust exercises and the dialogue that follows disgust—there is some pre-feminist cursing but it seems forced, unnatural, a lame attempt to shock that falls far short of the hoped-for effect. This was one of Hollywood’s first attempts to portray women as gutter mouths and it doesn’t work.
VALLEY wants to be about the intoxications and pitfalls of sex, but it is about as sexy as an amateur porn video made in a garage by pimply teen boys who’ve seen only one issue of Playboy. What it is, is funny—hysterically so. I won’t give away what happens but the scene where one character in a mental institution recognizes another is one of the classic unintentional laugh riots in movie history. (VALLEY OF THE DOLLS was voted “One of the Fifty Worst Films of All Time”)
Duke is the talent here and she does her best to make imbecilic dialogue sound smart. She can sing but struggles for air in a room that has none. Paul Burke, Tony Scotti, Martin Milner are almost unnaturally wooden for actors hired to play hot, volcanic hunks. Hayward was a fine actress but here is assigned the unenviable job of playing a washed-up shrew. During filming, she and Duke did not get along and it shows. (Interesting aside—Judy Garland was originally to play the Helen Lawson part, that of a drunken, drugged-out has-been on the downslide—talk about art imitating real life. This was, by this point in Garland’s career, typecasting. But director, Mark Robson, did not want Garland in the part. He would call her in to the set for 6 a.m. then make her wait until 4 or 5 in the afternoon to shoot her scenes. He knew the alcoholic, insecure Garland would be so upset; she would emerge too sloshed to perform. He was right; Garland was fired and Hayward stepped in).
But VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is so absurd, it reached cult status among audiences, mostly gay men who joyfully dubbed it “Valium of the Dolls” in reference to “dolls” in the story, slang for Nembutal and Seconal—downers. The power of the filmic image cannot be denied, those qualities of a scene or a moment, whether it possesses magnificence like the Rosebud epiphany in CITIZEN KANE or Scarlett O’Hara’s clenched fist swearing to the sky that she will live to fight another day, or an absurdity such as Faye Dunaway screaming, “NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!” in MOMMIE DEAREST it has an innate power to hypnotize, to linger. A scene need not be good to be memorable. So that wig in the toilet scene between Patty Duke and Susan Hayward is as embedded in our cinematic treasure box as is the parting of The Red Sea in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or Jimmy Cagney shouting, “Made it, Ma! Top o’ the world!” in WHITE HEAT. We love movie moments because they invade our sensibilities and stay there to be unwrapped whenever we need alleviation from life’s stress, life’s drudgery. How often have I seen myself or friends relieve our tedium or a long, tiring day by resurrecting, “Dolls! Gimme them dolls! I need DOLLS!!!” It’s hard to hang the word “bad” on something that brings so much laughter, so much fun. Sure, the filmmakers didn’t intend for their movie to deliver such a stray punch. Thank goodness it does.
VALLEY OF THE DOLLS also remains an artifact of one Hollywood’s first attempts to find its sea legs in portraying the 60s sexual revolution. It is not the landmark film it wants to be but it has a place in cinema history as one of the most enjoyable guilty pleasures ever committed to celluloid.
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A word about Patty Duke who journeyed on from us this year. People of my generation were viscerally shattered by her seismic performance as young Helen Keller in THE MIRACLE WORKER, both on stage and in the film. She is the first child star to win an Academy Award. And snicker as some do over her turn in The Patty Duke Show, it was a seminal part of our growing up years and provided much of the TV cultural track of our lives. The comedy might seem non-threatening today but Duke was the first actor to play a dual role (that of spunky, savvy, scheming American teen, Patty Lane and her staid, courteous, careful doppelganger Brit cousin, Cathy). She performed both roles with such skillful ease; we would sometimes forget the same girl was playing these characters.
Patty Duke never gave a bad performance. She ended up in a few bad vehicles over the years but she, herself, was such a consummate actor, she always managed to shine. She possessed also a spirit of great courage, battling bipolar illness her whole life and sharing that diagnosis in her heartbreaking Call Me Anna, one of the first books to bring heightened awareness of that condition to an uneducated world. Rest in peace, dear Patty. You will be missed.