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Valley of the Dolls

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Posted 5th April 2009 at 07:00 PM by Sam@Cult Labs
Updated 5th April 2009 at 08:03 PM by Sam@Cult Labs

Reposted from the tragically defunct DVDisgo...

Valley of the Dolls

During the extra features on the Cinema Reserve special edition of Valley of the Dolls, one of the hacks dragged in to hype this rather fine exercise in big budget lunacy states that the definition of a camp movie is one that doesn't set out to be over the top, garish or silly. A camp movie should never be self-conscious and it certainly shouldn't wink at the audience and laugh at itself.

So when respected Hollywood journeyman Mark Robson (Peyton Place) was approached to direct the best selling novel by failed actress and Broadway gossip hound Jacqueline Susann, he didn't intend his movie to be reviled by critic or retrospectively adored by lovers of car crash cinema.

The author had written a scandalous novel on many levels. For a start, the combination of independent career girls, hedonism, drugs and sex, meant that even though Susann couldn't have written convincing prose with a gun to her head, the book was impossible to put down in an era when you just didn't find these kind of subject matters dealt with in popular fiction.

Secondly, many of the larger than life characters in the book were purported to be based on real people who worked in theatre and movies. Thinly veiled representations of the scheming and back biting displayed by the bitchy denizens of showbiz must have sent shockwaves through the entertainment business when the book smashed records, becoming one of the best selling publications of all time. It's certainly true that, in the same way that, for better or worse, cinema was never the same after Jaws ushered in the age of the blockbuster, so Valley of the Dolls created a new precedent for writers, allowing the kind of easy-to-read sex and scandal fiction so beloved of authors like Jackie Collins to flourish.

The film was set to be the great white hope of the industry for that year, with a large budget and big stars. Judy Garland was tested for the role but, broken by the same dangerous lifestyle and fickle fortune contained in the book, had to leave the production, to be replaced by the amazing Susan Hayward. Hayward had starred in the Oscar winning tale of a women on death row, 'I Want To Live', and her unique brand of bombastic melodrama gives Dolls a touch of class, even if she does chew the scenery during most of her screen time.

Adding to the bizarre mix is Sharon Tate, a poor actress playing a girl who can't act in a masterstroke of appropriate casting. An attractive presence throughout the picture, her character's life spirals into misery, suicidal depression and roles in French "art films" (for art please read porn), Tate also lends the film a dark edge, as she was famously slain by the Manson Family, in a act of violence that helped to end the utopian dreams of the baby boomer generation.

Central to the film is Neely, a nice girl who is twisted by the machinery of fame. The dolls of the title refer to slang for prescribed medication and Neely (Played by the completely OTT Patty Duke) becomes totally hooked. Alienating her friends and colleagues, her descent into addiction and madness is a joy to behold.

The final major role went to Barbara Parkins, who had worked with the director previously on Peyton Place. She plays wholesome if naive country girl Anne Welles and she holds the other characters together when their lives go horribly awry, despite having her own issues to deal with. Of all the roles in the film, hers is the only character who has a hope of surviving the insanity.

Because Valley of the Dolls is all about insanity. The style of the film is weirdly feral, encompassing good old fashioned Hollywood style and the glamour of films like Breakfast at Tiffanys while throwing in bizarre psyched out montages, giddily insane lighting and a kind of simmering melodramatic tension that boils over in full blown dementia through the running time.

This is one of the defining films of the 1960s. It's not the greatest film of the era from the point of view of getting included in any mainstream critics list, but as a document of how Hollywood was trying to court the young, an example of woman asserting independence on screen (even if their dreams are crushed later on...) and as a barometer of the popular tastes of the time it's priceless.

A glorious masterpiece of camp cinema.
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