Movies that garner reputations as being camp classics for being simply so bad that they become enjoyable are a serious risk for first-time viewers. For every Rocky Horror Picture Show (which seems impossible to not enjoy), you have five Napoleon Dynamite‘s whose appeal is totally lost to me. 1967’s Valley of the Dolls was one of Hollywood’s biggest critical flops of all time. It was a Gigli-level disaster and nearly destroyed Patty Duke’s career. And it’s bad. It’s really bad. This movie’s got more melodrama than a 1950’s Douglas Sirk melodrama (Imitation of Life or any of its ilk for example). The acting is absurdly over-the-top, the story and relationships are cartoonish, and the characters are prone to astounding hysterics. But, weirdly, this movie has some strange campy appeal, and although she wasn’t an exceptionally talented actress, Sharon Tate was so beautiful I could watch her all day.
Centered around three rising starlets in Hollywood in the 1960s, Valley of the Dolls is a morality play examining the price of fame and the type of implosion that ultimately destroyed Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins) is a small-town ingenue that moves to New York City and finds work as a secretary at a prestigious entertainment law firm though it isn’t long before she becomes the face of a national ad campaign for hair spray. Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) is a supporting player in the Broadway show of an aging diva, and when the diva kicks Neely out of the play, Neely’s solo career as a singer and Hollywood actress take off. And Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) is a talentless show-girl that marries a successful Sinatra-style singer but has to fend for herself when he’s diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. And over the course of the film, all three sink into prescription drug addiction.
There isn’t a single good performance in this. While each of the leads have their moments, the film was so poorly directed and so “stage-y” that the movie felt funny at times that it was meant to be dramatic. Sharon Tate is stunningly beautiful. I mean, she might be one of the most beautiful actresses I’ve ever seen alongside Catherine Deneuve. She has a very sensitive face and it seemed like her performance got better as the film went along, but her diction and enunciation remained forced the entire film. Patty Duke had both the best and worst moments of the whole film. She tapped into something extreme and fierce for the role but she was also never able to really dial it down when she needed to. And Barbara Parkins was more or less boring the entire film. It would have been very interesting to see this film with a director that knew how to coax good performances out of these actresses.
I have no idea what it is, but there were at times something oddly likeable about this film despite how terrible it consistently was. Like, there was an almost innocent sincerity to everything even though they didn’t know how to turn sincerity into realistic and effective drama. And, the film had some really great photography at times. It did a wonderful job capturing on-location exteriors, and while many of the interior shots looked like a poster-child for 1960s excess, there was a weird beauty to some of those shots as well. And, she starts the film out as the most flat character of the group (emotionally cause I’m sure as hell not talking about her bust), but by the time she meets her tragic end (spoilers I guess), I found Sharon Tate’s Jennifer to easily be the most intriguing person in the film. I would have really loved to see more from her and less campy explosions from Patty Duke’s Neely.
If you have no tolerance for campy films, don’t waste your time on Valley of the Dolls. You will hate it. If it weren’t for the fact that I was reviewing it for this blog (and I’m yet over the course of the last two years to start a movie that I didn’t finish. Wait, that’s not true. I was loving Downfall but for some reason couldn’t find the time to finish watching all four hours of it), I would have stopped watching this movie about halfway through. But for fans of camp, there is something in this movie hidden pretty deeply away. It’s certainly no Rocky Horror Picture Show. This movie is simply not good despite the fact that I found bits and pieces here and there to cling to. It’s such a shame that Sharon Tate was murdered though because I feel like she could have been a decent talent in the right hands.
Final Score: C