Valley of the Dolls

I can’t sing, dance or act. I’m in awe of anyone who can, particularly performers who leave everything on stage, who reportedly lose five pounds every night during their Vegas residency, who have zero vanity or inhibitions — who commit.

“They make it look easy” is a cliché of a compliment. I most admire those who make it look hard.

That’s why I insist that Gene Kelly was a better dancer than Fred Astaire.

And that Patty Duke deserved an Oscar nomination for Valley of the Dolls (1967).

This film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s mega-blockbuster novel about three young women striving to make it in show biz is always lazily described as “so bad it’s good.” I reject this premise, just as I never qualify some of my favorite films as “guilty pleasures.” If you’ve watched Cobra or Con Air with glee, and can’t wait to do it again, then by definition that movie cannot be “bad.” (Would you do the same thing with a restaurant?)

True, Valley of the Dolls doesn’t look as fabulous as it should. The material and milieu demand a retina-melting Sirkian palette, but we’re stuck with gauzy pastels and beige. Lots. Of. Beige.

Others complain about the Previns’ pastiche songs, or the goofy ending, and that I’ll grant: Why, after saying goodbye to Lyle forever, does Anne dramatically exit her own damn house, then saunter in a satori-like state through thick New England snow… wearing flats?

But most detractors point and laugh at the acting inValley of the Dolls. And I won’t hear of it.

The movie co-stars the likes of Lee Grant and Susan Hayward, yet the most effortless performance comes from luminous, faun-like Sharon Tate as Marilyn Monroe manqué Jennifer.

They say it takes a smart actress to play dumb, with high IQ Jayne Mansfield and Judy Holliday presented as evidence. If Jennifer, as we’re reminded ad nauseum, has “no talent,” then it follows that Tate must have been gifted as well as gorgeous: She makes even the phoniest one-sided “phone calls” as believable as they were ever going to get, and her death scene would be genuinely moving even if she hadn’t been savagely murdered in real life two years after the film’s debut. I still cry every time I watch it, and I’m not alone.

But as I was saying, I’m not that into “effortless.”

Patty Duke, as feisty triple-threat Neely O’Hara, gets the most guff for her “over the top” performance in Valley…. But her turn here isn’t bad — it’s operatic. Pretend you’re watching it through dainty gold & mother of pearl binoculars, and it all makes sense:

And please enlighten me on the difference between what you just watched, and Kirk Douglas (or frankly just about any cast member) in the Oscar-winning “essentialThe Bad and the Beautiful (but mostly him, and not just in this movie, either):

Heresy alert: Feminists aren’t always wrong about “double standards.”

The Valley… script serves up only a sentence or two about Neely’s hardscrabble, “born in a trunk” backstory. Duke literally fleshes out the rest, a particularly impressive feat when you know she hated every minute of shooting.

Duke’s unladylike physicality here is still rarely witnessed with females on film. (You can’t tell me William Friedkin didn’t, even subconsciously, model bits of The Exorcist on Duke’s “sanitarium” sequence.)

Duke is playing the “plain one” in Valley…, of course. And as with Judy Garland (on whom her character is supposedly based) the million-dollar ministrations of Hollywood’s Max Factors or Jack Pierces could only work so much makeup magic. Facial beauty is, cruelly, a matter of millimetres, and Garland (and Duke) were no Garbos. You can feel Neely’s gawky childhood tomboy chafing beneath the Travilla gowns, roof-shingle eyelashes, and “hair by Mr. Kenneth” (Jackie O’s go-to.)

Now what about the movie as a whole?

Valley… is the most enduring example of what I call The Great Hollywood Hip Replacement: That blessedly brief slice of the Sixties when the geriatric studios were desperate to be “mod,” but didn’t quite “get” it.

Now, The Party is fun, and Wild in the Streets is deeper than it looks. But think (if you dare) about Skidoo, The Big Cube, Riot on Sunset Strip, What’s New, Pussycat?, The Love God, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!, bits of Sweet Charity, and anything with “Dr. Goldfoot” in the title.

Those films are now just dated curios, precisely because they tried so painfully to be “of the moment.”

Whereas Valley of the Dolls endures (complete with its own Criterion edition) because while it too strove to be timely, it somehow did so without acknowledging Time’s reality beyond its own sprocket holes:

In the Valley… alt-universe, all the women have bouffant hairdos, same as on Star Trek. So we guess it’s the Sixties, but it can’t be: there’s no rock and roll, Vietnam War or Kennedy assassination; hell, even Old Blue Eyes mentioned the Civil Rights Movement in that preeminent Hip Replacement tv special, Frank Sinatra Does His Thing, i.e. the one where he wears love beads and a Nehru jacket.

George Jessel (!) hosts the Grammys (?) here in the Valley…, but the night’s big winner wears a Mary Quant knockoff; singers do 1940s “dancing hobo” routines in stuffy supper clubs one minute, and wear bikinis the next. We’re clearly meant to be impressed when Joey Bishop shows up. (Was anyone, ever?) No sooner has “Winchell’s column” been mentioned with hushed reverence than Jennifer’s boyfriend Tony gets out of what I think is a silver Corvette stingray convertible.

The great news is, this is a Sixties without hippies, too — not even of the ersatz Sonny & Cher variety.

1967 was an epochal year in film. Upstart “Easy Riders and Raging Bulls” — Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg — were poised to take over Hollywood.

Where, up in the hills, so far from the Valley…, and yet so near, Sharon Tate would soon be slain, leading Joan Didion to declare “the end of the Sixties.”

That was fifty years ago this week, and note that in Quentin Tarantino’s just-released movie set in that very moment, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (SPOILER ALERT), Sharon Tate is spared the Manson Family’s wrath.

Laugh all you want at Valley of the Dolls. But it doesn’t seem like such a lousy place to live. Even if you have to share it with Joey Bishop.

Kathy will be among Mark’s special guests on the upcoming Alaskan edition of the Mark Steyn Cruise, setting sail in just over a month. If you’d like to partake in the revelry and review aboard this annual shindig, you can book a cabin for next year’s Mediterranean voyage here. Join in on the year-round discussion with a membership to the Mark Steyn Club.