Valley of the Dolls is one of those over the top, no-holds-barred, capital H for Hollywood melodramas. It’s a smorgasbord of uneven performances and uncertain intentions, full of louche behavior, flamboyant costumes and awkward spectacle. It hails from a time when Hollywood still made mega-budget women’s pictures: lusty, brazen melodrama of the kind that can now be found only in Latin-American soap operas. It’s the kind where bad women take center stage and get to savor being bad and vulnerable all at once. It’s all smoking and strutting, screaming and weeping. It’s exhausting. And better than its reputation suggests.
“Valley of the Dolls” plays like a sweetly-strident love song to broken dreams, the kind of “quarter to three, there’s no one in the place” musical-eulogy that Sinatra excelled at. Everyone is beautiful, lonely and probably doomed. Fittingly, the film’s music is its most unique and poignant element. Valley of the Dolls is a “backdoor” musical, each showstopper presented within the natural guise of a character performing in a nightclub or starring in a Broadway Musical (there’s no sidewalk-singing here). Happily, the songs aren’t mere spectacle. Each one develops a character or foreshadows a sad fate, often neatly achieving both.
The splendid music is by Andre and Dory Previn, playing with and against a bombastic rat-pack style swing. Though the rat-pack often sang about loves won and lost, the brassy songs in Valley of the Dolls are often about an individual “self.” Aging diva, Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward), long having sacrificed compassion and intimacy for worldly success, belts “I’ll Plant My Own Tree”. Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) sings ,“It’s Impossible”, a song whose lyrical meter runs almost in opposition to its musical rhythms, creating a propulsive sense of Neely O’Hara’s will to succeed. The brio of these ambitious career women is admirable. But though we celebrate Neely and Helen as they replicate the sneering, confident swing-style of male crooners, we know they can’t easily follow male footsteps into other realms. They’re on their own. It is no wonder the chanteuses sing about themselves; they are staking essential ground.
“Theme Song to Valley of the Dolls” is less brassy than the rest, but no less compelling. This musical motif, attached to Barbara Parkins’ “classy” Anne Welles, is exquisite. Sung with delicate longing over the opening credits by Dionne Warwick, the sweetly yearning theme returns again and again, asking such questions as“ How was I caught in this game ? How will I learn who I am?” As Anne’s seemingly mundane desires–sexual excitement, stimulating companionship, commitment– continually thwart her, the poignant piano refrain drives our empathy, possibly our identification.
Dolls tells the stories of young career women on the cusp of the 1970s, young women wrestling with new puzzles in social and personal identity. Valley of the Dolls tells these stories in a lavish, surrealistic shorthand. It’s not sensible or restrained or naturalistic: it’s a Barnum & Bailey fun-house of spangles, swimming pools and sexuality. But real world dilemmas do reside at its center and sometimes real world dilemmas are beautifully expressed through extremity and hyperbole. Verisimilitude has no monopoly on emotional reality. Valley of the Dolls is certainly a spectacle, but it’s not a mere spectacle.