Valley of the Dolls Reconsidered

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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.  

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They ?

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  These days, Jane Fonda’s image seems stuck in amber. We imagine her as a space-vixen in Barbarella (1965) , as an angry prostitute in Klute (1974) or as a sweetly murderous secretary in 9 to 5 (1983). We remember roles so quintessentiallly of their time that talk of Fonda’s career resembles the fond unearthing of a time capsule. Watching her in Sydney Pollack’s 1969 “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” refreshes this history. The movie, while clearly of its era, is also earnest, raw and startlingly relevant. And Fonda’s performance as Gloria is its nexus.

“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” is a deeply earnest film, but it isn’t hard to watch. Probably because there aren’t any saints in it. Though it admires its desperate, vulnerable people–never losing sympathy for them and never making fun– it does let them fail. And it lets them fail naturally, as neither villains nor “losers”, but as human animals, untainted by morality. They break down, let each other down and sell themselves for almost nothing. And all of it is entirely sympathetic.

The situation is historical. We observe the players bravely dragging themselves through one of the many Great Depression spawned dance marathons. The entrants are among the least lucky of the Depression’s victims, so hungry and lacking in prospects that they are willing to be locked in a sunless ballroom to “dance” with a partner for countless sleepless days. They receive occasional 10 minute breaks to crash on a cot, take a shower, or try to feed their enervated bodies in some other quick, exhausted way… If a body can tolerate the conditions, the payoff appears worthwhile: daily access to a heaping all-you-can-eat table and a chance at the $1500 prize. The prize, of course, goes to the survivors only: that one and only couple to outlast the rest. Social Darwinism as entertainment.

The plot is a tableau, following a mostly sympathetic collection of hard-up types: a boyish drifter, an aging ex-sailor, a gentle pregnant woman and her defensive husband, two well-garbed Hollywood wannabes and a bitter single girl, gone nearly feral in hardened self-protection. Jane Fonda is fierce and pungent as the girl. And though the young Fonda is very lovely, one tends to forget her beauty here , seeing only sadness and edge. Partly because exhaustion depletes her color and energy, but partly because she seems to have forgotten it herself.

Fonda’s Gloria has a raw dignity, the kind possessed by someone who’s been stripped of everything but the last thing, the urge to survive. There’s an odd relief I feel in watching her. Like looking at Dorothea Lange’s dustbowl photographs, witnessing a woman so bereft relieves me of my inborn compulsions to appraise and pass judgement, to bestow mental rewards and punishments, to decide who deserves better, who’s got more than they deserve. While many films do the opposite, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? provides a respite from my grousing, contemptuous instincts.

Though clearly kin, plenty differentiates this dust-bowl era dance marathon from modern day reality shows. Two distinct differences invite mention. One is the comparative quiet of TSHDT’s dance marathon: dialogue is pared down to the essential; beleaguered characters utter only occasional, brief lines, compressed and poignant, like the title cards in a silent movie. Fatigued and exposed as they are, contestants say something only if it might mean something. Conversely, our modern reality shows are talkmarathons. Endlessly chatty, participants obscure any possible meaning with posturing, sniping and relentless psycho-babble. The second distinction is even more intriguing: motive. The physiological need that drove Depression-era dance contestants is absolutely plain. What drives “real” housewives, et al. to expose themselves is more troubling. Though money is surely a strong inducement, notoriety-seeking appears the driving force. Constant self-exposure and exploitation has become de rigeur. We’re just as desperate as the marathon-ers, but our motives have become grotesque. We’ll suffer any humiliation for the sake of being seen.

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Earthy Miss Pickford

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As a young girl, I got a lot of use out of Eugene, Oregon’s small public library. It was where I plotted my adulthood. In those pre-internet days, I’d spend hours pouring over photos of yesteryear’s Hollywood glamour queens. Though I had my favorites: Jean Harlow, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, I was enamored of anyone sultry and glowing in the enchanted light of the studio publicity machine. Very rarely was I disinterested in an actress. Only when a star was purposefully dull– seeming to refuse glamour in favor of sweetness, wholesomeness or purity– did I reject her. I was an aspirational fan, planning an adulthood swathed in sleek satin, rarefied cocktails, and sexy, mournful trumpets; I had no use for Jane Wyman or June Allyson. And I was particularly annoyed with publishers who wasted precious pages on Mary Pickford. With her treacly-sweet expressions and victorian ringlets, Pickford was the antithesis of vampy womanhood: she was delicate, moral and sexless.

It is only reluctantly and accidentally that I have come to appreciate Mary Pickford’s charms. Because I’ve made it my policy to see any silent movie that plays locally on a big screen, I’ve seen two Pickford pictures in the last two years, both accompanied by live original scores (I guess Seattle is a Mary Pickford kind of town). Last year, I saw her in a magical version of “A Little Princess” and last night I saw a screening of the poignant and surprisingly action-packed “Sparrows.”

In “Sparrows”, Pickford plays Molly, a scrappy and angelic teen-age “orfant” trapped on a baby farm in the middle of a trashy southern swamp. Molly is a curious but like-able creature, apparently constructed of 100% mothering instinct, absolutely devoted to caring for nine younger orphans. Her days are spent half in the happy nurturing of her unofficial adoptees– bathing them, reading to them, soothing them, and mending their quarrels– and half in desperate defense of “her” babies’ health and safety.

Molly and her fellow orphans are wards of the cruel and sadistic hog farmer, Mr. Grimes, who, at his merest whim, may starve them to death or even drown them in the sucking bog that surrounds his gothic swamp lands. Molly is, as the film emphasizes with an illustration from children’s bible she reads to the poor “orfants”, a modern Virgin Mary, happily sacrificing any personal need or desire to dote on the young ones, or beg them an extra crumb to eat. She is so saintly, in fact, that her one and only desire is to mother.

All this gory self-sacrifice may sound a bit hard to take, but it works just fine as gothic myth-making. “Sparrows” isn’t meant to be a realistic or progressive. It’s a shadow play about competing human compulsions towards survival: a fierce, feminine urge to nurture and protect versus a calculating, masculine desire to use and exploit. The setting could not be more splendidly gothic. The swamp, the rotting barn and farmhouse, the ominous trees,and the bleak, hard features of the Grimes family help conjure a perfect fairy tale gloom. In long shots of the dark swamp, the doll-house like models of the house and barn enhance the sense that the film is exploring primal survival themes, just as children do in play or dreams.

And Mary Pickford’s performance has doll-house magic too. Pickford’s brings an irresistible mix of the tough and the delicate to Molly, inhabiting the extremes of the victorian ideal: lovely and nurturing, tough and ragged. Pickford moves easily and naturally from a tender gaze to a scrappy defense–at one point using a pitchfork to ward off Grimes. With her turn-of-the-century beauty, she is an admirably unsinkable version of the beatific little match girl. But perhaps the most compelling element of Pickford’s Molly is her surprising earthiness. Her Molly reminds of us the deeply physical nature of motherhood. It’s a performance of exuberantly physical mothering– bathing, dancing, climbing, rocking, kissing, feeding, carrying, and defending– without any primness or posturing. Pickford is the Madonna as athlete. In an era that seems to more about separation and reserve, hand-sanitizer and personal privacy, a portrait of rough and tumble motherhood like this feels wild and hearty.

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Why I’m Reading Comic Books…

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As a child in the 1980s, I knew few girls who liked comic books, especially of the super-hero type. I was that lonely but proud girl-venturer into the local comics dungeon. While admittedly, I had a fondness for the romantic situation comedies of the Archie universe (while never understanding exactly what made Archie deserving of B & V’s frantic desire), I was also entranced by the adventures of the few costumed she-heroes I was able to unearth: Wonder Woman, the Dazzler, even She-Hulk. I spent a good many hours re-reading their adventures, as well as drawing my own designs for uniforms I planned to wear after I enacted my plan to learn both extreme martial arts and study enough science to invent myself some super-gadgets.

In my early teens, I outgrew those costumed lady-bad asses and moved on to other fields of pop culture exploration (exploitation movies, swing bands, basic vices). But now, decades later and well into adulthood, something is drawing me back. It’s probably not the great maturing of the form, though some of the art and story-lines do seem a bit more adult than I remember (There is a Batwoman now and she is both a soldier and a “proud lesbian”).

My renewed interest probably has more to do with changes in me than in comic books. I’ve gone through more personal and professional upheaval in the past few years than I’d care to describe. So I’m finding some kind of stability and comfort, I think, in returning to the things of childhood. And comic books, offer both a simplicity and a sophistication that is working well for me, at least for today.

Though I love them, I’m not always driven to dip back into great childhood literature: books like The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland, are simply too hewn to childhood. Dorothy and Alice are fresh-faced children, the world before them is as unknown as it is both frightening and magical. But Super-heroes and heroines, have knowledge. Unlike hopeful wide-eyed children, caped crusaders are jaded. They are haunted by sad memories, broken relationships and past selves. So comic books are perform a neat trick. They integrate a broken, jaded adult self with the power and magic of childhood literature where anything is possible.

It is deeply heartening to experience art which blends the anguish of adulthood with the world of invisibility, super-strength and magic. I can’t say how long this renewed fascination will last, I may eventually long for fewer Multi-Verse spanning Robo-Monsters and more character development. But for the time being, there is something both comforting and inspiring in imagining that a grown man or woman, burdened with great failures of adulthood, can still wear a colorful costume and fly from the tops of skyscrapers. Judging by the success of recent films like The Avengers, I’m not alone in longing for this. But as a woman, comic books may be my only outlet for such magical heroism. At least until Hollywood decides to make a decent Wonder Woman movie.

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Lana Del Rey

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In her videos, Lana Del Rey collages the iconography of American glamour: neon lights, swimming pools, sunglasses and skateboards. Her culled images are mostly “vintage”, some modern. She mashes exotic americana to create tragi-glamorous tone poems. Del Rey’s stories are insubstantial; she is after ambiance, not substance. It’s a belles-lettres approach, rife with melodramatic images and little actual story. If there’s any theme to the videos, it’s that they relish loss and corruption. Del Rey adores the elements of glamour: money and manipulation and excess. It’s the school of “since it’s pretty and sad, it must be pretty because its sad.” Her videos titillate my sensibilities, while leaving me feeling sort of empty and bamboozled. But it’s an effective titillation that has me coming back for more. In fact, I get a pleasant, boozy high, buzzing around her pop culture bouquet.

And the songs are hypnotic:

She calls herself a gangster Nancy Sinatra. I think she’s a Youtube Julie London:

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