Valley of the Dolls: Special Edition (Blu-ray Review)3 Oct, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Stars Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Susan Hayward.
If Criterion occasionally wants to get into the slum clearance biz as a not unwelcome lark, there’s a part of me that would much prefer to see this Rolls Royce/Rolex of home entertainment crack a deal with Sony to bring out Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in Safe at Home! — complete with bonus extras about what flavor of milkshakes the Yankees sluggers were tossing down on the road between scrabble games with coach Bill Frawley. But only to a point. This is because this new release of Valley of the Dolls (or make that Valley of the Dolls — The Movie) is nothing if not pressure-packed. It is, of course, true that the box office hit of Jacqueline Susann’s majestically trashy best-seller wallowed in the brand of retro show biz that was on its way out even when Valley hit year-end theaters during an otherwise exciting time for American and world cinema. But if Criterion has to take the plunge into a plastic (in all ways) container of no-no pharmaceuticals, this fun-fest package (produced with customary contextual gusto by Criterion’s Susan Arosteguy) is the way to go.
Then again, credit source novelist Susann for having been onto something by shrewdly discerning that her readers would gravitate to a novel that didn’t just expose the underbelly of entertainment but also anticipated the coming abuse of prescription drugs by at least some of the book’s mass audience. And though the on-screen result inevitably got watered down because this was still a less than a year away from institution of the MPAA rating system and the midnight cowboy it helped spawn, two of Valley’s three heroines (the ones played by Barbara Parkins and Patty Duke) go through competing stages of bonker-dom when they pop too many DeLuxe Colored Dolls, with or without booze chasers. All this and Paul Burke, too.
The screen result was and is such high camp that even at the time, Susann stormed off in outrage to some Lysol closet or other hiding place during the official premiere of what she deemed to be a desecration — not the easiest thing because the event was held old-school style on a ship (a gala invitational chronicled in fascinating archival detail as part this release’s copious bonus extras). Strikingly to me, Duke and the soon-to-be tragic Sharon Tate are much more impressive on the Blu-ray’s included screen tests — Duke because she’s far less over the top than in the movie and Tate because she’s given a lot more to do and pretty well meets the challenge. This is another way of saying that director Mark Robson didn’t bring a whole lot to the pill party when it came to the final product — a case of an impersonal but not-terrible filmmaker who apparently failed to note that styles had changed since he’d fashioned the still highly watchable Peyton Place out of the previous decade’s scandalous best-seller, at least among the tastemakers who are inevitably ahead of the curve. On the disc’s half-journalistic/half-jokey voiceover that Criterion has carried over from the original Fox DVD, Parkins (who in 1967 was starring in the TV spinoff of the Grace Metalious PP sensation) is trying to remember what films were playing in theaters the same time as Valley. Well, Bonnie and Clyde had gone wide in late summer/early fall, Cool Hand Luke opened in early November, and The Graduate got a wide Christmas release whose first-run engagement lasted well into spring at one of my city’s downtown 2,800-seaters. In other words, gray matter was not going unrewarded. Valley, which went up against the last, was more for the Bob Goulet dinner theater demographic, along with the also concurrent Doctor Dolittle and screen version of Camelot (both of those box office DOA’s).
In his Criterion essay, Glenn Kenny shrewdly notes that Fox released Dolls and Dolittle just four days apart — portfolio diversification which, just by itself, is enough to nudge me into re-reading John Gregory Dunne’s classic The Studio for he first time since its 1969 publication. As a result, Kenny further observes that Duke’s Garland-like Neely O’Hara character heads to Hollywood to make the kind of musicals that, accordingly but also ironically, were on the way out by this time — though let it be said in fairness that even such landmarks as Judy Garland’s magnificent A Star Is Born and even “I Love Lucy” (Ricky Ricardo’s orchestra palmed off as a musical contemporary of, say, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) were also skewed to the entertainment past. What’s more, it’s a compensatory camp banquet here to see Duke’s Neely appearing with a cameo-ed Joey Bishop on a TV telethon and being introduced by Mr. Get-Down himself George Jessel in what was his most prominent movie role since 1959’s Juke Box Rhythm. (That one’s the, I’m not kidding, Brian Donlevy starrer in which Jessel, playing himself, is referred to by male love interest Jack Jones as “one of our greatest entertainers.”) By 1967, Neely would have been less a movie star in major projects than someone who’d be getting snuggled around the midriff by her hug-prone host during a medley duet of chestnuts on “The Dean Martin Show.” Hell, even Ethel Merman’s last movie was 1965.
The terrific Criterion extras, which include a brave guilty-pleasure Valley paean by Kim Morgan, go a lot into some tabloid history that I’d frankly forgotten but was one of the show biz stories of the day: Judy Garland’s firing from the Helen Lawson role that was quickly recast with Susan Hayward (the one performer here who really runs with the ball). As with the other women here, Lawson was “supposed” to be a real-life character — in this case Merman herself, just as Neely was supposed to be Judy Garland (though savvy Susann remained coy about it). It all got a little sticky on a self-referential level, and some think that director Robson so played on the real-life Garland’s vulnerabilities over a Duke role so close to home that her real-life meltdown on the set and subsequent firing were assured. I remember an old interview where Ava Gardner said that Robson was horrible (in undisclosed ways) on the set of 1957’s The Little Hut, so maybe this director of Bogart, Sinatra, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn was missing his inner George Cukor.
Everyone on the disc extras is trying to be diplomatic at least some of the time, but it appears as if Parkins and Duke were never on each other’s Christmas card list and that the only person everyone liked — Garland probably aside — was Tate. Nor can Parkins get too excited here over her male co-stars (on this she has moviegoer company), though she is simpatico with entertainment journalist Ted Casablanca, who borrowed his professional name from a character in the movie. The latter always asks good questions, and a lot of them, in one of the more amusing gay-humor commentaries I know this side of the John Waters all-timer on the DVD of Mommie Dearest. The utilized print looks as sparkling clean as is DeLuxe Color possible, with cinematographer/Garbo favorite William H. Daniels doing for snow approximately what he did for desert in Stroheim’s Greed — though by Valley’s time, he could have taught a graduate-level course in bottom-feeders, thanks to his shooting of Assault on a Queen and The Maltese Bippy with this Susann salvo plopped in the middle. In contrast, writer Amy Fine Collins oozes no-apologies intelligence in a pair of reflective interviews, while a vintage documentary on Susann (which looks to be taken off someone’s ultra-rare VHS) is as revealing as an also included Valley-premiere promotional video is beguilingly goofy. In, of course, a we-know-full-well-we’re-carny folk kind of way.
The high point for me is a 16-minute excerpt from a on-stage interview that my best college newspaper buddy Bruce Vilanch conducted with Duke following a 2009 revival showing at the Castro in San Francisco. It apparently took decades before Duke could even own up to admitting an association with the picture, which did her big-screen career no good (though I wish someone could give 1969’s Me, Natalie a home release outside of its Australian Region 4 DVD import so this tough-to-see movie and a performance I recall super-fondly could be re-assessed). Emmy-heavy Bruce is in good form here, and it’s even possible — normally, I remember these things — that he and I saw Valley together in 1967. On the other hand, I do know that we saw Barbarella at a shopping mall theater on its opening Saturday night and that he enticed our small group of college newshounds to mutter, “shocking, shocking” as we exited up the aisle. Maybe it’s just not possible that this kind of kitsch lightning struck twice.