To say Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 sensational novel Valley of the Dolls was a bestseller is something of an understatement. By the time of the author’s death from breast cancer in 1974, the Guinness Book of World Records had certified it the best seller, as in “of all time”. The success of the novel, which chronicles the sordid private lives of a trio of pill-popping young starlets, long rumored to be based on real life actresses, was almost instantaneous, and it followed that Hollywood, always looking to cash in, came calling soon after. With a sizable built in audience of bored housewives and other vicarious trashy thrill-seekers awaiting the adaptation, Mark Robson’s 1967 film of the same name was almost guaranteed to do brisk business at the box office, but unsurprisingly, the critics, including Roger Ebert, who later co-wrote the 1970 sequel/parody Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with the breast-obsessed director Russ Meyers, panned it, just like their peers had done the book. They did however, have reason to, the film is a confused, clunky experience, but that didn’t stop a small but devoted audience, especially among the LGBT community, from repeating its endlessly quotable dialogue and keeping the faith at screenings. Put short, it’s a cult classic, but not an unlikely one; in fact, there’s no way this movie couldn’t have become one.
There are a variety of factors that determined Valley of the Dolls rise into the midnight movie pantheon, but let’s get right to the dirt and talk about how tawdry it is. The “Dolls” of the title refers in part to the three young women, trapped by their own beauty and fame, at the center of the story, but mostly to the street term for the Dolophine and other barbiturates they all pop like Chicklets. The pills, washed down by a river of booze, lead Anne (Barbara Parkins), Neely (Patty Duke) and Jennifer (Sharon Tate), to almost absurd (okay, completely insane) levels of degradation and exploitation. If you’re looking for a reason to just say no, this movie has about a million: there’s backstabbing and infidelities, the O.D.s and abortions, rape, suicide attempts and the descent into public humiliation, pornography and, ultimately, the gutter. For how sleazy it is, there’s no nudity or titillation, which earned the film a surprising PG-13 rating, though it probably helped that, while it does use its racy subject matter to its advantage, the movie’s protagonists are simply props to demonstrate the dangers of being a hopped-up tramp. “It is dirty,” said Roger Ebert in his review, “Not because it has lots of sex in it, but because it firmly believes that sex is dirty.”
It presents itself, more or less, as a serious drama, but as a cautionary tale, it’s too ludicrous to be human, especially when the leads are so deliciously hammy. Although, to be fair, how do you not play it broad when a script requires you to rip off the wig of the rival who derailed your Broadway career and flush it down the toilet? The histrionic fights, loud performances and erratic plot, set against the glitzy backdrop of movie sets and mansions, are a perfect recipe for camp, especially since the filmmakers play it all so straight. The old so-bad-it’s-good line certainly applies, especially to the dialogue, where the scriptwriters, among them an uncredited Harlan Ellison, apparently thought relentlessly throwing the word “faggot” around would give them some backstage theatre world authenticity (or something?). Sci-Fi master Ellison’s work on the first draft is just one of many bits of strange trivia surrounding the movie that make it so continually interesting, like a young Richard Dreyfuss’ minor speaking part or that the score, produced by none other than John Williams, garnered an Academy Award nomination. Between the film’s trashy tabloid appeal, its entertaining all-around ineptitude, and the quirky nature of its conception and casting, to say nothing of its unexpected but understandable embrace by the gay community, you couldn’t build a better cult classic if you tried.