[12 June 2006]
BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
Director: Russ Meyer
Cast: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, Erica Gavin, Phyllis Davis, Edy Williams, John Lazar, Michael Blodgett, Duncan McLeod
(20th Century Fox, 1970) Rated: NC-17
DVD release date: 13 June 2006
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Take the Blue Pill
First released in 1968, “Jacqueline Susann and Valley of the Dolls,” one of the many extras on 20th Century Fox’s new Special Edition DVD, is a combination made-for-TV documentary and hour-long advertisement. As the book was a bestseller (number one in 1966, according to Publishers Weekly), it’s no surprise Mark Robson’s film was pumped out a short year later. Dolls was still on the New York Times’ bestseller list and the controversies were ongoing.
At the time, pundits blasted Susann for her vulgarity, “inappropriate” subject matter, and immorality. The book and movie follow three young women who move to New York (and eventually L.A.) to “make it” in show business, only to succumb to sex and drugs. Anne (Barbara Parkins) remains steadfastly single and takes multiple lovers. Jennifer (Sharon Tate) capitalizes on her bodily assets, becoming a “European” movie star (which is to say, she does “nudie” films). All resort to pill-popping to keep up with professional demands; as Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) remarks, her “dolls” help her to “Sparkle!”
The film might be coupled with Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975), as scary cautionary tales against female “independence.” While Stepford is nostalgic for a pre-feminist past, Valley of the Dolls anticipates today’s feminist-bashing: its career girls come to mostly bad ends in VOD; Neely falls off the wagon repeatedly, Jennifer commits suicide, and Anne realizes she’ll never keep the man of her dreams. Looking back on VOD now, what is most unsettling is its foreshadowing of the current culture of consumption and narcissism.
The women do consume copious amounts of pills. That drugs in late-‘60s America were frequently prescribed for “mental health” is attested to by the fact that Susann’s novel struck such a nerve (pharmaceuticals were a “legitimate” middle- to upper-class alternative to street-grade “hippie” drugs). “Jacqueline Susann and Valley of the Dolls includes a press-junket clip of Susann and Judy Garland, who was originally slated to play aging Broadway diva Helen Lawson (the part that went to Susan Hayward). Dolls was to be Judy’s comeback from her own pill addiction. One intrepid reporter asks if she thinks pills have become a “large part” of American culture. Garland quips, “Why don’t you ask the Eli Lilly Company? They seem to be making a whole lot of money, don’t they?” (And they are only making more money today; rounding out the top 10 profiteers in pharmaceuticals, Lilly, along with Merck, Pfizer, Glaxosmithkline, and others, rake in over $40 billion annually.)
VOD links the consumption of pills to consumerism more broadly through fans’ appetite for celebrities (Jennifer and Neely are film stars, Anne the “face” of a nationally recognized cosmetics line), and to narcissism through the girls’ intake of dolls as a means of “escape” and self-gratification. Despite their struggles (Anne wants a traditional husband and family, but also a career), all three subscribe to commercial ideals of personal “fulfillment.” Even though the dolls destroy their lives, they keep coming back to ‘em because each is focused on me, me, me.
Such linking of consumerism and narcissism is completed in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Infamously penned by film critic Roger Ebert, and directed by Russ Meyer (who also made The Infamous Mr. Teas , Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! , and Vixen! ), Beyond directly distances itself from Dolls (lore has it this is largely because Susann was so horrified by the script that she threatened legal action). A disclaimer precedes the film, declaring Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to be “entirely original” and to have no relation whatsoever to Susann’s novel or Robson’s film (this effort is explained in the extra, “Above, Beneath and Beyond the Valley: The Making of a Musical-Horror-Sex-Comedy”).
But of course, it does have all kinds of “relations.” BVD tells the story of three young women who travel to Hollywood to chase their dreams, only to find degradation and death. The Kelly Affair, a rock trio, features Kelly (Dolly Read), Casey (Cynthia Myers), and Pet (Marcia McBroom). They head west with manager Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) in tow; in L.A. they are introduced to rock producer Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John Lazar), who renames them the Carrie Nations and puts them on the fast track to rock goddess status. Along the way the girls encounter rape, abortion, betrayal, murder, and lots and lots of sex and drugs. Pills of course, but also “grass,” acid, peyote, a whole fucking rainbow.
While the girls in VOD struggled to justify their desires, or at least find some meaning in their messed up lives, the girls in BVD are rarely concerned with anything other than getting higher and higher. Here hedonism is a narcissistic art form: fuck whomever you want, take whatever trip you want, as long as it makes you feel good, if only for a moment. And Beyond the Valley of the Dolls inaugurates the 1970s, one of the most hedonistic decades in U.S. history.
The sexual revolution was surely about personal and political fulfillments for women and sexual minorities. But as Erica Gavin (Roxanne in the film) notes in “Sex, Drugs, Music & Murder: Signs of the Time, Baby!”, it allowed a “darkness,” which came to the forefront of public consciousness in the Tate-LaBianca murders of 9 August 1969. Ebert insists (in the extras “Above, Beneath and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and “The Best of Beyond”), the film is a campy satire of many film genres, including the original melodrama of VOD. Nonetheless, its satire is often deadly serious and directly informed by the Manson Family slaughter.
As several BVD stars note in “Sex, Drugs, Music & Murder,” Meyer was notoriously influenced by current events, often incorporating them into his films. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls ends with the gruesome murder of four central characters at a secluded mansion. Add to that BVD‘s haunting by the ghost of Sharon Tate—whose most famous film was VOD and who died just 10 months before that film’s release—and Beyond seems a warning against the consequences of the free-love counter-culture. The “darkness” was always there for Neely, Jennifer, and Anne in Valley of the Dolls, as it is for Kelly, Casey, and Pet.
The parables of Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, however, are not merely relics of the past. If anything, the links forged by the two films among consumerism, narcissism, and pharmaceutically induced happiness are even more pervasive in the U.S. now. We’re an overly medicated culture, and we all know it, yet we continue to buy Merck’s rap that satisfaction can be found in the next and newest doll. Dolls and Beyond might help us see that we are, today, all living smack in the middle of the valley of the dolls.
Valley of the Dolls
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls