If I want to embrace yesterdays film Foxy Brown for its absolutely brilliant use of metaphor, then I will have to come down quite hard on Mark Robson's 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, an adaptation of a Jaqueline Susann novel of the same name for being far too over the top and showy to really justify its intensity. Sure the film is absolutely mesmerizing visually, particularly its use of psychedelic sequences to depict pill highs, and the rather innovative method for depicting musical numbers. Yet, it must be acknowledged that the film really seems to lack a clear direction, social commentary or set of relateable characters in general. While these are not necessarily mandatory for a film to be enjoyable, just look at anything Harmony Korine has made, when something like Valley of the Dolls attempts to reside within the cinematic and frames itself within the traditional aspects of filmmaking, it can be rather unbearable to watch it crumble under its own overly lofty ambitions. Perhaps my real problem with the film comes not from its broad ambitions, I enjoy films with audacious hopes, but, instead; from its inability to relate its visual endeavors with the story shown. While I have never personally read Susann's novel I cannot speak to how faithful Robson's adaptation is or is not, I, however, imagine that some of the "whiteness" of the narrative is undercut by the reality of the then tense racial climate. The film viewers are provided with plays heavily into assumptions that everything is terrible in the world of well-to-do white people, almost entirely as a result of their large amounts of free time. In fact, this is a film about a girl moving to the big city and attempting to find her identity, something her class and race afford her to do without question. I know this is a rambling bit of rage and theoretically obtuse, yet, I just felt really let down by what I assumed would be a far more astute observation of sex, drugs and exploitation in the era, yet, the result was far less thrilling and certainly problematic. In fact, if it were not for the beautiful voice of Dionne Warwick at the films opening and closing I would be inclined to dismiss the film in its entirety, and to think I almost bought a copy of the film flat out based on the cover alone.
Valley of the Dolls centers on two young girls who decide to take a shot at Broadway and all its illustrious promises. The first girl Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) is in possession of a powerful voice, but does not necessarily fit the look of a Broadway starlet. The second is Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) a young woman from New England who has travelled to the big city, completely living her somewhat provincial life and middle America lifestyle behind her, including a promising marriage proposal. The film then becomes, ostensibly, about making the correct choices. Another girl within the group of women attempting to hit it big on Broadway, Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) takes the approach of marrying into success, assuming that it will afford her open doors to big events and eventually huge theater deals, however, she ends up pregnant and in need of an abortion, which leads to another layer of medical expenses. In the end Jennifer must break-down and star in European "soft core" erotic films. On the other hand Neely, in an attempt to use duplicitous and devious behavior to her advantage, much like her idol, an aging Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward), however, in the process, Neely comes to obtain a crippling addiction to barbiturates, known, as "dolls" in the community. Anne is also not free of the dangerous influence of "dolls," and succumbs to their influence for a considerable amount of time, yet is able to escape their addictive nature. Neely, however, continues to spiral out of control and ends up in an asylum for a portion of the film, where she is assured that she caught sight of a former lover. Yet, upon release Neely's addiction worsens, and when she adds alcohol to the mix things only spiral further downward. In the end, Anne returns home to her family, realizing that, perhaps, the big allure of Broadway is far too much for her and simplicity is her best course of action.
This movie is all over the place philosophically, and seems to desire to dump the entirity of women's issues onto viewers, without properly dealing with any of them. There is a character who is diagnose with cancer, and its relationship to the overall plot is so loose that I could not help but recall the announcement of having cancer that occurs in Tommy Wiseau's The Room. I am, obviously, all for films dealing with issues of women's health and their social objectification, in fact, almost every paper or presentation I give concerns this, yet, I have no desire to engage with materials that only do this on a cursory level. There is an abortion in this film, very little is made of this, despite clearly having rather dire effects of Jennifer and her self-identity. She spirals into doing softcore pornography and the film never suggests that her inability to talk about her feelings post-abortion may have played into her choices. Furthermore, the film uses some incredibly derogatory terms for sexual identity as it relates to one character, and while one could certainly suggest that this is due to drug induced rage, little consequence or challenge is given to these slurs and hateful diatribes. Finally, the film manages to take hysteria and use it as a plot advancement without, simultaneously, condemning it as a illogical and societally constructed phenomena. In fact, Neely's entire stay at the mental asylum appears to be an "expose" on how hysteria manifests itself, however, she is vilified for these behaviors, nevermind, that she is just as much caught in a love triangle with Anne and another man. Very little seems to emerge in the way of critiquing males for their involvement in the problems "discussed" in this film and it is perhaps in this that I find the film most frustrating. Again, I would rather have a film not discuss such dense and controversial topics, than to do so with half-hearted, nearly exploitative intentions.
Key Scene: Again it is a visually pleasing film and the musical sequences are quite funny, I did, however, laugh out loud during the "European film" sequence.
This is a rental by all means, perhaps I am completely wrong in my opinion of this film and will certainly revisit in the future, however, as it stands I do not particularly care for its messy framework.