Great books make lousy movies, goes one truism often heard in film-buff circles. Lousy books, the second half of the theory goes, are more likely to make good or great films, as they provide an auteur of inspiration and/or genius with sufficiently electric raw material to alchemize. Case in point, to cite a possibly unfair example: D’entre les morts, the crime novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, its return to print in 2015 notwithstanding, is really not very much read except by meticulous genre-fiction mavens and equally ardent scholars of the Alfred Hitchcock film based upon it—that is, Vertigo. Which was named the greatest film ever made in an admittedly controversial 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ survey.
Distinctions such as great, good, and lousy seem hardly germane to a discussion of the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, directed by Mark Robson, nor of the mega-best-selling 1966 novel by Jacqueline Susann from which the film is adapted. Susann’s multidecade saga of three women climbing, briefly thriving, and ultimately flailing in the emotionally infantile and ceaselessly predatory realm of American show business from 1945 to 1965 was her second book. And as it happens, it was her second best seller; her 1963 Every Night, Josephine! had been a both canny and entirely sincere exercise in what would become a reliably popular genre: the pet memoir. It sold terrifically well, especially for a debut, but as the blockbuster cliché goes, nothing could prepare the world for the pop culture juggernaut that Valley of the Dolls would become.
The sixties in the United States was the decade of the civil rights movement, the counterculture, the space race, the Vietnam War, the Beatles (a British import either aped or mocked by practically every American musical artist), and the Dirty Book. Grace Metalious’s 1956 Peyton Place and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, first published in the U.S. in 1958, created putatively low- and high-culture templates for the quasi-genre, but as far as mainstreamimpact and even sales were concerned, scandalous content took precedence over literary value. When Nabokov’s book’s screen adaptation came, the ad campaign for it had the tagline “How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?” The “how did they make a movie” question was one that, for as long as the studios were adhering to some form of the Production Code, could apply to every Dirty Book that got made into a movie.
There’s a sense in which Susann’s novel, which is both an exemplary Dirty Book and, in many crucial respects, a roman à clef, was already a movie. Susann, who wrote Dolls while in her forties, was a beauty-contest winner from Philadelphia who’d observed show business from a series of minor perches (including early television talk shows) since the end of the thirties. The anti-den-mother figure of her novel, brassy and imperious Broadway and film star Helen Lawson, was said to be modeled on Ethel Merman, with whom Susann had a long-term, rocky friendship. As for its central trio, reluctant sexpot Jennifer could be read as a stand-in for Marilyn Monroe, and second-generation belter Neely O’Hara as one for Judy Garland, while secretary turned model “good girl” Anne Welles had antecedents only showbiz inside-baseball adepts would recognize. Each of their stories can be seen as an old-school Hollywood melodrama writ large, except with the explicit content those movies had to leave out sprinkled liberally on top. By 1967, such pictures as Kubrick’s version of Lolita and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder and Advise & Consent had already been actively pushing that envelope for Hollywood pictures. But in its choice of director for the film adaptation of Dolls, Twentieth Century-Fox implicitly indicated that it would push things only so far.
Mark Robson’s directorial career had begun with a bang in the early forties, at which time he was promoted from editor (he had worked on Citizen Kane) to helm four brilliant horror movies for RKO producer Val Lewton—the first of which, 1943’s The Seventh Victim, chronicled the misadventures of a young woman navigating an investigation of her sister’s disappearance among a gaggle of bohemian Satan worshippers in contemporary Greenwich Village, just a couple of years before Susann’s novel begins in Manhattan. Robson’s subsequent body of work, while often better than competent, is one example of why producer Lewton is generally considered the actual auteur of the projects he oversaw. In 1957, Robson directed an in some respects dutiful but substantially toned-down adaptation of Peyton Place. It is not unreasonable to assume he was given Valley of the Dolls with the expectation that he would deliver something that struck a balance between salaciousness and Hollywood’s idea of solid citizenship, and the sandblasting of Susann’s work began in the scripting phase. The perpetually emphatic novelist Harlan Ellison left the project and had his name taken out of the credits after the softening of certain aspects of the film’s ending. (The credited screenwriters were veterans Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley; Deutsch had worked on the screenplay for 1955’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow, a Lillian Roth biopic with an emotional temperature not too far off from that of Dolls.) Jennifer’s lesbian affair with an old school friend went right out the window. Late bloomer Anne’s concern about painful sex was of course a nonstarter. The book’s narrative span of two decades was ruthlessly compressed. And so on. But its titular hook stayed.
One of the amusing ironies about the novel’s success is that it inspired precisely no one to start referring to easy-to-abuse prescription medications in pill form as “dolls.” (One is reminded of Gretchen’s futile efforts to make fetch “happen” in 2004’s Mean Girls.) The failed coinage is arguably indicative of a certain lack in Susann’s way with words, but that’s immaterial. “Dolls” are what the pills are in the circumscribed world of the book and the film, and when Barbara Parkins’s Anne Welles, the last of the heroines to succumb to addiction, desperately reaches for the pill bottle on the night table in a shallow-focus shot emphasizing the drugs, the film achieves its only truly numinous image. “Having it all” meets William S. Burroughs’s “algebra of need.”
In his typically elegant recollection of Susann, “Wasn’t She Great?” published in the New Yorker in 1995, Michael Korda, the author’s post-Dolls editor, quotes her laying out an apologia for her work: “I write for women who read me in the goddamn subways on the way home from work. I know who they are, because that’s who I used to be. They want to press their noses against the windows of other people’s houses and get a look at the parties they’ll never be invited to, the dresses they’ll never get to wear, the lives they’ll never live, the guys they’ll never fuck.” Korda has Susann continue: “But here’s the catch. All the people they envy in my books, the ones who are glamorous, or beautiful, or rich, or talented—they have to suffer, see, because that way the people who read me can get off the subway and go home feeling better about their own crappy lives, and luckier than the people they’ve been reading about.”
It doesn’t take long for the viewer of the movie version of Valley of the Dolls to feel a little luckier than the people in it. Once Anne gets off the train that’s taken her to New York, the movie has a peculiarly cramped feel—its rehearsal studios, swinging nightclubs, homes in the Hollywood Hills, and deluxe Manhattan apartments don’t exude any particular glamour. The director who made the back-lot simulations of below-street-level Italian restaurants and garrets feel like a sinister corner of New York City in The Seventh Victim is not easy to find in this picture, which sometimes seems obviously studio-bound. The razzle-dazzle comes largely from the cast, and, to Robson’s credit, he keeps them humming throughout. Susan Hayward (the star of I’ll Cry Tomorrow, as it happens) plays Helen Lawson, and handles the role’s dual prerogatives—spite-filled diva and font of rueful showbiz wisdom—with typical aplomb. (Judy Garland herself had originally been cast in the role, and rumor has it that Robson arranged the shooting schedule so as to encourage Garland’s most self-sabotaging tendencies, and then fired her when the tactic worked.) Barbara Parkins’s Anne is the picture of reserved elegance, but something else too. I was not surprised, really, when reading a Look magazine profile of the film’s three leads to see Parkins quoted as saying, “I’d very much like to be Ava Gardner. She is sex.” (Parkins came to the film from the television series of, yes, Peyton Place, in which she played Betty Anderson, a character described in the novel as having the morals of an alley cat.) Patty Duke as Neely, breaking out of the nice-girl corner she had been painted into on The Patty Duke Show, returns to the virtuosic mode she applied to The Miracle Worker (1962). This is not a joke. Duke really floors it throughout: the ferocity she applies to dialogue like “Ted Casablanca is not a fag. And I’m the dame who can prove it” takes Susann’s material to a realm outside parody, past camp, and into territory that would be fruitfully explored by Rainer Werner Fassbinder a few years later. It’s a shame the two never got to work together.
Sharon Tate’s work in Dolls is its most intelligent, and searching, acting. Her woodenness in the early sections of the film is quite transparently a presentation of Jennifer’s forcing herself to please the men who constantly drool all over her décolletage. Look at the way she stands there and takes it at a costume fitting when some wise guy cracks, “Six hundred bucks for a headdress and not a soul will see it.” Her last scene in the film, in which she comes to terrible final terms with the reality that a woman’s physical appearance is her currency, is a beautiful, unaffected bit of physical acting, unfortunately marred by the laying in of flashbacks in dissolves. In scenes such as this one, and in the stray line of dialogue here and there—as when Neely observes, “When a man says he won’t do a lousy scene, that’s called integrity. When a woman says it, she’s temperamental”—Dolls shows an unselfconscious inkling of feminist consciousness that’s genuinely bracing.
In the kicker of his 1995 Susann profile, Korda writes, “[Susann] taught everybody in book publishing that what many people want to read more than anything else is, quite simply, a good story.” But, going for the cautionary-tale effect, he continues: “It’s nearly impossible to find a copy of any of her books in New York—a fate that would have been sadder for Jackie than anything else . . . She had always counted on her books for immortality, and, in the end, they failed her.” Not so fast. In the early twenty-first century, Dolls and other Susann books have been reissued in spiffy new editions and, to no small acclaim, devoured and lauded by a generation of feisty millennials who grew up on Sex and the City. Part of Valley of the Dolls’ enduring appeal today surely has to do with how kind of quaint it seems in our Kardashianized era, which has redefined fame in ways American culture is still contending with. But the world Susann wrote about was changing radically even as the film of Dolls was playing in theaters. Neely and Tony Polar head out to Hollywood to star in musicals of the sort that were already on their way out then. In fact, the picture that some say put the final nail in the coffin of the Hollywood musical, Doctor Dolittle, was released in the U.S. a mere four days after Valley of the Dolls—and by the same studio, Twentieth Century-Fox. Executives saw that the counterculture was oozing its way into Tinseltown, and not, by their lights, in an entirely benign way. A cost-cutting desperation, hand in hand with a calculation about appearing to keep up with the times by demonstrating more “daring,” led Fox to back a couple of cheeky Hollywood outsiders who would make an audacious answer film to Robson’s. Which is a story for another essay.
Glenn Kenny writes about movies for RogerEbert.com and other publications. He is the author of Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor (2014, Phaidon/Cahiers du cinéma).