Film lovers can be divided into two categories. There are those who approach the cinema with a Wildean belief that art exists to improve the human condition, or at the very least idealize it. They watch movies using a kind of aesthetic white glove test, always on the lookout for instances of dirty, undignified human folly.
These are the folks for whom Merchant-Ivory productions and Gerard Depardieu costume epics and monster-budget Walt Disney animated features were created.
Then there's the rest of us, people who can enjoy these very starched ventures but who always exit the theater feeling we've been deprived of something essential, a chance for emotional catharsis that originates in our belly.
For us, a little subtlety goes a long way, especially if it stands in the way of on-screen temper tantrums, glamorous self-destruction, cat fights, breast-heaving promiscuous interludes, and egos so monstrous they'd require every trick in George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic book to be fabricated on the big screen.
On April 25 at 7 p.m., critics Edward Margulies and Stephen Rebello, authors of Bad Movies We Love and regular contributors to Movieline magazine, host a special screening of that peerless lip-gloss melodrama, Mark Robson's 1967 Valley of the Dolls.
Jacqueline Susann's rumored-to-be roman a clef was already the biggest-selling novel in American publishing history when production began, so Twentieth Century Fox felt considerable pressure to reproduce the book's unvarnished look at career-climbing show biz decadence and still retain its corporate respectability in the face of increasingly explicit foreign film competition.
The result was a whole lot of panting, accompanied by a little heavily veiled sex and nudity. But just as the Hayes Code forced Hollywood studios in the '30s to find creative ways to express sexuality, criminal deviance, and other sordidness, the producers of Valley of the Dolls relied on blindingly garish art direction and a screeching, foot-stomping lead performance by Patty Duke to raise those broiling animal urges to the surface. Bad movie-lovin' audiences have benefited for 30 years now.
The film follows the amphetamine and tranquilizer-strewn paths of three beautiful young women, Duke's Neely O'Hara, Barbara Parkins' Anne Welles, and Sharon Tate's Jennifer North, as they trap themselves in glitzy bicoastal careers and self-destructive relationships. Neely, a nightclub chanteuse with dreams of movie stardom, discards her simpering press agent husband for a bisexual millionaire dress designer named Ted Casablanca; Jennifer, a Broadway showgirl with a Milwaukee mother who sucks her dry for monthly checks, is forced to become a European "art film" star ("Boobs, boobs, boobs! Who needs 'em?!" a sodden Neely snarls about her friend's career) so she can support her sanatorium-trapped husband, a once-popular singer. And although Anne's big brush with fame is being the Gillian girl in TV makeup commercials, she's the film's schoolmarmish big-sister type, constantly fretting about the others until her commitment-phobic beau signs on to represent the lecherous Neely--and she seeks solace in the prescription "dolls" everyone else has been chewing like popcorn.
For all the baroque, estrogen-dripping dilemmas that make us laugh our way into disbelief, Valley of the Dolls works best not as escapism, but as a fun-house reflection of the very real, very grotesque infantile ambitions we all harbor. We've all felt as manipulated as poor Jennifer, as underappreciated as stoic Anne, and as ferociously self-serving as Neely, who gets all the movie's best lines and, appropriately, deteriorates into its most wretched harpy.
Really great bad movies connect with us in ways that really good movies, with their professional balance of technical and artistic concerns, can't. The outrageous performances, the schizoid Fisher Price-look of the primary color-obsessed set and costume design, the dialogue that apes realism but instead creates an endless stream of hilarious epigrams ("Oh, Neely," Jennifer sighs, uttering the film's flagship statement for its gay cult audience, "you know how bitchy fags can be")--all of it dramatizes the crazy urgency of our daydream lives, the secret desire in all of us to mythologize our needs and accomplishments into epic significance.
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"I've licked booze, pills, and the funny farm!" Neely hisses on the eve of her big Broadway comeback. "Nothing can stand in my way now!"
You said it, sister.
Valley of the Dolls screens Tuesday, April 25 at 7 p.m. with Stephen Rebello and Edward Margulies in attendance.