If I could pick one film that is a quintessential campy classic, it would certainly be Valley of the Dolls. This 60s movie has everything you would expect in a film that can best be described as so bad, it’s good.
Critics panned it, and Jacqueline Susann, who wrote the novel, was said to have detested it. However, audiences loved the film. It was a box office success and has since become a cult classic.
I first viewed Valley of the Dolls on TV in the 1980s. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen it over the years, but watching it is one of my guilty pleasures. There is a reason why this film was never nominated for any Oscars. Kitsch won’t do as far as winning awards is concerned, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it.
Why is Valley of the Dolls so Bad, It’s Good?
What makes Valley of the Dolls so monumentally bad, yet entertaining to watch? Well, the first reason is the cheesy dialogue. It set the standard in that regard. What woman is not endeared by a man saying “you are the most beautiful girl that left her lipstick in my office”?
Secondly, the story is supposed to take place over many years, yet no one seems to age a day. Then there is the heavy makeup, flamboyant costumes, and big, BIG hair. Some of those hairdos have to be seen to be believed.. Finally, many of the characters, and the actors portraying them, are over the top,
The story is about three young women who are seeking successful careers in New York. Ann (Barbara Parkins), Neely (Patty Duke) and Jennifer (Sharon Tate) all become good friends. Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) is the shrewish Broadway star who is insanely jealous of Neely. Many of the characters are believed to be based on actual celebrities from that era.
Valley of the Dolls has several (unintentionally) hilarious scenes. I could name several of them, but will just highlight three.
The first is the part where Helen is singing “I’ll Plant My Own Tree” in her Broadway show. It’s painfully obvious she’s lip syncing. She moves around the stage in a bizarre manner while garish mobiles are flying around and above her head. The audience goes wild, as though it’s the best thing they have ever seen. Perhaps they need to get out more.
Then there is a scene where Neely is in a bar, disheveled and wearing big sunglasses. “I’m travelling incognito” Neely announces. Who says things like that anyway? She doesn’t want to be recognized, but wouldn’t you know it, one of her hit songs is playing on the jukebox. Then she becomes enraged when no one (except perhaps the bartender) knows who she really is. Patty Duke really overacts in many scenes, but particularly this one.
My favorite one has to be the catfight between Helen and Neely. The two women are arguing in the powder room and Neely ends up pulling off Helen’s wig. “Goodbye Pussycat. Meow!” Neely shouts as she attempts to flush away the wig. That makes me laugh every time. Krystle and Alexis had memorable catfights on Dynasty, but the one between Neely and Helen remains my favorite.
Ironically, Helen actually looked better without the wig. This point escaped me at the time I first saw the film. It’s funny though because she’s supposed to be so humiliated without it.