Valley of the Dolls & Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Studio: Criterion

Sep 26, 2016 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

In certain cinephile circles, the reputation of Mark Robson’s Valley of the Dolls, based on the novel by Jacqueline Susann, precedes itself. In one, the film, about the rise and fall of three young women trying to make it big in New York and Los Angeles, is a piece of trash, so incredibly misbegotten a project that it frequently lands on “worst movie” lists. In another circle, it’s considered a, shall we say, trashterpiece, registering not on the note it maybe intended – a serious piece of filmmaking intent on exploring the psychology of its leads Ann (Barbra Parkins), Neely (Patty Duke), and Jennifer (Sharon Tate) – but one of a kind of camp hilarity. The latter reading is especially popular in queer circles: an empathy for its characters, considered rather vulgar by a mainstream audience, and yet an awareness of its complete ridiculousness. As John Waters explains to Homer Simpson, this is tragically ludicrous, and ludicrously tragic.

Yet, in a contemporary context, there might be a marginal ability to take this film at relative face value, maybe even the way it was originally intended. As the ways that celebrities perform and commodify a human condition on a plethora of screens, the ludicrousness of the way each of the female leads manifest the dissolution of their sanity becomes more unironically convincing. Watching Neely listen to a past version of herself on the jukebox at a bar, she slouches, depressed. She retaliates at a bothersome drunk man, throwing a drink in his face. Her career is spiraling out of control, and her self-abuse is as well. These things are not so unbelievable, and feel even prophetic.

“This should be ridiculous, but it’s not,” notes critic Kim Morgan in the video essay that’s included in the supplements of the Criterion Collection’s release of the film. Perhaps at the time of its release, the audience was too naïve and unaware of the abuses – emotional and psychological – that the entertainment industry is prone to perpetuate. Such exploitation is not only seemingly more saturated in contemporary culture, but quasi-transparency of those things is at its highest with the proliferation of social media and the democratization of tabloid journalism. Whatever was once considered silly and corny in the film feels like it’s settled into its unsettling nature. Its manic and wild shifts in tone and even aesthetic approach is the terrifying artistic manifestation of its characters interior states. Perhaps all Valley of the Dolls needed was a good fifty or so years for it to resonate the way it was supposed to in 1967. 

If the moralism of Robson’s film is relatively earnest, then, by the same token, the moralism of Russ Meyer’s faux-sequel Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is totally ironic. Its epilogue, which sees its three lead rockers walk down the aisle, is in complete joyful juxtaposition to the vulgarity ad orgiastic pleasure of the rest of the film. Hippie parties, pot, sex, hot dumb white dudes in leopard print underwear. It has the same kind of sarcastic embrace for the counterculture as John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos, its satirical edge sharpened by wit and formal genius.

The ways in which men can and will be humiliate for the better in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls reappear in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, and, as in that film, one can gleefully presume that its female leads, rockers Kelly (Dolly Read), Casey (Cynthia Myers), and Petronella (Marcia McBroom) are the film’s social heroines. There’s a fight to control one’s image, especially in the context of fame, where their bizarre and super queer manager Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar) seeks to control them.

It’s a fun, rather libidinous trip, full of bright colors, quick cuts, and a lot of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The outrageousness, though, starts to feel a little monotonous, especially as it becomes an overwhelming onslaught. Meyer is an undeniably inventive and interesting filmmaker, but several of his films suffer from what feels like a pacing issue, not allowing his audience to take a breath in between dives into unbridled sexuality.

Nonetheless, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, in spite of its existence mostly as loose companion piece to its namesake, is potent less for its satire and more for its mix of irony and earnestness,. Meyer believes in his girl band, the Carrie Nation, and he’s into mocking the weird brutish masculinity and answering it with a killer kind of deadpan. Go to the Valley for emotion, and go Beyond for the bizarre laughs. 


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