Valley of the Dolls
I got a DVD of “Valley of the Dolls”, a 1967 film based on Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 novel about the bad outcomes for some young women, in the early Sixties, who had extremely conventional ideas about the role of women. I bought this because it is from the era of films I like to watch, but also because it is an example of a story about the oppression of women before feminism was on stage. At least, that was what I was expecting. Susann’s novel has sold 31 million copies. The film was the kind of thing which no boy my age would have dreamt of watching, when we were 12 or 22. This is partly why it was important to me to watch at age 61. I didn’t understand the problem.
The story is about young women at the higher end of the entertainment industry: "the “valley” is not a place but a narcotized state of mind, and the “dolls” are the pills that rouse them in the morning and knock them out at night." One is a singer and actress, one is a “showgirl”, one is a secretary who becomes an advertising model, the “Gillian Girl”, for a line of cosmetics and accessories. The dolls are barbiturate capsules, which were shiny and coloured. But also, more obviously, the young women, who actually look like dolls and take great care of their hair and clothes at each point. Dolls are mainly bought for girls and reflect their ideals of beauty. But is hardly deniable that these ideals are also desired, or demanded, by boys and men, not least film producers. The problem that reaching an ideal is also an act of compliance and submissiveness cannot be evaded. The actresses could influence the way their viewers did their hair and fixed their clothes as well as illustrating a story about young women following false ideals.
The film opens with an arty symbolic sequence. Voice: “You have to climb Mount Everest to reach the valley of the dolls”. Wire figures are seen on a mountain slope, then shift shape to become pill capsules. The powder spills and becomes snow. The poster says “instant excitement, ultimate hell ". Sharon Tate gets fourth billing.
I picked up a copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter, about the “Manson family” murders in 1969. Bugliosi was the DA who prosecuted the Tate-LaBianca killings, and he interviewed a number of the young women in the Family. Bugliosi says (p.172) “[T]here was a sameness about them that was much stronger than their individuality. […] same expressions, same patterned responses, same tone of voice, same lack of distinct personality. The realisation came with a shock; they reminded me less of human beings than of Barbie dolls.” (He had just interviewed Lynette Fromme, who was not convicted of a crime until years later.) The Family women were like that because they were under the control of a Hitler fan, obsessed with domination, who thought women were the lowest form of humanity. So why were Susann’s characters also like dolls? To answer that needed the arrival on stage of feminism.
Part of the impact of ‘Dolls’ is that the characters are so ordinary. The conclusion is that the social system does not work for ordinary people. This is so different from stories about how society rejects someone completely exceptional. That does not have political implications. The actresses in ‘Dolls’ did not have much of a career, (simplification – Patty Duke did). The film’s power derives partly from its banality, and from the lack of understanding by the lead characters of what is happening to them. Something you heard a lot in the Sixties was a tale about barbiturates, as numbing people to feelings and being used to blot out problems rather than solve them. They were mainly prescribed for women and the tale went on to say that it was the loneliness of housewives (the detail about being on housing estates miles away from town where there was no neighbourhood life was often added) that made them customers for pills whose function was to make anxiety go away. Everyone knew that they were mainly prescribed for women. It followed that millions of ordinary people were having a really bad time leading their ordinary lives.
The usual account of Sharon Tate is that she had little talent as an actress but was incredibly good-looking and had a sweet and trusting personality. In a way, Dolls would be less effective if the performers were more talented and more able to defend themselves – the camera picks up a combination of naivety and glamour and this gives the story its momentum. The usual story about Jacqueline Susann is that her clientele were badly educated and badly informed about culture – this adds further substance. This audience could see themselves on screen and they were also from the social group which used large amounts of barbiturates (continuing while the government, or civil society, failed to solve the problems which were making them anxious).
It is normal to see the take-off of feminism as starting in 1970. Prior to that, you have a genre of women’s pictures, which according to a rather well-known narrative were written out of history by critics obsessed with montage and the greatness of self-willed directors. I am not sure about the dates, but Andrew Sarris’ American Cinema (1968) gives high praise to figures like Douglas Sirk and John M. Stahl, evidently part of a process of making women’s pictures central to a new Hollywood history. Quite a theme of women’s pics is the centrality of suffering. ‘Stella Dallas’ (made in 1925 and re-made in 1937, which is the version I saw) is an example. Even cynical producers recognised this as good box-office. Women cinema-goers liked to see this subject matter. The conclusion that they liked it because life had been unfair to them and inflicted outlandish suffering is not hard to reach. That means that the plot material of Hollywood melodramas, already in the Twenties but probably in Griffiths films even earlier, supports the feminist case and just needs social and political argument to take it on to feminism. The sequel, that a liberated female audience would enjoy watching suffering much less, probably holds true for cinema of the past twenty years. They don’t make a weepie like they used to.
The tradition of marketing folklore would also attribute feminine interest to films with lots of dancing and films with expensive clothes, among others. ‘Dolls’ is glamorous throughout, it has a kind of glaze like a TV screen. Is this like the layer of numbness and no-contact which barbiturates lend to someone’s mood? Perhaps. Films had to be as affluent and glamorous as advertisements in order to avoid seeming dowdy by comparison with them. Film sets were carefully set out to be like advertisements. There was a line also of films that showed poverty and poor homes, but Dolls is quite rigorously at the affluent, ad-imitating, end of the spectrum. Its look is like a shop window in an up-market store, and the actresses look like mannequins.
Bugliosi gave attention to the possibility that, after members of the Family killed Sharon Tate in her home, they took some of her clothes and wore them in the squalor of the derelict ranches where they lived. This was never proved. Family economics did not allow for young women to go shopping for clothes (gun acquisition was higher up the list of priorities). Drawing a link between the critical fiction of ‘Valley of the Dolls’ and the deluded reality of the murder of Sharon Tate is always doubtful. But drugs are a link – the Manson thing would not have happened without copious amounts of LSD, and Susann’s novel gives a central role to barbiturates. So, both stories are about heedless over-consumption of laboratory-made drugs.
Roger Ebert said in his review “Some moments persist in the memory, however. The scene in which Sharon Tate does her bust exercises, and most particularly the dialog at the end of that scene, should be preserved in permanent form so future historians can see that Hollywood was not only capable of vulgarity, but was also capable of the most offensive and appalling vulgarity ever thrown up by any civilization. I can't believe that scene. I really can't.” Also “As for the young men in the cast: They all apparently go to the same barber and tailor, and their mothers must all have been frightened by Robert Cummings. I couldn't tell them apart.“ A feature of women’s films is that the men are well-groomed but featureless, like dolls. In scenes, their dialogue is colourless because it has not been the subject of intense fantasy, whereas the women’s dialogue is striking and memorable because it is the product of long fantasy and so speaks to a level of fantasy and role-playing in the audience. Vanity Fair spoke to actress Lee Grant, 40 years on: “Chimed in Grant, “It’s the best, funniest, worst movie ever made.” [Patty] “Duke, in interviews, credited the gay community’s championing of the film as the primary reason for its longevity.“ I don’t know if it works as a gay film (if you imagine the women as gay men?), but the reasons it doesn’t work as a feminist film are three. First, it is full of malevolent female authority figures. (Steinberg, the senior secretary at the theatrical lawyers where the film starts, is benign.) There is no space for experience reflecting on gender inequality because the older women are unilaterally dedicated to controlling and exploiting other people. Secondly, men aren’t blamed for anything. They don’t even behave badly. We never see any scene that shows a doctor prescribing the barbiturates (or the “uppers”) or being taken to task for their decisions in facilitating addiction. Third, the conception is intensely narcissistic. The events arrive as Destiny and this leaves no space for relating them to a social system, which could be changed and which was in fact changing with incredible rapidity in the twenty years up to 1980. Nobody ever asks why. I am not saying that nobody can ever get rich, but the stardom of all three characters removes them from comparison with 140 million or so American women and blocks out any thoughts about the medical arguments against tranquillisers or about patriarchy. In an article of reminiscences, Michael Korda reported Susann as saying to him that the reason for making the characters suffer so much was that they were rich and went to great parties and met many interesting people, and the readers of her book would only tolerate this if they suffered and suffered. So part of the reason why there is no feminist analysis in the book is that it is founded on class resentment. The book is directed by a sort of dissolved left-wing sensibility with the texture of warm ice-cream. I am not sure I buy this, or at least I think that the formula of "extensive suffering in expensive clothes" works for most women's pics and not for this reason. This re-opens the question: why do female lead characters in women's pictures have to suffer. (We could start by looking at pictures aimed at women which don't have suffering. Mitchell Leisen specialised in this kind of film.)
Richard Quine’s “Sex and the Single Girl” (1964) is an obvious comparison to Dolls. (No, haven’t seen this one.) It has quite different views of the priorities of ‘career girls’ and as this suggests Dolls embodies Forties values more accurately – in the novel, the events run from about 1945 to 1965, and the film has compressed this (to avoid showing their fab young actresses ageing). It may be that a best-seller has to express conservative social values in order to achieve comfort and a fantasy state. You aren’t meant to stop thinking about the characters and start thinking about social issues.
The Internet says that Judy Garland was hired to play the “Helen Lawson” character (the brutal musical star). Note that one of the central characters is a singing star whose life goes off the rails because she is dependent on uppers and downers to get through the day. The Net says that Garland was fired or resigned, also that Robson made her wait until 4 pm before doing her scenes and she was drunk by that time (whereas she was sober at 8 am). The story that Garland was fired for alcoholism from a film largely about the story of Garland’s pill and alcohol dependency sounds too good to be true. The story that Robson set her up to get fired makes sense, and again the film could have failed for being too real if you had had a real-life victim of pills in the middle of it.
What are you left with if you remove the suffering? I would say “nothing”, but the real answer would be “a musical about shopping”. That again translates as “an advertisement with music”. You even get this inside the film, with the “Gillian Girl” campaign. Neely catches her husband in the swimming pool with a naked girl. This would be a lot more moving if they were living in some house that didn’t even have a swimming pool. I was disappointed with the film, and if it isn’t moving part of the reason is the glaze of affluence which covers it. Robson arranges the story very lucidly and with great attention to variety and pacing. Yet the story drags. What the look of the film reminds me of, now, is an expensive department store in Nottingham. Every object is tasteful yet luxurious. The space welcomes you in. Yet it’s too shiny to be home. Was Robson wrong? The department store is planned to lure women into a state of mind where they spend money on largely unnecessary objects. If it works in the department store, it probably works in the film. The film sells an object, itself. If he had gone for a more documentary feel, the film probably would have more emotional impact, but it might have lost 90% of its audience. I think the affluence is what suppresses the emotional impact of the events. Jennifer kills herself with an overdose in the Bel Air Carlton hotel. Tate acts the scene leading up to coma (and release?), entering the snow at the end of the valley, beautifully. She had a very expressive face. But, in the Bel Air Carlton? "She learnt that she had advanced Hollywood's Disease while piloting her private helicopter to Chamonix wearing white Dior salopettes." The film is prissy and affluent, not vulgar.
The pattern for women’s pics is to focus on “promo videos”, fairly short scenes which are intensely emotional and egoistic, which break inhibitions, abandon reason, and which are designed for frequent re-living in fantasy form. (Clothes and grooming are also vital.) The sequence where a very young Neely O’Hara in rehearsal makes cynical theatre workers stop work and be knocked out, and where the big star insists that she gets fired because she is going to steal the show, would be an example. These scenes tend to re-appear in many different films, and as this would suggest women’s pics tend to lack narrative logic, the objective framework is neglected while effort goes into the ‘video clips’. Fantasies are much briefer than feature films. If ‘Valley of the Dolls’ out-sold every other women’s pic of the Sixties, it is partly because its objective framework is so uncompromised. Mark Robson deserves credit for this. You have the emotive scenes, but the film picks itself up and moves in after each one.
Sarris says “Among Val Lewton alumni, he [Robert Wise] occupies a middle position between Jacques Tourneur at the top and Mark Robson at the bottom”. This goes back to about 1942 when the studio wanted a releasable edit of “The Magnificent Ambersons” and they got people who had edited “Kane”, Robert Wise and Mark Robson, to do this. Welles had skipped town and wasn’t going to do the work. If you subscribe to the “auteur” theory you automatically believe that the editors were betraying Welles and that “Ambersons” was a great film until it was edited, not turgid, dimensionless, and anti-climactic like the version we actually have. So you despise Mark Robson, as part of club membership. Sarris doesn't even give him an article of his own. Actually if he did “Peyton Place” and “Dolls” he was making “women’s pics” and so unacceptable to auteur critics in the first place. Thomson says of him “Robson has oscillated between styles and genres. He indulged in a spurious, Kramerian realism […] but, without missing a step, he abandoned that for the most calculating sentimentality […] or a special taste for best-seller vulgarity.” This is typical of what “serious” film historians say about directors of women’s pictures. The Criterion film website says "he was often more than competent", which is not kind. Having just watched the film, I don’t want to go out to bat for Robson. Allegedly Jacqueline Susann told him the film was shit, and I find this story easy to believe. I want to re-evaluate women’s pictures but not by denying their flaws. They were free of macho stupidity, but that isn’t quite enough. I am not persuaded that either Peyton Place or Valley is vulgar. I have seen very few of Robson's 34 films but at least I am willing to watch. The 1957 film 'Peyton Place' gave rise to a TV series with Dorothy Malone – according to the stories around Malone's obituary in 2018, it was the first TV soap opera, the founding moment. Both 'Peyton Place' and 'Dolls' were filmings of huge best-sellers by women writers. Robson could not become the auteur of these stories that everyone knew, he could only stage them. 'Peyton Place', the film, is also pre-feminist.
It would be nice to say that since the advent of feminism massive barbiturate prescription has disappeared and the social problems of the ‘Valium Estate’ and other depressed areas have been solved by collective action. I am doubtful about this and suspect it is more that barbiturates have ceased to be news and don’t get novels written about them. Fashions in anxiety-suppressants have changed.
I see that even if Susan Hayward had had 30 years in Hollywood prior to ‘Dolls’ (was she really only 19 in 1937?), I haven’t seen any of her films except Dolls (and Nicholas Ray’s rodeo film). She plays the leathery star of musicals who fires Neely O’Hara, at the start of the picture, for being too talented. At the end of the film, O’Hara is a star and fires a young soubrette for being too talented. When she does this, her agent/boyfriend walks out, it’s a moral gesture. So, two malevolent female authority figures, but that isn’t even the full count. I actually wrote about “women’s pics” in the Eighties sometime, but I realise that even now I just haven’t covered the ground, I would have to watch hundreds of films to develop a history of the genre.
Sarris’ index of significant American films (at the back of American Cinema) has about 5000 titles but not Valley of the Dolls. Forty-two years ago, I was getting interested in film history and acquiring a huge list of films I wanted to see, from the books I was reading (by David Thomson, more than anyone). Having watched a thousand of them now (probably a lot more than that), I can’t take the project any further. Moving to Nottingham in 2005 put an end to it. Retiring has reduced my disposable income to poverty levels. But I can scarf up cheap DVDs from a stall in Arnold Market. I can buy occasional DVDs on-line – ‘Advise and Consent’ followed by ‘Valley of the Dolls’, in the past few months. Maybe I can get onto some John M Stahl as years go on.