Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Pill For Every Ill: "Valley of the Dolls"

Hi Keeba and hello, movie lovers. Have you ever noticed that people consume a lot of pills these days? If we have a headache, we take aspirin. If we have allergies, we take antihistamine. If we have heart palpitations, we take nitro. If men can't...perform they take Viagra. Sense a pattern here?

However, nobody, NOBODY took more pills than the hapless cast of 1967's "Valley of the Dolls"--and that wasn't just to get through the movie (rim shot). Poor Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke), Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins) and Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) gulp, down or swallow so many "dolls" in the course of this uproarious flick that you half expect them to rattle when they walk (rim shot).

Why do they need so many pharmaceuticals to get through the day? Because these gals were foolish enough to work in show business, you craven fool, where dishonest, exploitative, back stabbing, slave driving, devil worshipping men/bosses/costars/parents drive them to the brink with their dishonest, exploitative, back stabbing, slave driving, devil worshipping ways.

Take Neely O'Hara (Duke). Supposedly a dynamite singer and actress, she's kicked out of her Broadway bound musical by star/diva/monster Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) because the aging vet believes the raw tyro will upstage her.

"The only hit to come out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson!" Hayward bellows. "And that's me, remember?!"

Unjustly fired, Neely wails to her boyfriend ("Adam 12"s Martin Milner), "It's a lousy business, but I love it! I love it!" Forced to toil in night clubs and TV telethons, Neely begins taking dolls to boost her energy and give her stamina. Later she starts making movies, where her directors command "Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!" which, of course, causes her to increase her doll dosage. These jagged little pills, however, when combined with alcohol ("It makes them work faster," Neely shrugs) turn the perky star into a nasty, intemperate shrew. They also drive away her nice guy husband and land Neely into the arms of her AC/DC costume designer/Svengali named Ted Casablanca.

Actually, Ted isn't so AC/DC after all: one evening Neely comes home unexpectedly and finds him splashing in the swimming pool with a giggling bimbo. The horrified O'Hara pours alcohol into the water ("There! Maybe that will disinfect it!"), suffers a meltdown and is dragged into rehab.

On the other hand, Anne Wells (Parkins) is driven to dolls for more existential reasons, i.e. her dream man Lyon (Paul Burke) has no interest in marriage. See, hot-shot lawyer Lyon prefers "career girls" because "we're more compatible". When Anne points out "there is a rumor they don't make very good wives", he asserts, "I'm not looking for a wife."

Does Anne take the hint? Of course not. Instead, she falls for the guy, removes her college beau's fraternity pin and hits the sheets with Mr. Smooth. Does putting out change Lyon's mind about marriage? Are you serious? Does Anne start dropping the dolls (and hitting the sauce) to cope with her frustration and/or shame? Is the Pope catholic? When the lowly secretary is discovered by a cosmetics giant and becomes their star model, does her glamorous new image and TV fame make Anne more desirable to Lyon? No, he dumps her just the same.

So what's a girl to do? In Anne's case, she moves on to other men and starts wearing bad wigs. She also cleans out her medicine chest a bit too enthusiastically, causing her to pass out, face down, in the sand outside her trendy beach house. Where did my life go so wrong? you can practically hear Anne wail.

Meanwhile, showgirl Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) isn't faring any better. She's driven to dolls by A) a nagging mom who constantly reminds her daughter that she has no "real talent" and pesters her to keep up her bust exercises, B) a nagging mom who constantly harangues her for money every chance she gets and C) a nagging mom who nags, nags, nags.

Then Jen marries saloon singer Tony (Tony Scotti) and moves with him to Hollywood. Not long after he's cut from the studio, Tony starts falling down stairs and forgetting his name. Jennifer then learns from hovering sister-in-law Lee Grant(!) that hubby has an incurable neurological disease that will eventually take his life. To pay off the mounting medical bills, Jen is prodded to appear in "French art films"(aka porn), where she becomes the world's hottest but saddest nudie star. After toiling for years in the backwash of porn, Jennifer later develops breast cancer. Depressed over her lack of marketable job skills ( "All I know how to do is take off my clothes," she sighs), Jennifer calls her mom for a little support. She doesn't get any. Instead, the old nag bitches about how "scandalized" the neighbors are over her racy movies and, by the way, when is she going to be sending her some money?

Distraught, Jennifer takes her own life.

But, wait, there's more. Neely O'Hara has been dragged off to rehab, remember? It's there she's manhandled by ugly nurses "in orthopedic shoes" and wails pitifully, "I've forgotten how to sleep without a doll! I can't get through the day without a doll!" Eventually she's weaned off the little buggers and sings one of Tony's songs at the resident's dance--and is shocked to see the normally catatonic crooner (a fellow patient) revive for a second before collapsing in a heap. Finally clean and sober, Neely has a chance to make her Broadway comeback, but as opening night nears, Duke relapses into her old using ways. Drunk as a skunk before her first scene, Neely is replaced by her scheming understudy who, of course, becomes the toast of the town. Kicked out of the theater, staggering around some deserted back alley, Neely screams out the names of everybody she has wronged her on her relentless climb to the top including, naturally, herself.

Sad, really.

Or, rather, it would be sad if it wasn't so nutty. Seeing Duke, in a bad wig and smeared make-up, screaming as if she was relentlessly being pricked in the hinder with a taxidermy needle, is hysterical perfection. It's almost enough to make you appreciate the class and restraint Patty employed on that sitcom with her "identical cousin."

And Anne Wells, the film's sometime narrator? She finally wises up, ditches the dolls, dumps Lyon (for good) and heads back home to New England and the forgiving embrace of her aged aunt. Sure, she may no longer be a flashy TV model and she wasted about 10 prime childbearing years on a self-involved jerk and one friend is dead and the other has relapsed and is rolling around in the gutter and she herself is filled with regret...geez, Anne's life hasn't improved at all! Well, at least she's not shrieking like a dental drill (those stoic New Englanders, you know)

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