It started with “Peyton Place.” The book became a cultural milestone in the maturation of the American psyche through its acknowledgement that even in the heart of Middle America, sexual activity was rampant. Assigned to director Mark Robson, the movie adaptation of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place changed the sexual activity in the story to guarded implications, to great success. By removing the sex, the story became a compelling romantic melodrama about American morality. The movie was so successful that it spawned a hit television series, a primetime soap opera in an era when no other evening television program had ongoing narratives. Like the book and the film, the series was set in New England, and although sex was off-screen, the results of such activities are what fueled the show’s continuing storylines of romantic complications and sexual scandals.
With the success of the Metalious book, other female authors began to mix real experience and sex—Helen Gurley Brown, for one bold example—but no one profited more than Jacqueline Susann, whose graphic roman à clef about women in the entertainment industry became an even bigger bestseller, and was picked up by Fox and assigned to Robson again. Not only that, but 1967’s Valley of the Dolls (Criterion Blu-Ray, September 27), featured one of the stars from the “Peyton Place” TV show, Barbara Parkins. It also opens on her character leaving the small New England town where she grew up to travel to New York and start a new life, just as Parkins herself was doing by moving over to movies. Joining Parkins was Patty Duke—whose character bears so many similarities to the experiences of Judy Garland that the film opens with a disclaimer—and Sharon Tate, leading a contemporary viewer to believe that a film made about the real lives of the actresses could have been every bit as salacious and tragic as the implied story in the film itself.
Valley of The Dolls is not as good as Peyton Place, lacking a moral center and a suspenseful narrative. Instead, the Robson simply takes delight in exposing the dark behind the Hollywood façade. It has a sort-of feminist attitude, with its strongest female characters those who are not bound to men. But it is also about how desperately the women react to the men in their lives regardless of their power. The film is also about popping pills, uppers and downers, to get through days of hard work—the “dolls” of the title are the heroines, yes, but also their meds. Parkins’ character is a legal secretary who becomes a successful model. Duke, who gives the most intense performance, is a talented singer who becomes such a big star that her schedule gets out of control. Tate’s character is a lesser actress who has to turn to roles involving nudity in order to support her ailing husband. Lee Grant (another “Peyton Place” TV alum), Susan Hayward, Paul Burke, Tony Scotti and Martin Milner also provide flamboyant performances.
The story follows the ups and downs in the careers of each of the three women, until each reaches a defining point in life, interweaving the narratives as the characters occasionally bump into one another at parties and other social functions. The film has endured not just because it captured the height of mainstream 1967 stylistic expression, but because of the dishy way that it unravels the dreams and successes of each character, exposing the elevated emotions of those who sell an ideal of themselves for a career. If Peyton Place drew back the curtains on the American heartland, Valley of the Dolls showed that even Hollywood was just another Peyton Place.
The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. The color transfer looks gorgeous. The three-channel DTS sound has a vague dimensionality and a few directional effects, but delivers solid and clear tones. Since Duke’s character is a singer, the film is practically a musical, but its best known song, known as “Theme from Valley of the Dolls,” was performed by Dionne Warwick (who does not appear in the film) over the opening credits (it is also reprised during a couple of montages, and at the end), and has endured more than any other aspect of the movie, a ballad about starting out fresh and hopeful in the face of winter.
We learn in the 25-minute Hollywood: Backstories episode that opens the supplements is that Garland herself was originally cast in the Hayward role, and shot a couple of scenes before having a breakdown and refusing to go on. Those scenes are also included in the piece, along with costume tests and a press conference. Of equal interest is an excellent 22-minute interview with Susann biographer Amy Fine Collins, who explains not only how Susann came to write the novel, but also how the different characters were based both upon famous figures but also different parts of Susann herself. She also talks about Susann’s distaste for the film, even though it helped sustain the book’s popularity. A fantastic 51-minute documentary shot in 1967 about Susann is in pretty ragged condition, but nevertheless leaves one glued to every frame. Not only does it deliver a nice portrait of her life just as it has been engorged in fame, but it captures the era in a way few such programs have, right down to harumphy male critics arguing with her about the book’s eroticism. There is also a 28-minute collection of screen tests, including a lengthy segment in which Parkins reads for Duke’s part, which is almost impossible to comprehend if the film is fresh in your mind. The highlight of the screen tests, however, is a wonderful clip of Scotti singing the complete English language version of the title song from A Man and a Woman.
Also featured is a wonderful sixteen-minute clip of Duke attending a 2009 screening of the film in San Francisco at the Castro Theatre, and talking with emcee Bruce Vilanch (who loosens her up—he’s hysterical) about her experiences making the film (including working with Garland). Duke is in terrific humor and embraces what the film represents to her fans (“I don’t mean to pander, I really don’t want to do that, but this is the truth. I hated Valley of the Dolls. I hated everything about it—except Sharon Tate. I was mortified when someone would tell me that they had seen it. I would always say, ‘I’m sorry.’ But the Gay Community has brought me not only to like watching the movie, but love that it’s not serious.”).
Parkins’ honey-laced voice is ideal for the commentary track, in which an all-too-young cable gossip reporter, Ted Casablanca, prompts her. His name, with apparent legitimacy, is the same as a major supporting character from Susann’s book and the film. They have fun talking about what happens to the characters and also sharing tales about what went on behind the scenes, and it is an equal amount of fun to share the experience with them. Parkins is pragmatic about both her stardom and her career, and it is a shame she didn’t push harder to continue making movies, if only so there could be more of her preserved on celluloid. As for Dolls, she couldn’t be happier. “I love this film! If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be here. I love this film, I mean, the chance to do this film, even though it became a cult film, and people laugh at it, you know, or enjoy it and revel in it, I mean I loved every minute of working on this film, even though, like I say, it was naive and there was no sensationalism in it and nobody talked about it afterwards, and we weren’t kind of ‘honored’ at the awards.
There is bad, and then there is really bad. Valley of the Dolls is a bad movie. The histrionics of the characters pass for drama, while simplified progressions of successes and failures, both in careers and in romance, pass for narrative. But the plot is coherent, and the acting, although pushing the edges of sensibility, is valid. Dolls is appealing as high camp, with its most indulgent performances and importune dialog being accepted after the fact as a comical alternative to the real world, especially because of its show business milieu.
BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
Russ Meyer’s follow-up with Fox, the 1970 Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Criterion Blu, September 27), is not only over-the-top bad, it descends far into the valley on the other side. Scripted by a 28-year-old Roger Ebert, the romantic adventures of a female trio in a successful rock band are an incoherent mess. If the performances in Valley of the Dolls stretch the limits of emotional believability, the performances by the mostly unknown cast in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls have an opposite effect, being so stiff and confined it is as if the dolls have never been removed from their packages. The film attempts to be outrageous, mostly in its depiction of aggressive women chasing after sex, but also in its turn at the end to blood and gore. If Valley of the Dolls is the triumph of the Sixties, then Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is the revenge of the Seventies, in which all of the flower children became adolescents, stomping around the garden in boots and mashing everything in sight. The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. The eye-popping colors look sharp and fabulous in all of their disorganized clutter. The monophonic sound is strong and solid, and, like Valley of the Dolls, the film’s music is one of its only components that are not an embarrassment.
Criterion has retrospective interviews, the screen tests, the trailers and the featurette, along with a fine 30-minute analysis of the film by John Waters (who believes that the film’s comedic intentions were always there), another eight-minute retrospective piece with a couple of the actors, an excellent 38-minute 1968 portrait of Meyer and his films from Channel 4’s “The Incredibly Strange Film Show,” and a great 49-minute Q&A with Meyer, screenwriter Roger Ebert, and a several cast members, before a live audience in 1992. The second commentary features Ebert, who tackles the film objectively, admitting that the nonsensical story is partially his doing, but consistently acknowledging its many shortcomings at the same time. The lead actress is challenged, for example, because there was no logic to her choices, just the impulses of the filmmakers. “From moment to moment, she has to undergo complete U-turns of emotions in order to explain how she’s behaving.” While he admits that the film was intended as a satire, he never flatly corroborates Waters’ claim that every flaw in the film was part of a deliberately conceived plan. He mostly does what DVD critics admonish commentators not to do, which is to regurgitate what is happening on the screen, but he does veer off to share stories about Meyer and about how they came to do the film. “Russ and I would talk things out, then I would type up more or less what we had decided on the night before. Russ’ approach to writing was curious. He felt that writing and typing were very much the same thing, and so he kept his office door open, and if he couldn’t hear my typewriter actually being used, he would shout, ‘What’s the matter?’ This was kind of in the spirit of the screenplay.”
Ultimately, though, Ebert cannot resist trying, at least, to justify the film’s creation, grasping at straws to come up with some sort of reason as to why the film is valid entertainment. “You’re really being challenged to decide what you think about the material and how you should respond to it, and it’s not often that movies are really that challenging to audiences. Most movies make it very clear what response is expected and this movie kind of dares you to respond.” He does, however, get to the heart of what separates a bad movie from a ‘bad’ movie. “Unlike a lot of movies, it doesn’t bore me.”
Two snotty jocks grab a rich nerd who has a car and drive into the city to hire a stripper for a fraternity, but end up in a den of vampires. That’s the essence of the 1986 horror comedy, Vamp, resurrected on Blu-ray by Arrow Video (October 14). Although the heroes, played by Robert Russler and Chris Makepeace, are jerks, they are surprisingly sympathetic. The impulse to like them is rewarded, as the first time they bump into some real thugs downtown, they surprise everyone by confidently gaining the upper hand. Vamp is witty, sexy, exciting, and even charming. Dedee Pfeiffer plays a stripper who recognizes Makepeace’s character, even though he can’t place her and is unsure, up to the final shot, if she is legit or just cleverer than the other vampires. Gedde Watanabe co-stars as the nerd, Billy Drago is memorable as one of the thugs, Sandy Baron is one of the barkeepers and Grace Jones sizzles in a turn as a seductive vampire stripper. Richard Wenk directed, constantly poking around the familiar traps of genre clichés, but wittily springing each one without stepping in it. The dialog is often very amusing, there is plenty of action and gore, and the characters are developed with genuine care, so that viewers remain engaged not so much because of the wild things that go on, but because the growth and appeal of the heroes remains compelling throughout.
Evocatively colored and lit, the transfer is fresh and crisp, so the film often looks much slicker than its budget ought to have provided. It’s clear that Wenk took his time to stage the most important sequences, such as Jones’ mouthwatering striptease, and made up for it by being less picky about the transitional sequences, although with the basic green-red lighting scheme (inspired by After Hours, according to the supplement), even those passages are aesthetically stimulating. The presentation has a strong monophonic track, although we would have welcomed a stereo remix to free it up some. There are optional English subtitles; two trailers; seven terrific TV commercials; a nice collection of production photos in still frame; a six-minute blooper reel that includes stunts and nudity that didn’t make it into the film, as well as some specific amusements; a seven-minute clip of a rehearsal with Jones (and Wenk performing stand-in duties), intended to determine the best camera angles for a vampire biting sequence, which is as erotic as anything in the film and makes you wish you could make movies; a wonderful 44-minute retrospective documentary, catching up with all of the now-older actors. Jones is absent, although the stories about her are the best. Each performer has charming memories, such as what happened when Drago went into a 7-Eleven after work while still in costume. The gift was that there are good people in this business,” Wenk says, “and that if you look hard enough, you’ll find them, and those are the ones you want to work with.”