Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, the Most Beloved Bad Book
and Movie of All Time
by Stephen Rebello
Reviewer: Anthony Pomes
Who among us can take a shower without thinking of composer Bernard Herrmann’s high-pitch shrieking violins from Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller, Psycho? At the same time, who has ever seen Valley of the Dolls and not come away from it touched deeply by Dionne Warwick’s heartbreaking performance of the film’s theme — a lushly appointed song written by Andre Previn with then-wife Dory Previn, and conducted and arranged by John Williams, who would emerge less than a decade later as the composer who scared nearly everyone out of the water in Steven Spielberg’s watershed 1975 classic Jaws? In his remarkable new book, Stephen Rebello deftly presents a veritable cascade of evidence for just how crucial of a juggernaut this “so bad, it’s good” Hollywood movie was — and is — when it comes to the rest of modern Hollywood history.
For many, Rebello’s first published book (Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho) signaled his eye for detail and the sheer enjoyment with which he captured every nook and cranny of that fascinating film’s story in words. The same sublime way with which he explored all things concerning Hitchcock’s film in his previous book is what readers again receive in ample supply throughout Dolls! Dolls! Dolls! ($17.00 USD, Penguin). The difference between the two books, though, stem from the difference between the two films. One film is in black and white; the other is in color. One has a cast of many; the other, a cast of few. And, as most filmgoers would say, one is really good — and the other is really bad. Yet, there are also intriguing comparisons between the films — starting, of course, with the fact that so many reviewers really hated each respective film upon release. Both films also luxuriate in a kind of raw painted-face feminine animus pitted against the oblique brutalities of a reactive matriarchal order. We are presented here with post-WWII “Mother”-hood as a kind of definitive American horror story — except that Psycho’s “Mrs. Bates” kills Janet Leigh’s blonde character Marion Crane in a shower, while Valley of the Dolls sees Sharon Tate’s blonde character Jennifer North driven to pill-induced suicide by the slow mental and financial abuse of a mother never seen but only heard from in phone calls. In this regard, perhaps Valley is a scarier picture than Psycho — by the end of Hitchcock’s film, we can at least see and hear a “version” of Mrs. Bates. Jennifer’s mother, however, is never even heard in Valley — and so her cruel manipulations die with her daughter. It is a testament to Rebello’s new work that this kind of side-by-side critical comparison between these two films can stand that much more firmly as valid — one could even argue that Rebello’s film historical lens has now encompassed the entire decade of the 1960s through exploration of these two films.
If there were ever a time to roll out a new Hollywood book about an old Hollywood time, that time is now. Caught hard and rigid by the vise grip of current events, this showbiz cautionary tale is relayed tacitly — and tactfully — by Rebello in this plucky new look at the Hollywood “Dream Machine” post-#MeToo and in the wake of our increasingly woke nation. As is done with all good stories, Rebello’s book identifies the villain at the heart of this “making-of” story as Valley of the Dolls director Mark Robson. The various stories of how Robson directed the film — often with a stopwatch in his hand as part of his plan to shoot only enough film to fit the already-decided-upon running time of the picture — frequently reveal him as the primary reason why so many of the actors’ performances are so cripplingly bad. Chief among them, of course, is that of the young Oscar-winning actress Patty Duke, whose performance as Neely O’Hara is so hugely overwrought and misguided throughout that one can only look to whoever it was who directed her to do that as the culprit.
Even still, what stands out strongly in Rebello’s book and the 1967 film itself is the small but impactful work of the late Sharon Tate in the role of Jennifer — based by novelist Jacqueline Susann, as you learn in Rebello’s book, on the life story of Marilyn Monroe. All these years later, Tate’s performance remains the heart of the film — and not only because she was murdered along with others at the hand of Charles Manson’s “family” on August 8, 1969, less than two years after Valley’s release. It is because throughout the film, the viewer gets the feeling that Tate is revealing her sincerest self in everything that she does with the part. To see Tate’s quiet yet devastating suicide scene a little past the midway point of the film is to mourn the loss not just of Tate but perhaps of all women taken in their prime as human beings — something that the book communicates extremely well.
In the end, perhaps the biggest figure in the book is the woman without whom none of this would have taken place — Jacqueline Susann who, interestingly enough, has a short speaking-part cameo in the film of Valley as the reporter who asks the Anne Welles character whether or not Tate’s character may have intentionally killed herself with pills. The story behind Susann’s wildly vivid life prior to her big bestselling success with Valley of the Dolls has been told before, but Rebello deserves praise of the highest order both for communicating that story so concisely at the start of the book and for maintaining it as a viable thread throughout the rest of the tale behind the film. If you take the time to consider Susann’s own colorful and self-empowered rise to fame and fortune before succumbing to lung cancer in August 1974 at the age of 56, then your appreciation of all things Valley of the Dolls will increase exponentially — and the best gateway drug to that particular brand of “doll” worship can be found in Stephen Rebello’s Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!.