Valley of the Dolls
(Fox Home Entertainment)
PRESS PLAY My favorite anecdote about Susan Hayward hides in a Nicholas Ray biography. When director Ray first met Hayward before the filming of 1952's The Lusty Men, he launched into one of his characteristic orations about methods of acting. Hayward knitted. Ray jabbered. After a while she cut him short. "Listen, honey, I'm from Brooklyn," she said with a trademark from-the-gut growl that could stop a linebacker short. "What's the story?"
In the case of 1967's Valley of the Dolls, the story was Jacqueline Susann's — at least until Mark Robson's botched-in-so-many-wondrous-ways movie landed like an Evening in Paris smoke bomb in theaters. It's easy to forget what, um, rich material Val Lewton acolyte Robson was failing to work with here, and you can't count on today's Castro clone to point out the protofeminism or the latent and perhaps Ethel Merman–inspired lesbianism in Susann's novel, a megapopular follow-up to a best seller about her pet poodle. If heterosexual men fuck the way Susann's book claims they do, no wonder Neely O'Hara was just the dame to prove Ted Casablanca was "not a fag!"
"Finally!" exclaims a sticker affixed to the Valley of the Dolls DVD in the window display of Streetlight Records on Market, and indeed it feels like it has taken longer than forever for Valley of the Dolls to make the transition from VHS to headed-for-obsolescence disc. The wait has brought us some average packaging and a number of extras, including a documentary about Susann that's no deeper than the biodrama Isn't She Great? (wasn't that terrible?) and some mercifully brief clips of Judy Garland's screen tests for the role of Helen Lawson. But we didn't buy this thing for an E! network facsimile's commentary. We bought it for the movie, 200 proof, "straight," no chaser.
It's all here. Dionne Warwick's rendition of the title song, still as cold as New England snow. The other awful musical numbers, copenned by Dory "Midgets" Previn before Mia Farrow gave her a reason to beware of young girls. Sharon Tate's absurd calls from "Mother" (surely the inspiration for Julianne Moore's phone chats in Todd Haynes's Safe) and Lee Grant's stage-wings glare (ditto Grant's own performance in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive).
There are so many wacky moments to love, like the lingering seconds when a necklace around Patty Duke's neck assumes a bra shape over what her character would call "boobies" midway through one musical number. There is Duke's rollicking performance, which careens from cross-eyed lousy to directly — not just campily — wonderful and back again with a fervor matched only by Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls. There are the tossed-off lines — so true — about how bitchy fags can be, and how booze helps dolls work faster. And finally there is Hayward, marching forward through this stinkin' show, rolling with the below-the-belt punches, with or without a wig, but always with dignity. When Hayward's Helen Lawson declares that you need a "hard core" to survive — you know, shortly after her yapping former understudy has tried one scheme too many — you better believe it. (Johnny Ray Huston)