You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls. It’s a brutal climb to reach that peak. You stand there, waiting for the rush of exhilaration but it doesn’t come. You’re alone, and the feeling of loneliness is overpowering.
With these words begins Valley of the Dolls, a film directed by Mark Robson in 1967. The story follows the wanderings of three young women between Broadway and Hollywood, who will soon fall in love with bad men and, above all, with barbiturates ( beautifully nicknamed “dolls”). A serious introduction, yet surprising considering the profusion of pastel colors, sequins and wigs that seems essential to almost every sequence. One might then quickly believe this piece reserved for chardonnay-addicted housewives… Big mistake.
Under its kitsch and sometimes wobbly realization, Valley of the Dolls challenges the codes of its time and surprisingly echoes ours. Decoding a cult film…
A drama that borders on comedy
Thought like a drama, its overdoing actors and its plot worthy of a soap opera gently switch the film towards melodrama… or even comedy. Pathos, avalanche of clichés, telethon fighting against cystitis… the improbability of certain scenes reaches such a level that one laughs about it. The replicas, daring for the 60s, have the merit of being in the same spirit.
Don’t look for a masterpiece. The temporal ellipses lack clarity, the male protagonists are so similar that it becomes difficult to differentiate them. Too much is king and insults rain down in the dialogues. It’s quite simple: everything is excessive, and that’s precisely where we find our pleasure. A sort of parody that wasn’t meant to be.
Valley of the Dolls… and Sex
One character doesn’t appear to the credits, yet very present: sex. Moreover, it occupies a determining place in the story arcs and the course of events: adultery, abortion, pornography, homosexuality… Topics then little addressed, even less in cinema, here ultimately treated in a modern tone despite some stereotypes.
In that regard, the sex appeal of the film also lies in the heroine Jennifer North, who “doesn’t have any talent but her body”. Incarnated by the sculptural Sharon Tate, this is undoubtedly the most complex character of the picture – beyond what you may think at first – and the best interpreted. The assassination of the actress by the Manson family two years after its release only reinforced the cult around the movie.
A film ahead of its time
Although worn out by the critics, Valley of the Dolls is a public triumph at its release. For the first time, the spectator discovers the darkness around the projectors and the dirt behind the strass. Hollywood, a dream out of reach for the average citizen, would not be so perfect after all? Very quickly, rumour has it about which actor inspired which protagonist. Valley marks the beginning of a common fascination that will only go crescendo, not only for celebrities, but especially for their fall. Our tabloids and TMZ bear witness to this.
Without saying how many years the action spans, the film already deals with the fear of aging – a public health matter nowadays – and the our society’s race for youth. Inevitably, it sends us back to our notion of image and the dependence, right or wrong, that we developed there.
The title thus has several meanings, “the Dolls” certainly referring to the pills, but also to the characters themselves. So, have we turned into Barbies? •