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Valley of the Dolls: Cinema Classics Collection

Jacqueline Susann's tawdry 1966 novel Valley of the Dolls became a surprise best-seller, smashing the glass ceiling of pre-counter culture prudity and introducing the genre of pulp smut to a mostly female mainstream reading audience that was hungry for more lurid popular fiction. Although the book was decried by critics and lambasted by the guardians of morality, Twentieth Century Fox boldly set about turning the soapy tale of three young starlets and their wayward, drug-soaked, lascivious tangos with fame into an epic motion picture. Barbara Parkins, then of TV's hit melodrama "Peyton Place," stars as Anne Welles, a young woman who leaves her conservative northeastern home town to work at a Manhattan talent agency. She is instantly shocked by show business's coarse behind-the-scenes power-playing and pleads to quit, but she's convinced to stay by her bachelor boss, Lyon (Paul Burke), who has designs on seducing her. Through her work, Anne becomes friends with emerging starlet Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) — who supports her maniacal cravings for fame with a diet of pills ("dolls"), booze, and hissy fits — and with Jennifer (Sharon Tate), a gentle and weak-willed showgirl who is resigned to exploiting her knockout looks and figure despite the toll it takes on her self-esteem. As Anne, Neely, and Jennifer navigate decades of pressures and perils within the entertainment industry, they cover just about every social taboo a Hollywood movie could dare broach in 1967: betrayals, addictions, promiscuities, abortions, rehabs, and suicides (although homosexuality is often mentioned — a rarity — an all-male affair from Susann's book is made hetero in the movie), supplemented by an obligatory heaping of additional drama in the form mental breakdowns, terminal illnesses and all manner of broken hearts.

Adapted by Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley (Susann's screenwriting credit is reportedly only symbolic), the script for Valley of the Dolls is tight for an epic, full of camp, bitchy dialogue that has made it a cult favorite (mostly within gay circles). Director Mark Robson does a magnificent job bringing it to the screen with a rich visual style that perfectly evokes the plot's candy-coated squalor, and he nails nearly every detail (down to the horridly intoxicating songs, most notably Dionne Warwick's mindlessly soul-searching title track) to make Dolls an incredibly rich experience in guilty-pleasuredom. Parkins is terrific as the beleaguered Anne, battling the runaway melodrama with great composure, and she is marvelously balanced by Duke, who chews the scenery with passion as the petulant Neely. Duke, a teen TV star and Oscar-winner for The Miracle Worker, received the brunt of Dolls' criticism for her vigorous performance in a scandalous role, but her Neely is not all ire and brimstone. She manages to attach a tangible vulnerability to her brash, cruel, and spiteful starlet, creating a remarkable performance in whole, culminating in a brilliantly nonsensical alleyway breakdown screaming her own name. Tate, sometimes accused of being too similar to her vapid character, displays surprising warmth and vulnerability as the movie's most tragic figure. Amazingly, Valley of the Dolls works as both overzealous drama and pure, unironic camp, and it's a beautiful work of visual design, especially for a film that was critically panned on its release, with even the bullheaded Susann announcing at the premiere that it was a disaster (nevertheless, like the book before it, it was a major box-office hit). Also with Susan Hayward, Tony Scotti, and Lee Grant (and, in an easy-to-miss early bit part, Richard Dreyfuss).

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Fox presents Valley of the Dolls in a highly impressive two-disc Cinema Classics Collection Special Edition that is sure to excite fans — but it should be noted that, confusingly, some prominent online lists of this DVD set's features are inaccurate (not only does Fox's own online store advertise nonexistent features, the set itself includes URLs to web pages that are broken or missing). The feature is presented in a gorgeous anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with both the original monaural soundtrack and a Dolby 2.0 Surround remix. The movie is accompanied by a commentary track featuring star Parkins and gossip columnist Ted Casablanca, who cribbed his pen name from a character in the film. Parkins enthusiastically embraces the movie and its camp posterity, and she alludes to chilly relationships with most of her co-stars (save Tate), while Casablanca giddily fawns like a true fanboy. The feature can also be viewed with an overlay track of "pill-popping" trivia providing relevant insights. Disc One also contains the new 50-minute featurette "Gotta Get Off this Merry-Go-Round : Sex, Dolls and Showtunes," which offers a good overview of Dolls, its assets, and its cultural context, with in-depth coverage of a popular 1990s L.A. Theatre-a-Go-Go production emphasizing the material's kitsch, and an elaboration on the gay community's fascination with the movie. Still galleries round out the disc.

Disc Two adds significantly to the film with more outstanding featurettes. "The Divine Miss Susann" offers a quick look at Susann's life and cultural influence (14 min.); "The Dish on Dolls" briefly examines the movie's gaffes, cameos, secrets, and spin-offs (5 min.); "Hollywood Backstories: Valley of the Dolls" looks into the book's real-life celebrity inspirations and uncovers the movie's behind-the-scenes feuds and controversies — most notably a shockingly frail Judy Garland's aborted attempt at a comeback (although it mentions rare footage shot of Garland shortly before she was fired, none of that material is included) — and its stars' personal imitations of their art (which features Duke's only interview appearances in this set's coverage) (24 min.). Also fascinating are the "Medicine Chest" archives, which include an amusingly woeful 48-minute 1967 TV special filmed aboard the movie's month-long premiere ocean liner voyage from Venice, Italy, to Hollywood, with famed industry reporter Army Archerd; and the terrific 50-minute 1967 profile "Jacqueline Susann and Valley of the Dolls," offering an in-depth look at the iconoclastic author with extensive footage of Susann discussing herself and her work, and facing off with critics of her racy books; screen tests of Tate, Scotti (with an actress whose face is blurred out — possibly Raquel Welch, who is known to have tested for the role of Jennifer), and Parkins' test for the part of Neely, which she says she wanted before being surprisingly cast as Anne. Also here are three songs from the movie in karaoke versions (Theme song, "It's Impossible," "I'll Plant My Own Tree") plus audio-only recordings of all of the movie's songs and selected score excerpts, as well as TV spots and theatrical trailers reflecting the typically poor state of the art at the time. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case with paperboard sleeve.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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