What becomes a legend most, you ask? The notorious “C” word. Camp!
No, not the kind of camp that makes heterosexual males pump their fists at the mere thought of shitting in the woods with only a handful of grass as a follow-up. Rather the camp we’re talking about is the kind that plucks at the heart strings of a certain persuasion of the population when they hear the rumble of timpani and a booming voice-over, “You’ve read the book, now see the movie..!”
And if there’s a Cartier-bedecked broad who wisecracks out of the lower corner of her mouth while puffing on a smoke? Jackpot!
And if the cast is strutting about in chinchilla, mink, or sable? Powerball!
And if the picture is aurally wreathed with a theme song swelling with more than twenty stringed instruments during the heroine’s lovestruck decline, or crashing cymbals during a self-destructive death spiral? Now that’s beyond: That’s Camp!
True camp rises above being merely an entertaining divertissement of its time, and becomes a classic with repeated viewings. Many have tried and many have failed at creating camp for camp’s sake. That’s right, Lindsay Wagner, you and your Scruples can stay buried in the 99 cent bin at Kmart, while others have effortlessly attained Black Diamond Card status. Margo, Eve, Norma meet the troika of beauty: Anne, Neely, and Jennifer from Valley of the Dolls.
For years, permanent bachelors cut their teeth on the likes of All About Eve and Sunset Blvd, while their pre-MTV homosexual brethren cut theirs on The Other Side Of Midnight and Mommie Dearest. The next generation of gays with their new-car smell cut their blindingly brightened teeth on Showgirls and Glitter — the latter for which I’m truly, truly sorry.
But it’s the camp classic Valley of the Dolls that is hands-down the Westminster pick of the litter among all those other bitches. This 1967 box-office smash takes a Halon extinguisher to the firewall between camp and art, and not only legitimizes camp, but raises it to an art form.
Call the movie a national disaster or a national treasure, and you’ll probably be right. Is Patty Duke’s performance immortalized brilliance or simply puke-inducing pulp? Cinephiles view it as an over-the-top, horribly acted, terribly directed trash fest. While others view it as an — eh hem — over-the-top, horribly acted, terribly directed trash fest. Just as gonorrhea is resistant to the antibiotic cephalosporin, this cinematic VD has proven immune to the common sense criticism of both critics and naysayers alike. Indeed, the flick’s popularity continues to thrive forty-five years later and it seems that, not unlike Celine’s heart, it will go on.
20th Century Fox spared no expense bringing this potboiler of Hollywood pill-poppers (“dolls”) to the big screen. No expense whatsoever except when it came to writing the script, directing, and casting. Where script writers Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley floundered, costume designer Travilla, along with Hollywood’s most famous hair dresser Kenneth (and Kay Pownall), and music composers André and Dory Previn made the movie a paradigm of unadulterated style over substance, essentially filling in the gaping potholes of plausibility with sacks full of blinding glitter.
The wig budget alone trumped one of the main star’s (Barbara Parkins) salary at $25,000 for hair to $20,000 for Parkins “performance.” In the wigs’ defense, however, the hairpieces actually managed to turn in a far more riveting star turn than Parkins was capable of doing. (Bless her heart.)
The movie, a fashion zeitgeist of the mod 1960s, ushered in the three defining Gaycons of camptitude with its main stars. First is the frosted-lipped, Glamour Length Lash’d super model Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins), then the Hollywood tough-as-acrylic-nails superstar Neely O’Hara played by Patty Duke, and finally the spectacularly beautiful and spectacularly talent-free Jennifer North (Sharon Tate).
Valley of the Dolls is a wild amusement park ride that spits you out at the front door of the fashion funhouse. It’s inhabited by three pill-popping, gorgeous creatures of vanity whose addiction to dope and booze pales in comparison to the most insipid cadre of cardboard Don Drapers to ever don a Brooks Brothers suit. The glamazons may know cheeky fashion, high hair, waterproof mascara and their “uppers” from their “downers,” but they don’t know the first thing about picking a decent guy. Everything is shown in Lewis Carroll-esque distortion: from oversized egos exceeded only by the girth of their oversized hairdos and high-definition histrionics while frolicking and tripping in a land where happy amps euphoric, and perturbed booms into full-on bottle-throwing rage — and all these glorious high jinks and more (!) are brought to you in living Technicolor.
Peyton Place refugee Barbara Parkins’s striking beauty in the role of Anne, good girl turned fashion model made her an actual religion in some circles of gay pop culture. Parkins, as Anne, Amtraks her way out of a provincial Massachusetts postcard right into a million-dollar modeling contract faster than you can hurl a cocktail glass at a vanity mirror.
The movie becomes a cautionary tale and inspiration for gay ten-year-old boys, and the girls who loved them. Parkins’s character pretty much said that if you have cheekbones carved from Stonehenge, screw riding the bus to school, just blow your lunch money on a train ticket to New York and live off your looks. And before you can say Amber Alert, you’ll be a raven-haired beauty in chiffon swirling around a pole in slow motion. Elizabeth Berkley be damned, Barbara made pole dancing high art (sans tips, no less).
Of the three stars, Parkins comes off the best simply because she is required to do the least. At most, she’s called upon to be an Aquanet enthusiast. Where Patty goes nuclear, Parkins goes comatose. Every now and then when Dionne Warwick starts to sing the theme song from behind the last row of seats on Amtrak, or in a helicopter above the beach, or behind a tree in the snowy woods, Parkins valiantly tries to slip some sort of emotion on her face, but unlike her perfectly constructed haute couture, it just doesn’t fit. For the doe-eyed beauty Blackglama and Maybeline supplant acting and for Parkins that’s exactly as it should be.
Sharon Tate, the original femme fatale in more ways than one, plays Jennifer. She makes being gorgeous a Gold Medal Olympic sport. With her magnificently painted eyelids and tarantula-like eyelashes, Tate comes across as a stumbling innocent Bambi trying to find her way out of this movie. Patty Duke claims that director Mark Robson was brutal on the set to all the actresses and that Tate received the brunt of his abuse. He’s never crueler to her or to the gay community as when he has her trading in her stunning Travilla creations of beaded gowns or shimmering mini-skirts to show skin on screen. The fashion industry should have started an “It Gets Better” campaign against Robson for fashion abuse and neglect.
Finally the prized jewel in the picture’s crown is the accidental Gaycon herself, Oscar-winner Patty Duke in the Molotov cocktail role of Neely O’Hara. Her Black Swan transformation from sweet, chirpy chorine into a five-foot-nothing sequined terrorist of a superstar drives the movie in all the right directions. Duke made no bones about the fact that this role was her “second Oscar just waiting to happen” and this little cannon ball on steroids was not going to be upstaged by a movie that brought attention to its own ineptitude.
Every time director Robson yelled “action!” Duke goes for the nomination like a blood-thirsty carnivore let loose for the first time on Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. In one of the catfight highlights (click here for video snippet plus theme song) of the film, Duke goes full-throttle costumed in Charmin white while her tiny is head topped with a twenty-pound behemoth hairpiece. And when the scene is done, one is left wondering if the coiffure construction workers wanted to snap her neck and put the production out of its misery so they could all go home.
America’s favorite identical cousin shows why she gained thirty pounds making this film. Her performance frequently went from soft daisy-picking sweetness to Hiroshima in a fraction of a second. Craft Service expenditures were wasted on Ms. Duke, as she pushed over the food cars and simply ate the entire set. Contrary to popular urban legend, Judy Garland (who auditioned for the role that went to Susan Hayward) was not fired from this production; rather she was actually eaten alive with the rest of the scenery by Duke. Many of the film’s aficionados agree, however, that whenever Duke is not on screen, it feels as though someone pulled the plug.
Drum roll! Clap of thunder! Lighting strikes! And now for the pièce de résistance: Grande dame Susan Hayward as the Broadway barracuda Helen “that’s me, baby! Rememba?” Lawson. Like Duke, she too has a hard-on for scenery chewing — up in the fly spaces, down in the basement, between the glory holes, you name it. This Oscar-winner serves up so much Honey Baked Ham that rather than draping her in gold beaded pants suits, it seems she’d be better swathed in Swiss cheese and pumpernickel. The powder room catfight scene (see link above) between Hayward and Duke is camp to the tenth power. Just as Prometheus brought fire to modern man, these actresses bequeathed electrifying catfights to the modern gay world. In the aforementioned scene, Robson bully directs the two Oscar winners beyond the realm of the absurd. Both actresses, speaking in vocal registers far below their comfort zones, end up sounding like Barry White and Isaac Hayes fighting for the last parking space for their flatbeds off Interstate 75. Cut! Print!
Explaining the gay community’s love of this film is easier than explaining Kim Bassinger’s Oscar win, and for the latter I am truly, truly sorry. All the things that critics say are wrong with the film are all the things that make it so right. All the things that a certain segment of society says are wrong about being gay, are all the things that make being gay so right. The two survive and sparkle despite their detractors. Valley of the Dolls and the gay community have been in a committed relationship for over four decades. For many, it sometimes borders on co-dependency. The film can’t exist without the gays and gay pop culture’s style sensibilities are eternally indebted to this camp classic.
Without Patty Duke’s spastic dancing in the telethon number where she sings “It’s Impossible,” Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes would have never become a “dancing” sensation. Without Kenneth’s coiffure wizardly on Barbara Parkins, would Drew Barrymore have ever discovered the joys of a teasing comb? Most importantly, without studying Susan Hayward for hours on end, would Samuel L. Mothafuckin’ Jackson ever have learned to carry himself like a proud, strong black man? I certainly doubt it.
Ultimately, the lovers of this gold standard for camp enjoy it and take it for what it is. It’s the quintessential glamour manifesto for looking fabulous while dealing with the sometimes self-inflicted, high dramas of life. And dealing with them in Panavision, a melancholic theme song, and if you happen to own one, a mink coat — well, that sure as hell helps.
The mother of self promotion and Valley of the Dolls author herself, Jacqueline Susann, would have been a much happier “camper” (If you will. You will, won’t you?) if she’d followed her own written advice. Hollywood turned her Citizen Kane dreams into Dramamine wishes upon viewing the movie’s final cut. Rather than blaming Patty Duke for the lion’s share of the movie’s perceived failings, as she did, the scribe should have clamped on her best Harry Winstons, noosed her neck in ermine, and puffed on a smoke while talking out of the lower corner of her mouth, and said to her critics, — all the Gore Vidals and the Judith Crists of the world, “Take two dolls and praise me in the morning.”