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VALLEY
OF THE
DOLLS

A QUEER DREAMSCAPE

TEXT BY
ANNIE QUEERIES

24.01.22

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Legend has it that the 1967 cult classic Valley of the Dolls spontaneously crystallised when John Waters, Liberace and Quentin Crisp all simultaneously touched the same rhinestoned Gucci loafer at the exact moment Anna Nicole-Smith shimmied from the womb. Ok, while that may not be true, the film adaptation of the best-selling 1966 Jacqueline Susann novel is so delightfully camp, so melodramatic and so very fashion, darling, that it truly is the stuff of gay dreams.

 

The film follows the tumultuous lives of three friends, Anne (Barbara Parkins), Jennifer (Sharon Tate) and Neely (Patty Duke), and their perilous flirtation with the titular ‘dolls’ (aka barbiturates) as they struggle to cope with the pressures of fame, fortune and love. The soapy histrionics combined with the sumptuous 1960’s visuals and the velvety tones of Dionne Warwick singing the film’s theme make Valley positively irresistible to the queer palette.  

 

Granted, the closest this film could have got to an industry award was probably hiring someone called Oscar Buzz to operate the boom mic. The clunky character development and stilted plot progression certainly put the ‘ham’ into ‘hamfisted’.  However, there is nothing more delicious to queers than the ironically iconic.  Those pop culture moments that are equal parts ridiculous and sublime.  Combined with towering coiffure, custom gowns, conceptual art-house montages, wig-based cat fights and behind-the-scenes scandals - the questionable production choices only add to the experience.  

 

Let’s talk about styling.  The 1960’s featured some of the most ground-breaking and experimental fashions of the 20th century and Valley was not shy about leaning bouffant-first into this high-glamour aesthetic.  Sculptural, heavily lacquered tresses, a glowing kiss of Pond’s Angel Face liquid foundation, a peachy pink pout and a sleepy cat eye garnished with a fluttery false lash were the order of the day, every day for each of the gals.  Natural? Low-maintenance? Accessible? Make-up artist Ben Nye and hair stylist Kay Pownell said a resounding ‘nope!’  These characters make the effort and we get to drink in their curated beauty at every opportunity.  Indeed, their hair seems to function as some sort of barometer for professional success; each rung cleared on the ladder results in an exponential expansion of their lustrous manes (a trajectory also exemplified by Lady Bunny’s wigs).  

 

The sumptuous clothing is equally lush.  The film’s leading ladies are dressed in a full wardrobe of custom fashions by the acclaimed designer Travilla, famed for creating many of Marilyn Monroe’s most iconic looks (including that gorgeously diaphanous white dress that proved to be quite a nuisance when standing over air vents). Travilla was said to have designed over one hundred looks for Valley, sixty of which were debuted at a publicity event in the Plaza Hotel, New York, in order to titillate prospective audiences prior to release. The exquisite artistry of the styling department ensures that costuming is not only the primary appeal, but also one of the most effective story-telling tools of this rags-to-riches (and back to rags, for some) tale.  Styling is used to convey the primary character traits that each woman represents; Anne as Little Miss Brains, Neely as Little Miss Talent, and Jennifer as Little Miss Beauty (apparently it is impossible for a woman to possess all three in this particular Valley).  

 

As the smart, shrewd business woman, Anne’s wardrobe is prim and conservative, yet incredibly chic; think gorgeously tailored coats with matching hats, funnel necklines and pastel twin sets. She is comfortable at an executive meeting or an exclusive red-carpet event. In contrast, Neely is a raw, visceral talent, concerned only with the thrill of performance. As a young ingenue, her clothing is playful yet practical; all miniskirts, peddle-pushers and turtlenecks. Once she achieves global fame, she progresses to the high glamour and extravagance befitting a Hollywood starlet - sequinned babydoll dresses swaddled in luxurious furs are de rigueur.  Sadly, at the height of her success, she is so lost in her ‘dolls’ that her $6000 coats are mere afterthoughts; we sense she is being dressed up and trotted out by the studio rather than truly owning her glamour. Finally, Jennifer, the girl who trades on her incredible beauty (but feels she has little else to offer) delivers a seductive combination of stylish sexuality and louche ennui. Played by the beautiful Sharon Tate, Jennifer stylistically steals the show throughout.  With heavily kohl-lined eyes and tumbling golden tresses, she is captivating at all times, whether painting her nails on the floor of her living room, adorned in a strappy, wide-leg jumpsuit, or lounging by the pool of Neely’s Hollywood mansion, decked out in a pink Jackie-O-inspired cover-up that reveals a punchy green bikini top. [Sidebar: It is in this latter outfit that Jennifer delivers one of several casually homophobic lines that are scattered throughout the film,’You know how bitchy fags can be!’... It would be offensive if it weren’t also true.]

 

Next, can we discuss montages?  The camp-o-meter of the film has several shrieking red-alert (pink-alert?) moments, but none more so than Neely’s ‘rise to fame’ sequence and Anne’s iconic advert as the face of Gillian cosmetics.  These are the points in the film that feel like the studio was suddenly stormed by a squealing flamboyance of homosexuals who wreaked divine, sparkling havok on the production. What ensues is a 1960’s high-camp glamour dreamscape, complete with billowing chiffonography next to giant, monolithic artifacts, high-stakes posing practice on enormous trampolines, colourful, ultra-mod graphics and hilariously ‘dynamic’ look books (reminiscent of many of Patsy Stone’s Ab Fab modelling memory sequences).  These segments not only elevate the experience of the production beyond mere feature-length soap-opera, but also give the viewer sweet respite from what threatens to be a rather gloomy theme (unintentional camp aside).

 

Finally, what queer pop-culture treasure is complete without some real-life tragedy rumbling in the background?  The brutal murder of Sharon Tate at the hands of Charles Manson’s cult followers just two years after the film was released is horrific enough. However, queer hearts break to learn that our beloved idol and deity Judy Garland was fired from the film for, you guessed it, her issues with substance abuse.  The irony is just too painful to bear; a legendary talent destroyed by the Hollywood machine, fired from a film about...legendary talents destroyed by the Hollywood machine.  In fact, it was rumoured that Neely’s character was based on Judy herself.  Judy was to play Helen Lawson, a revered and battle-hardened Broadway star who makes a life-long enemy of young Neely when she has her fired from a play for pulling focus. Patty Duke, who plays Neely, later remarked that Judy was incredibly charming and sweet, but terribly mistreated by the production team.  Many theories abound about the circumstances and motivations behind her dismissal, with some believing she was hired to garner publicity for the film then fired when that particular function was filled.  Whatever the truth, Judy may have had the last laugh; she still got paid half her fee, got to keep an extremely fabulous beaded suit from the wardrobe test and escaped a production that, on reflection, was probably rather beneath a Hollywood gem of her calibre.  As further consolation, her replacement, Susan Hayward, is every bit the showbiz grande dame in the role, and delivers one of the most outrageous scenes in the film: when a catfight erupts between her and Neely, Helen finds herself in the unfortunate position of fishing her own wig from a nearby toilet.


Watching Valley is akin to eating a heaping mound of pink candy floss; both deliciously sweet and deeply unsavoury.  A fluffy treat of spun sugar that spikes your insulin and rots your teeth.  Whilst, on paper, the prospect of watching the demise of three talented women at the hands of Hollywood, men and pills sounds heart-wrenching and devastating, the subject is depicted with such a comical lack of depth that the tragedy is rendered mercifully absurd. And there is nothing more fabulous than the bizarre wrapped in glamour.  See you in the Valley, dolls.

This article was featured in Dreaming : The Debut Issue. To see the article in full click here 

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