In the Valley of Oz: Feminism and Really Bad Movies

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Yesterday I watched Valley of the Dolls for the first time.  As a film student at NYU, its one of those movies which is so universally reviled, you simply have to watch it.  And I will say this: it may be awful, but its one of the most consistently awful films of all time. Valley of the Dolls begins abysmally, ends abysmally, and holds onto that abysmal-ness throughout the entire 123 minute running time without ever rising even slightly high enough to obtain any sort of redeeming quality—a feat of Plan 9-proportions which is rarely reached by your average blockbuster bomb. 
The opening sequence fades in with dark hand drawn animation, a brown background with black swirls. The swirls contort until they become thick, bloated black stick figures.  These “people” blend seamlessly with the background while the traditional omniscient narrator orates on “traveling over the mountains to reach the Valley of the Dolls,” introducing the audience through faux-poetical musings to the film’s overarching themes of drug use.   Suddenly, a riot of color enters the previously gloomy picture: the three pills gracelessly morph into Technicolor, shedding black for vibrant shades of pills red, blue and yellow.  They stand erect before tipping over, one by one, and white power comes spilling out of them as the title fades on screen.   The audience doesn’t know it, but director Mark Robson has just lain out everything that will happen in Valley of the Dolls in less then a minute; the colorful nature of drug culture, and how it consumes women foolish enough to fall prey to the seedy underbelly of the bright lights.  The tragedy of Valley of the Dolls is not that Robson exploits the film as a pulpit for obvious, anti-feminist stereotypes; it’s that after this sequence, unfortunately for the viewer, there are still two hours to go.
The only character who escapes the scathing critique of Robson is Barbara Perkins’s Anne—she is the ideal role model for women who think briefly about going after their dreams but instead decide it would be more fulfilling to stay home and devise a quicker meatloaf recipe: her doe-eyes are wide, her hair is brown and shiny, and her acting is just painfully wooden enough to distract from previously said more important attributes.  We’re introduced to her sitting on a train in a painfully plain outfit; her brown dress the unflattering color of a paper bag, her shoulder-length hair hanging unstyled, not a brushstroke of make up on her face.  As Dionne Warwick’s saccharine mezzo-soprano belts pat lyrics about “getting away” and “finding who I am,” one image repeats and lingers that she spies through the Plexiglas: cemeteries, filled with endless identical marble headstones.  For Robson, this image most likely represented the splendid beauty of natural scenery; for feminists, it’s a slap in the face reverberated by the film’s ending, where Anne, burned by Hollywood and a bad, bad man who wanted a physical relationship sans marriage license and white picket fence, decides to pack up dreams of showbiz and retreat back to her quiet, Norman Rockwell town where she will live forever, die there, and be buried in one of her town’s many non-descript cemeteries.  
Forty years later the audience can laugh at this image, because Valley of the Dolls is most assuredly “camp”—a film so bad it’s good, so painstakingly serious that its uproariously hilarious. However, this practice of accidental anti-feminism–subversion via suburbia–was not pioneered by Robson; certainly, if this film is any indicator, the man did not possess enough coherent thoughts to claim ownership of such a potent subject.  It had been done before Valley of the Dolls, and with infinitely more successful results.  The best example resides in # 23 on the American Film Institute’s 2005 list of “100 Years…100 Quotes;” a jury of one thousand critics, historians, and artists voted, and the twenty-third most memorable movie line in the last century of cinema was one of the four quotes from this particular well-renown film to grace the American Film Institute’s list: “There’s no place like home.”
The Wizard of Oz, arguably the most adored family film of the 20th century, is excused from the camp genre because it markets towards children; nevertheless, there are not enough fingers in the world to count upon the campy characteristics of that film.  Dorothy’s sparkling red slippers–possibly the most drag accessory ever committed to celluloid–seem to serve as fodder behind the presence of red in camp. The film also offers a more famous, more well-conceived version of Robson’s Valley of the Dolls ending.
Up until the final montage of The Wizard of Oz, director Victor Flemming seems to contradict all Robson stands for; color is not used here as a formal tool for breeding unease or reminding the audience that DRUGS ARE BAD, but as a manner of cementing the magic of Oz.   Kansas appears in flat black and white, but Oz is a land defined by vibrancies: the deep yellow of the brick, the pastel pink of the poppies, and the thick, rich green of the Emerald City.
Perhaps this insistence on preserving the beauty of Oz makes the ending stand out.  Oz shows Dorothy all the color and intrigue she didn’t dare dream of while trapped in the backyard of a dreary grey farmhouse, yet the bulk of the film revolves around her desire to leave that world and return to Kansas.  “Home” is a black and white farm world lacking in adventure and animation, but Dorothy returns there; forsaking the extraordinary, turning her back on color in favor of drabness, monotony, and routine.      
Aesthetically, The Wizard of Oz is still a brilliant film seventy years later, which is why it is excused the misogynist ending.  Valley of the Dolls cannot cower behind shields of formal elements; it is more unforgivable that Robson banishes Anne to a world of grey, drab granite headstones.  She goes back to the town where the only thing left for her is two kinds of graves; a dull, passionless, colorless existence, and then the welcome break from monotony which death offers. There is no doubt Robson sends this message unintentionally, and implying otherwise gives far too much credit to the man who decided having people dressed to match their pills was a good idea.  What infuriates more is the almost certain knowledge that Flemming, obviously a much savvier man than Robson, did know what he was doing, and did it intentionally: there is no place like home, ladies…so stay there.  And if you could make me a sandwich while you’re at it, that would be swell, honey.
In the end, perhaps Valley of the Dolls succeeds because it fails—and on that same note, perhaps the Wizard of Oz fails because it succeeds.  And if that made sense to you, kudos.  All I know is that a little color never hurt anyone.

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