The height of camp, ‘Valley of the Dolls,’ returns to Austin

Just 21 years ago, we wrote the following ode to one of our favorite movies, “Valley of the Dolls, when it appeared at the Paramount Theatre. Ten or so years later, we added commentary when a special showing for Stephen Moser played the original Alamo Drafthouse Cinema on Colorado Street.

On June 21, “V.O.D.” returns again, this time for a LGBTQ benefit at the Austin Film Society Cinema in the Linc. Don’t miss the 6 p.m. cocktail party or the 7:30 p.m. screening. You want a stiff drink before you see it. Benefits the Kind ClinicTickets here.


Rereading the 1997 article, it’s especially interesting to see what people thought were camp in 1967, when the show-biz movie came out, and what was considered camp in 1997 (see below). Do not fail to take the quiz at the end.

This ran in the American-Statesman in 1997:

Oscar Wilde. Joan Crawford. “The Wizard of Oz.”

Camp, that stylized, comic view of culture inspired by capricious fashion, nevertheless has fostered some indestructible icons. The range of campy relics runs from great art, such as Wilde’s comedies of language and manners, to great kitsch, like the Las Vegas groaner ``Showgirls.”

In 1967, the famously bad movie “Valley of the Dolls,” based on Jacqueline Susann‘s torrid best seller, earned instant camp status.

It has not gone away.

Thirty years later, k.d. lang has recorded the theme to “Valley of the Dolls,” the Los Angeles County Museum is showing “V.O.D.” as a cultural artifact and The New York Times reports surging interest in Susann, including parties and pageants devoted to the trash author.

Susann’s backstage saga about four women whose “appetite for life was greater than their capacity for living” was extravagant, artificial, mannered — elements related to the difficult-to-define camp sensibility.

“Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment,” wrote Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp.” “It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. In clothing and interior decor, camp is when you are pushing the sensibility to the absurd.”

Not all camp revives outdated fashions, as in the current trend of adapting old corporate logos and advertising. The movie and book of “Valley of the Dolls,” for instance, joined the ready-made camp parade of the ’60s that included the TV series “Batman,” singer Nancy Sinatra and the fashions of Carnaby Street. (“Batman” was campy in a premeditated way; the other two were transformed in a flash.)

The movie of “V.O.D’ coyly depicts abuse of sex and drugs in show business. It was massacred by the critics and destroyed several acting careers, but it also spawned thousands of midnight showings for lovers of celluloid trash.

The film’s producers did not intend it that way.

Classy Andre Previn and his then-wife, Dory, composed the songs for “Valley of the Dolls,” John Williams scored them and pop singer Dionne Warwick — now experiencing a mini revival because of “My Best Friend’s Wedding” — recorded the omnipresent theme song. Serious, if in this case melodramatic actors, Patty Duke and Susan Hayward played key “V.O.D.” characters based on the trials and temperaments of Judy Garland and Ethel Merman.

Meant for greatness, it became pure camp, as Sontag defined it. “The pure examples of camp are unintentional; they are dead-serious,” she wrote.

Lovers of the movie have fanned the flame for years.

“For all those millions who thought they might go into show business, `V.O.D’ was the inside track on what it was really like,” said Austin Musical Theatre director Scott Thompson, who plans to see the movieat the Paramount. “As campy as it is, some of it rings true. Really nasty bitches who will throw you out of the show if you are too good. Major stars get through performances on whatever substances are available at the moment.”

Just as lines from the later pure-camp movie “Showgirls” have entered the popular vocabulary, sentences from “Valley of the Dolls” are mimicked for emphasis at theatrical parties:

“You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.” (Delivered with mock calm.)

“So you come crawling back to Broadway … well Broadway doesn’t go for booze and pills.” (Mouth twisted into a Brooklyn accent.)

“Neeeelyyyy O’haaaaraaaa!!!!” (Screamed at top volume.)

Why would people quote regularly from a bad movie?

Perhaps because camp expressions add color to the ordinary, Sontag suggested. Campiness answers a cultural need to simulate and critique mainstream culture, simultaneously.

As Sontag put it, “(Camp) is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”

CAMP ’67 vs. CAMP ’97

1.Tiffany lamps vs. vinyl lamps from the ’70s

  1. “Batman” (TV series) vs. “AbFab”
  2. Novels of Ronald Firbank vs. Novels of Jackie Collins
  3. Hollywood art deco diners vs. Kon Tiki interiors
  4. Aubrey Beardsley drawings vs. Pat Nagel prints
  5. “Swan Lake”vs. “Riverdance”
  6. Bellini’s operas vs. sitcom spin-offs like “Phyllis”
  7. women’s clothing from the ’20s vs. women’s clothing from the ’70s
  8. Nancy Sinatra vs. RuPaul (but few other drag queens)
  9. old Flash Gordon comics vs. people dressed as corporate mascots
  10. “Queen for a Day” vs. “Talk Soup”
  11. hot Dr Pepper with lemon vs. Tab or Fresca
  12. “To Sir With Love” vs. “Grease” (the movie)
  13. “VALLEY OF THE DOLLS’ vs. “VALLEY OF THE DOLLS”

Valley of the Dolls Trivia Quiz

“You’ve got to climb _____ to reach the Valley of the Dolls”

a) every mountain

b) Sharon Tate

c) Mount Everest

What does Neely (Patty Duke) take to survive the training/rehearsal montage?

a) the A train

b) hot Dr Pepper with lemon

c) lots of “dolls,” i.e., amphetamines and barbiturates

Whose career was not ruined by — or soon after — the making of “V.O.D.?”

a) Patty Duke (OK, so 20 years later, she rebounded)

b) Sharon Tate (Manson’s gang murdered the beauty)

c) Barbara Parkins (frankly, she never had a career)

Which future Academy Award winner appears in a “V.O.D” bit part?

a) Ben Kingsley as the pool cleaner

b) George C. Scott as a drug pusher in drag

c) Richard Dreyfuss as a stagehand at Neely’s disastrous “comeback”

This is onstage while Helen (Susan Hayward) sings “I’ll Plant My Own Tree.”

a) a stately oak

b) a throbbing acorn

c) a giant, plastic mobile that defies the laws of physics

Demure Ann, played by Barbara Parkins, becomes _____.

a) “the It Girl”

b) “That Girl”

c) “the Gillian Girl,” patterned after “the Breck Girl”

Where do we hear a maudlin performance of “Come Live With Me,” one of several camp classics composed by Dory and Andre Previn for this film?

a) a women’s restroom, crooned to Helen’s flushed wig

b) on the beach, with surf rushing through Ann’s hair

c) a sanitarium that serves both a mortally ill singer and Neely in rehab

What does Jennifer (Sharon Tate) do to please her mother?

a)  bust exercises

b) send homethe profits from her French “art” films

c) both a and b

What sound effect is heard when Neely, in a climactic alley scene, screeches “Neeeelyyyy O’haaaaraaaa!!!!”?

a) Munchkins giggling

b) the sound of two hands clapping

c) church bells

What do critics call the “V.O.D.” for the ’90s?

a) “Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls” (1981 television movie)

b) any USA Channel made-for-cable movie

c) “Showgirls” (“I’m a dancer!”)

(The answer to all the above questions is “C.”)