1995, 131 min.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Valley of the Dolls
1967, 123 min.
Directed by Mark Robson
Oh, this was a night I was dreading and yet was looking forward to. I've been exposed to the classics thus far this summer, but tonight I was to be subjected to classic dreck. This was a shameless trashy double feature, an invite to cinematic train wrecks. Since I was a regular now at The Paramount, I was compelled to see what kind of crowd would show. It promised to be an interesting night.
There was a live show of sorts before the movies. Next door at The State Theatre, there were lessons in "Striptease Aerobics." Abel Sanchez, director of Austin City Showgirls (a Jazz-based dance company), was going to conduct the mini-course along with a couple of his dancers. A small group of eager pupils were present, and it was far more tasteful than anything I was going to see on the big screen for the rest of the evening. Actually, it was playful and good humored. But don't take my word for it. Behold!
So after the laughs were over and the people were sweaty, we all ventured next door. There were many coming through the doors, and everyone seemed to be ready for a craptastic time. Some even came dressed up...
After seriously debating whether to get an alcoholic drink or not, I opted to tackle Showgirls sober. This decision was made so that I can try and evaluate the film objectively. But oh, how I know that a drink might actually make this movie enjoyable. Nevertheless, up the stairs I went and settled into my seat.
Oh! I have a confession to make. This would not be my first time to see this movie in theaters. In fact, I saw Showgirls during its original theatrical run. Don't judge. I was an undergrad at UT Austin, and remember seeing it opening weekend at the Dobie Theater. It was one of the most uncomfortable movie experiences ever. There wasn't a single female in the sold-out theater that night. The sleazy smell of desperate testosterone hung in the air like Drakkar Noir (remember, it was 1995 after all). I wanted to place napkins on my seat before I sat down, the way some people place toilet paper on a public commode. It was the kind of event that Travis Bickle would've taken a date to.
Why did I ever go to see this, you ask? Two reasons.
1. I was a pretty big Verhoeven fan back then.
In 1987, I was just going into junior high school when I saw RoboCop for the first time (theatrically, I might add). Oh, how ratings were more relaxed back then. No one under 17 admitted without a guardian, the rules said. Oh, you have money? Come on in, good sir. And you know what? I loved it. Total Recall was also gory sci-fi fun in 1990. Oddly, to this day, I have yet to see Basic Instinct. In later years, I grew to be lukewarm towards Starship Troopers and ambivalent towards Hollow Man. But as of 1995, I was all about the Verhoeven. That crazy Dutch bastard was guaranteed to be a fun time at the cinema. Or so I thought.
2. Sheer morbid curiosity.
Remember that the NC-17 as a rating was established in 1990 for mature content films, replacing the X rating that most people came to associate with pornography. Regardless of what you name it, however, the fact remains that most media outlets won't advertise an NC-17 movie, and few video rental chains would even carry such titles. NC-17 was considered the kiss of death for films from a business standpoint. Showgirls bucked the trend by becoming the widest release of an NC-17 movie (over 1300 screens. By a major studio, no less). It was a ballsy move by MGM (who at the time was staving off bankruptcy), releasing a sexploitation movie when the likes of such cinema hadn't been made since the 1970s. It was a heck of a gamble. I felt oblligated to reward such a studio, but I was dead wrong to do so. It was a moment of reckoning, and was the single event that made sure I stayed on the straight and narrow. After that 1995 screening, I took a brutal shower (Silkwood-style) and decided then and there to not see a movie for "sheer curiosity" ever again.
Sitting there, wondering how this viewing of debauchery would unfold fifteen years later, I received one more treat before the trash. A cartoon! Daffy Duck in "Boobs in the Woods." Heh heh heh, boobs (a la Beavis & Butthead). Oh God, I'm regressing already!
The cartoon faded out, and the... um, movie... began. I will try to be succinct in my discussion and also objective.
Showgirls is pretty damn bad. However, it's distinctive from other bad movies in one significant way. It's not trying to be a good movie, but it is "made" very well. From a technical aspect, it's up there with big-budget showcases. Verhoeven is in fine form in his kitchen. All of the craftsmanship is present, but the dish is designed to be inedible. It's like if Wolfgang Puck decided to make the finest, most delectable cup of Ramen Noodles mankind has ever seen.
So what makes it bad then? What's the magic formula?
My test was this. If the sound was cut off, it could've been more palatable. One could just watch the spectacle of the production and have a mildly entertaining time doing so. But the dialogue is so atrocious and the story so stupid that the main reason for its awfulness must be... the screenplay.
Simply put, this is probably the worst script that ever got greenlit into production. Seriously, it's garbage. Wait, did Ed Wood write his own scripts? He did? Well, this is still miles worse. Writer Joe Eszterhas must have written this on a dare. That's the only excuse I can come up with as why this was created. It's so cynical and misogynistic that it defies logic. This from the man who wrote Flashdance, Basic Instinct, Sliver, and Jade. What a body of work that is, lemme tell ya. The only redeeming quality of Showgirls is that many lines are laughably bad. The dialogue has no other purpose but to make you gasp and guffaw. Most of the "best" ones I am unable to publish here (I try to keep it clean. You know, for kids.), but how about these:
"I don't know how good you are, darlin', and I don't know what it is you're good at, but if it's at the Cheetah, it's not dancing, I know that much."
"I got towels."
"Now wait a minute. Listen, just listen. Man you've got more talent when you dance than anybody I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot of dancers. I studied at New York. You burn when you dance."
"What is he? A pimp? Only people I know got pimp cars are pimps."
"He's the entertainment director."
"That's exactly what I said - he's a pimp!"
"I've had dog food."
"Mmm-hmmm. Long time ago. Doggy Chow. I used to love Doggy Chow."
"I used to love Doggy Chow, too!"
Perhaps it was all just a joke. Maybe Verhoeven and Eszterhas pitched the story on a whim, thinking the near-bankrupt studio would never in a million years approve such a thing. They likely went in giggling like school girls at the prospect, only to leave the meeting horrified that they actually now had to make the thing. "Good lord," they must have thought. "Who will we ever get to play the lead in this piece of crap?"
Enter Elizabeth Berkley.
I know most people my age know her from "Saved by the Bell," but not yours truly. I've never seen one episode of that show, so I only know of her because of this movie. Now, if you were an actress, would you want this to be your signature role? Didn't think so.
And yet, she's the other half of the equation in the Showgirls theorem of awful movie making. The combination of this screenplay and her acting are the very Lennon and McCartney of terribleness. It's like a binary star system incapable of sustaining life. I'm almost in awe of what I was witnessing. I can't believe a crappy combo like this will resurface for at least 80 years. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event. One doesn't have to be a genius to see how utterly bad her acting is in this. She has that "deer in the highlights" look throughout the movie, even as she [BEEPS] people or tells them to [BEEP] off.
It's sad that she appears to be the only person in the movie not in on the joke. Everything is in orbit around her in this film, yet not because of gravity or star power. It's simply because she sucks. Every other performance is tongue-in-cheek but hers. Even Kyle MacLaughlan doesn't take it too seriously, but then again he was in "Twin Peaks" already. He was used to the bizarre nature (Heh heh heh, I said "twin peaks"). Sadly, Berkley's acting is a standout in this cornucopia of crap. Perhaps a rocket scientist can explain to me why she thought this was the appropriate vehicle to launch a movie career after "Saved by the Bell." It was a foolish career move, and it didn't help that she's terrible.
So there. Screenplay + Berkley - Dignity = turd. Q.E.D.
Good lord, I've never seen so many boobies look so unsexy. There is nothing arousing at all about he film. The gratuitous nudity is boring,and the lone sex scene is just [BEEP]ing ridiculous. Literally. The only thing I gained from this movie in 1995 was a mild obsession with Gina Gershon in the 1990s. More because of Bound than this, I mean. What? You haven't seen Bound? Do yourself a favor and watch that movie instead of this one. Trust me. It's hawwwt.
I'll be honest, though. It was campy fun to watch this time. The crowd made all the difference. Everyone laughed at the sheer stupidity of it all. Hell, what more can you do?
No one in the theater waited for the credits to end before going back to the bar for refills. Next up was Valley of the Dolls, a film I had never seen before. In the lobby there was a special treat for those viewing part two of the feature. Was it a clever tie-in with the second film? Or simply a reward for surviving through the first one? Ushers were handing out pill bottles (with candy inside) to everyone with custom prescription labels on them.
Knowing the film centered on drug use, I thought these little guys were a nice touch. Actually, I thought it was très awesome. I popped a couple in my mouth. Yep, they were Good & Plenty candies. It cleansed the palette, so to speak.
Before the second part of the trashy twin bill, there was another cartoon. Yay! More Daffy Duck in "Cracked Quack."
Valley of the Dolls is bad in an entirely different way from Showgirls. This is a melodrama of the highest order, and if it's not your thing you will struggle to stay interested (like me). The first 40 minutes or so were excruciatingly boring. A few times I felt sedated myself, and wondered if that was in fact Good & Plenty licorice I consumed earlier.
The story is about three women who meet during the production of a play, then rise to fame in different ways. There's Anne Welles (Barbara Perkins), an agency's assistant who later stumbles into modeling. Oh, of course, right? Another is Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), a blonde actress who gets cast because of her body instead of her body of work. And then there's Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) a plucky singer/actress who rises to become a star and a self-destructive ass.
This is garbage of the "trashy summer novel" variety. You know, those paperbacks you see in the checkout lane at Wal-Mart or at an airport next to the $8 bottled water. Books our moms may well have read. Do I even have to mention that this was based on a best seller? Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel wrote bestsellers also, but that doesn't speak for the quality of such work.
Valley of the Dolls is like a movie produced by the head executive at the E! television network. It's very much like watching one of those "True Hollywood Stories," only it's more dull. The first hour or so of this movie is sooooo boring, I actually felt my head fall forward from drowsiness. The knee-jerk reaction to my head nod woke me up (Inception was right, folks), yet I found my reward was only to keep watching this elongated soap opera. It was all worth it for the setup of the second half, where the campiness kicks into a higher orbit and... everything. becomes. so. damn. dramatic!
The dominoes fall fast and hard in the second half, interlaced with people barking spiteful and bitchy remarks to one another. Consider these:
"They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I've got a man waiting for me. "
"That little whore makes me feel nine feet tall!"
"I don't need it - I don't need ANYBODY. I got talent, Edward. BIG talent. They love me."
All the catty acting is delivered with the subtlety of a Mexican soap opera. Perkins is the most restrained out of the trio, but she has the most normal character arc. Sharon Tate's character didn't get to do much but feel sorry for herself, but I kept thinking of Tate's horrific real life fate and felt sorry for her as a person. She was quite beautiful, after all. I wonder what she might have done with higher-quality material as her career would've continued. But there is no question who the "star" of Valley was. The premium scene-chomper in this picture was Patty Duke.
As Neely, Duke starts as being bubbly and cute, but by the end you want her to overdose on her precious little pills (referred to in the movie as "dolls," hence the title). Ok, I realize that just sounds cruel but her character is really that hateful, and Duke is so damn whiny and screechy you just wish for anything to shut her up. Watching this, I couldn't believe the woman has an Oscar. There really should be a law where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can take back an Oscar if such terrible performances taint the award's legacy. If so, I recommend Patty Duke give up the gold for starters (but I'm also looking at you, Cuba Gooding Jr.).
Everyone's lives seem to become undone by the "dolls," and the film thankfully provides bleak endings for the self-absorbed characters. I'm not one to drink of "haterade," but I'm not one to obsess over celebrity dirty laundry, be they real or fictional. I just wanted them to pay for being a part of such a crap film.
There was one shining experience about watching the movie, however. As the movie progressed, it turned into a regular Mystery Science Theater kind of affair. It was like playing a drinking game in a huge auditorium with complete strangers. Whenever a character reached for drugs, the audience started shaking their bottles of pills that were provided (like maracas). It became a chorus of rattling, and the snakes in the audience continued hissing the deplorable characters and spouting venomous laughter at their misfortunes. The enthusiasm was contagious, and made for a good time with bad cinema.
The movie finally ended (have mercy on us, amen), with such a heavy-handed and clumsy moral that one had to be stoned to miss it. The lesson, you ask? One I learned from "South Park" over a decade ago: "Drugs are bad, m'kay?" I know, it should be a no-brainer. But I can think of at least one idiot who would have benefited from watching Valley of the Dolls at a tender age... Ahem. Here's a hint. Look to the left of these words. Ha ha ha, now send her ass to prison already. Then force Ms. Lohan to remake this movie and play all the roles. She should be used to that split screen technology, it was used in The Parent Trap. You know, that movie she made when she was a plucky youngster. Before we wanted her to just go away.
Well, I survived not one, but two affronts to my cinematic tastes. Getting out of the theatre that night was like being released from jail. Time to go home and have a stiff drink. Don't get me wrong, the double feature was entertaining, but not for the films themselves. It was fun because of the camaraderie of going to the movies. Only true film lovers would've braved such a deliberately masochistic time and still come out smiling. What can we say? We love movies. All of them. For better or for worse, til death do us part.