When a Movie Is So Bad It’s Good

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Publicity photo for “Valley of The Dolls.” Courtesy 20th Century Fox

By Megan Bianco

What makes a bad movie go from being just another mediocre output from Hollywood, to a cult classic with a long lasting following?

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In 1967, the greatest year in pop-culture history, 20th Century Fox released their campy adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s best-selling melodrama Valley of the Dolls. Susann, who was quite the socialite on top of being a successful writer, had wished that legends like Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland and Robert Redford would headline the glamorous movie in her head.

Instead Fox cut the budget and hired a group of B-list/C-list actors, TV starlets Barbara Parkins and Sharon Tate, and two Oscar winners, Patty Duke and Susan Hayward. Add a tyrannical director (Mark Robson), a sappy music score and soundtrack by Andre & Dory Previn and John Williams, and hip costumes by Travilla, and you get one soapy, over-the-top flop. Valley of the Dolls is an infamous classic for all the wrong reasons.

The songs are forgettable (“I’ll Plant My Own Tree,” “It’s Impossible”), the dialogue is not good (“At night, all cats are grey,” “Who’s stoned?! I’m merely traveling incognito!”), the direction comes across as amateur, and the performances range from decent to terrible (particularly Duke). The film that was supposed to essentially be the film industry equivalent of All About Eve (1950), instead was the biggest unintentional comedy of the year.

When the film was eventually released, everyone involved instantly became embarrassed or disowned it—Susann famously calling it a ‘piece of sh*t’ right after the premiere. But the biggest surprise was that a fanbase grew anyway, especially within the gay community. Though critics have always mocked the final product, the movie did do pretty well at the box-office.

Williams also nabbed his first of many Oscar nominations and Tate was named the next big star in Hollywood. Tate is another big reason the film is remembered, as it sadly ended up being her biggest achievement before her tragic, premature death in 1969. Over the years, Duke and Parkins embraced the cult status of Dolls, although not without throwing Robson under the bus for regularly belittling Tate and fighting with Duke. “The meanest son-of-a-b*tch I’ve ever met in my life,” Duke called Robson during a 2009 Q&A with Bruce Vilanch.

Seeing the ironic fan potential from the original, Fox then greenlit the sequel Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), upped all the ridiculousness by hiring even cheaper actors and exploitation filmmaker Russ Meyer to show that everyone was now in on the joke. Instead of a model and two actresses getting hooked on pills in Hollywood, it’s an all-girl pop band that gets involved with the wrong hippies. “It’s my happening baby, and it freaks me out!”

In 1995, Paul Verhoeven contributed his own accidental cult hit with Showgirls starring Elizabeth Berkeley, Gina Gershon and Kyle MacLachlan about the seedy strip club scene in Las Vegas.

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But what makes movies like Valley of the Dolls and Showgirls remembered years later, and offensive schlock like Myra Breckinridge (1970) rightfully forgotten? I think MacLachlan’s comments from a 2012 AV Club interview on Showgirls’ “legacy” explains it best: “Now, of course, it has a whole other life as a sort of inadvertent…satire. No, ‘satire’ isn’t the right word. But it’s inadvertently funny. So it’s found its place. It provides entertainment, though not in the way I think it was originally intended. It was just…maybe the wrong material with the wrong director and the wrong cast.”


Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.

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