Sunday, July 02, 2006

Valley of the Dolls (1967)

In the mid 1960's, a scathing novel, written by failed actress Jacqueline Suzanne hit the bookshelves and became an instant bestseller. Valley of the Dolls was the story of three young starlets who claw their way to the top in New York City and Hollywood. Along the way, they deal with booze, drugs, (The "Dolls" of the title.) and promiscuous sex. It's actually pretty tame by today's standards, but remember this was the sixties, a time when Barbara Eden couldn't even show her navel on television,so this was really hot stuff.

Of course, as with any trashy bestseller, Hollywood called. Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights and planned on a big budget, splashy extravaganza. They wound up with a big budget splashy disaster.

Instead of casting big movie stars in the principal role, Fox cast not so big television stars. As Anne Welles, the lovely, but cold secretary who becomes a super model, Barbara Parkins, star of the groundbreaking sixties nighttime soap Peyton Place (Easily the "Desperate Housewives" of its time.) was cast. In the role of Neely O'Hara, a Judy Garlandesque singer-actress, Fox cast Patty Duke, an Oscar winning actress, who was better know for playing twin cousins on her own sitcom, "The Patty Duke Show". The other plum role, Jennifer North, a Marilyn Monroe type sex symbol was filled by Sharon Tate, who's biggest claim to fame was a small role on "The Beverly Hillbillies". Helen Lawson, a hard nosed Broadway diva was to be played by the real Judy Garland. By this time, Garland's years of drug and alcohol abuse had left her a haggard, frail mess at the tender age of 45 and she was soon replaced by Hollywood legend Susan Hayward.

Our epic begins with Anne Wells moving from her small New England hometown (We are treated with stills of various little old lady relatives crying as Parkins narrates the details of her departure.) to the Big Bad Apple. Anne lands a job at an entertainment agency and her first assignment is to deliver some contracts to Broadway hag Helen Lawson.

Anne arrives at the theater and hears bit player Neely singing her little heart out. While Lawson is signing the contracts, Anne points out Neely's talent.(Anne must be the only fan of Patty Duke's voice double.) This doesn't sit will with the old bag. She tears up the contract and tells Anne that she'll sign nothing until the agency has Neely fired. ("Tell that sonofabitch to get off his butt and earn his oats.")

Anne decides she's had enough of show business and monsters like Helen Lawson. She decides to quit until she meets young, hunky ladies' man Lyon Burke, played by Paul Burke, a not so young, far from hunky actor. Anne tells Lyon Neely's story and he fells so sorry for her, he books her on a telethon. Neely lipsyncs a lame song by her never known voice double while her beads get tangled in her boobs. (I kid you not.) In the real world, she would have been laughed out of town, but in this bizzarro universe, she may as well have been Barbra Streisand belting out "Don't Rain on My Parade" because she's a huge hit. Soon we treated to a montage of Neely's progress. We get to see Patty Duke wake up. Patty Duke spit out water in the shower. Patty Duke practice scales. Patty Duke's double tap dancing followed by Patty Duke being given pills. (Oh Oh!)

Anne and Neely befriend Jennifer North, a beautiful blonde, who insists she has a lovely body, but no talent. (Ironically, Sharon Tate gives the best performance of the three leads.) On the night of Neely's telethon triumph, the three girls go to a nightclub to see singing sensation Tony Polar.(Tony Scotti, who hasn't been seen or heard from since.) When Tony and Jennifer see each other, it's love at first sight. Alas, there is an obstacle. Tony's domineering sister Miriam (Lee Grant) watches his every move and disapproves of the relationship. Of course in bad movie land, a dried up, bitter spinster can't override young love. Not only do they marry, but Tony's career takes off. He lands a leading role in a big movie musical co-staring now superstar Neely O'Hara.

Even Anne gets a ride on the gravy train. One day, while she's taking dictation, the CEO of Gillian Cosmetics decides that Anne would make the perfect Gillian Girl. Faster than you can say Elizabeth Hurley, Anne is the most famous model in the world.

The action now moves from the East Coast to the West Coast. Just like the sun, our lovelies rise in the east and fall in the west.

Neely is now a temperamental, booze soaked, pill popping mess. She's become a terror to anyone who comes near her. Before long, Mel (Martin Milner) her loving husband leaves her and she takes up with Ted Cassablanca (Alex Davion), an effeminate costume designer who everyone thinks is gay. ("Ted Cassablanca is not a fag, and I'm the dame that can prove it.")One night, a drunk drugged up Neely, wearing only a bra and slip, catches Cassablanca skinny dipping in her pool with another woman.(In Suzanne's novel, it was a young boy.) This gives Patty a chance to really act. She screams like a five year old throwing a tantrum, flails her arms and pours a whole bottle of booze into the pool.

Neely's personal life isn't the only victim of her addiction to Dolls(Pills)and booze. Her career suffers, also. In the tradition of other "stars on the skids", she finds her self in a sleazy skid row bar. Just like the old cliche, one of her hits plays on the juke box. (Just like Susan Hayward in "I'll Cry Tomorrow', Ann Blyth in "The Helen Morgan Story" and countless others.)She announces her identity to the other bar patrons, but no one believes her. (Ever wonder if this happened to Whitney Houston in a crack house?) Eventually, her antics land her in a sanatorium, where Patty gets to emote her way into bad movie history.

Hollywood isn't any nicer to Jennifer and Tony. After one hit film, Tony's career is on the skids.(Think Olivia Newton-John and Grease.) As if that wasn't bad enough, it's soon discovered that Tony has some mysterious, genetic Hollywood disease and has to be institutionalized. Of course Jennifer can't even afford to support herself, much less an invalid husband, so she forced to go to Europe and star in soft core "art" films. (As Neely says, "Nudies! That's all they are! Nudies!") This works out until she discovers that she has breast cancer and has to have a mastectomy. Of course, since this means no one will pay to see her naked anymore, she swallows a handful of pills and kills herself. (I don't understand how this can help her husband.)

A now clean and sober Neely is being released from the santatorium. Lyon gets her a comeback role in a Broadway musical, but that isn't enough for our little Neely. She decides to steal Lyon away from Anne. This pushes Anne over the edge and soon she's popping Nelly's Dolls.

Ann's entire addiction is shown in a five minute montage ending when she throws her pills in the ocean after passing out on the beach.(I guess Patty Duke's histrionics took up so much screen time that poor Barbara Parkins got cheated out of some real acting.) She goes back to her little Peyton Place like hometown.

Even without the dolls, Neely is still a holy terror. The cast of her Broadway show hate her and she gets a younger actress fired. (This is meant to show us that Neely is becoming another Helen Lawson.) Lyon is invited to a party honoring Helen Lawson and Neely crashes it. She and Lawson have a big catfight in the ladies' room and Neely pulls off Helen's red wig, revealing thick, white hair. (Why is she wearing a wig? Doesn't Miss Clarol live in bad movie land?)

Neely's unprofessional antic finally get the best of her. On the opening night of her Broadway show, she so drunk that she puts on the wrong costume and the understudy has to go on in her place. Of course, no bad show business movie would be complete without an understudy becoming a star.(Besides Shirley MacLaine,how often does this happen in real life?) This pushes Neely over the edge and she rolls around in an alley among garbage cans shrieking the names of everyone she's ever know, including herself.

Ann is now happy and clean living in her quaint New England hometown. Lyon pays her a visit and asks her to marry him. She turns him down because she wants to be her own person. (A message well ahead of its time in 1967.) She then trots off into the snow and takes a nice stroll wearing no winter gear. Credits roll.

In some ways, it's scary how prophetic this film really is. Anne Wells quits Hollywood as did Barbara Parkins. Patty Duke, like Neely O'Hara had a nervous breakdown. Jennifer North dies and in real life, Sharon Tate became one of the victims of the brutal Manson Family murders.

What makes this movie bad? Hammy acting, big hair and a lame script. What makes it a bad favorite? Hammy acting, big hair and a lame script.

Watch the cat fight:




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Anonymous said...

Valley of the Dolls is a masterpiece of trash. And Patty Duke's Neely O'Hara is one of the best "bad" performances ever put on celluloid. I've watched it dozens of time and never tire of watching it. The endless quotes from this movie are priceless and the hair and makeup--oh so sixties Glam...

Anonymous said...


matty said...

ah, this is a masterwork.

...boobies, boobies, boobies.

Anonymous said...

I always thought that Sharon Tate's biggest claim to fame was being murdered by the Manson family.

Jayne said...

I tried out for the Jennifer North part, but was too young.