Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Playing with Dolls

Even from the top of Mt. Everest, Patty Duke can be heard screaming out to God in her final monologue of this monumental camp epic, the likes of which will never be seen again.

Based (a little bit too loosely for my taste) on Jacqueline Susann's ground breaking, incredibly successful, roman a clef novel, Valley of the Dolls concerns three young ladies who wind up in Hollywood and are plagued with a variety of temptations and problems.

Barbara Parkins is Anne, a naive, classy secretary to a New York talent agent who is eventually selected to be the face of a major cosmetics ad campaign and swept into a whole new life.

Patty Duke is Neely, an earnest, talented singer who rebounds from being fired from a Broadway show by its jealous leading lady (Susan Hayward) to become a major film and recording star. Encouraged to slim down and “sparkle,” she has trouble staying on top of it all and progresses through the movie into a selfish gorgon even worse than the one who fired her.

Sharon Tate is Jennifer, a strikingly beautiful performer who can only rely on her face and body to carry her career. When her husband comes down with a mysterious illness, she finds that she has to rely on that and more.

Susann's novel (written with, in many cases, personal experiences of her own and those she knew as an aspiring actress in real life) was a vivid, sensational, yet realistic, account of showbiz heaven and hell spanning a couple of decades. The film manages to cram all the events into present day, with as many of the story elements that could pass censorial muster in 1967 being played out against a palette of insane 60s fashions, hairstyles, sets, musical numbers and artfully handled love scenes and montages. The alternately straight-faced and over-the-top acting of the participants, mixed with the over-ladled glitz and mod trappings have turned this into a cult sensation that few other films can attempt to reach. Scene after jaw-dropping scene features unforgettably trashy or funny dialogue delivered by actresses attempting to overcome the endless parade of hairpieces, false eyelashes and kicky costumes.

Parkins gives the most understated (some might say somnambulant) performance. Her satin voice and built-in elegance go a long way in making her the audience's tour guide through the cesspool of show business. Her psychedelic Gillian Girl commercials rank high in the annals of gay camp.

Duke was crucified for her relentlessly passionate work here. She starts out reasonably subtle, but soon turns into a raging, sour-faced shrew whose drunken, pill-laden ravings have become the stuff of comic legend. No one on earth could scream the way she does in her final scene. Despite the horrendous scenery chewing, her incredibly larger-than-life performance does contain some memorable, even fine, work within it. She does become upstaged just once when her beaded necklace decides to play havoc with her chest during a telethon scene!

Tate (one of Hollywood's most tragic figures ever, thanks to her savage murder a couple of years after this film) is surreally beautiful. Her voice lacks training (and certainly her lines are often hideous), but she is still able to imbue her character with likeability and pathos. Her final moments in this film are a thing of beauty, but she's stunning throughout as well.

In an odd bit of trivia, there is not one scene in the film with all three girls interacting! They appear in one still photograph and have one scene in the same large room, but never as a threesome.

The men of the film couldn't be more disposable. Paul Burke, while an okay actor in some roles, is horribly miscast as an irresistible ladies man. Tony Scotti is repellently smarmy and sings off-key through his nose. He and Duke share one of the all-time loony moments in a sanitarium when he, wheelchair-bound, hears her singing one of his old numbers and temporarily emerges from a vegetative state to duet with her and then immediately regresses! Martin Milner is solid, but can't begin to carve out any focus for himself amidst Duke's hypnotic snarling. Alexander Davion, likewise, has trouble filling in his sketchy role thanks to the switching of it from gay to straight.

Buried in the cast is Lee Grant as Scotti's rabidly overprotective sister. She frets and fusses with a hysterical intensity that overpowers such stellar, kitchen-sink lines as "I'll go heat up the lasagna."

Just as Joan Crawford mopped the floor with her trio of secretaries in The Best of Everything, Hayward completely owns every one of her few moments as a Broadway warhorse. Her bass growl (spitting out foul-mouthed, worldly lines) paired with her fully seasoned star-power allows her to make everyone else in the film seem like a junior leaguer. Even she doesn't escape embarrassment, however. Few things are as mind-blowing as Hayward (decked out in an atrocious fall) flailing around and lip-synching to the planet's most ignorant song ("I'll Plant My Own Tree") as a whacked-out, brightly-colored, plastic mobile swims around her! Then, of course, she and Duke share the pinnacle of cinematic showdowns with a ladies room verbal-wrestling-match and hair-pulling scratch-fest. It doesn't get any better than this, folks.

Hayward’s role was initially to be played by the legendary Judy Garland (who, ironically, was part of the inspiration for Duke’s character in this story to begin with!) Susann announced the casting decision at a press conference that offered up a frail and haggard-looking star. She recorded her song and reported to work, but was tremendously uneasy. Depending on what version you believe, she was either fired or she quit or she was made to quit or she forced them to fire her. One account has her being discovered on the pool table in her dressing room, passed out with her skirt pulled up over her panty-less torso! Thus, her 1963 film I Could Go on Singing would have to serve as her big screen swansong for, sadly, she would be dead within two years of Valley. Hayward was brought in hastily and placed into reworked versions of Garland's costumes (at least one of which she made off with and used in subsequent concert appearances!)

Despite massive critical panning, the film was actually a considerable success and it lives on now as one of the gay community's treasures. Regardless of the ad campaign's claim that every shock and sensation was included, this is actually quite a whitewashed rendition of the story. The biggest omission is probably Tate's character's lesbian relationship, but there are plenty of others. A pallid, drab remake landed on TV in mini-series form in 1981 and a late-night soap popped up briefly (with Sally Kirkland in Hayward's role!) and, even now, chatter continues about a remake, but, while the source novel could still do with a more faithful rendition, nothing could ever or will ever come close to duplicating the overflowing, effervescent tackiness of this version. It's surprising that director Mark Robson, who helmed the tasteful, beautifully appointed film adaptation of another sensational novel, Peyton Place, could turn in a zinger like this, but here it is. Dionne Warwick had a hit song with the title track (which is played endlessly throughout the movie!)

It’s either a credit to me or a black mark that I can recite the entire scene between Duke and Hayward in the ladies room complete with accents and inflections, that is when I can get through it without cackling at myself and it!


joel65913 said...

Wonderful critique! I know I'm a little late commenting on this post but having finally gotten around to reading the source novel recently I can see why you feel the adaptation was a bit too loose. The book was not particularly well written but most of the characters had some depth except Neely.

If Susann really based the Neely character on Judy Garland than she seems to have misunderstood her or at least wasn't able to make her a fully fleshed out character. I'm sure that Judy was often a pill but there are endless stories of her humor, generosity and incredibly sharp wit which balanced out some of her more wearing traits. The Neely in the book and the movie for that matter possessed none of that, she was just a selfish harpy. Patty in the movie was obviously adrift as well as horribly miscast and from things she has said in interviews at complete loggerheads with the director whom she refers to as the meanest SOB that ever lived. All that taken into consideration she still manages to inject a shot of energy into most of her scenes, sometimes too much but at least she's giving it her all.

As for the other two girls, I thought Anne was a sad fool in the book but at least she had a pulse, Barbara Parkins was a lovely girl but dull as dishwater although she could carry off those outrageous fashions with elan. It's no puzzler that she didn't have much of a starring career after this.

Sharon Tate's Jennifer suffered the most loss of character between page and screen, I found her the most interesting person in the novel, but that certainly isn't something to hold against Miss Tate who I thought gave a lovely gentle reading of the part. I agree about her last few wordless minutes being quite beautiful and moving, perhaps her personal tragedy imbibes an extra layer to the scene but still she plays it well. Having seen the majority of her small cinematic output I'd say she was more adept at comedy, she's very amusing in both Don't Make Waves and The Wrecking Crew, but a decent actress overall and had she not been killed would have had a good chance at a significant career since she possessed that old time movie star glamour and presence.

I love Lee Grant, the intensity of her performance is what made Miriam, a complex crafty woman in the novel reduced to bits and hardly any backstory in the film, at least someone you took notice of. A more subdued actress would have been completely overshadowed by the surrounding hue and cry.

Of course the only truly star performance in this sorry, yet highly entertaining, mess is by the specially billed Miss Susan Hayward. She stepped in, out of a brief retirement following the sudden death of her husband, as a favor to Robson who she must have had a better relationship with than Duke and who had directed her years earlier to an Oscar nomination in My Foolish Heart. The Helen Lawson of the book was a crass barracuda obviously patterned on Ethel Merman and again while Merman was surely a tough old buffalo the character had a goodly whiff of score settling attached. I don't know if Susie insisted on that last humanizing scene in the movie but she takes it in hand and in that one scene turns Helen from soulless bitch to hardened careerist with a canny sense of survival and what that takes. As a younger woman she could have made Neely work, as she did so many lemons handed her at Fox, no matter how sketchily drawn the role through the sheer power of her presence and of course immense talent.

The less said about the men, were there men in the movie?, the better. Too be far even in the book the male characters are thinly drawn with the author clearly uninterested in them.

A trash wallow for sure but one I'd hate to see remade for surely Hollywood now, were no sense of glamour remains, would feel obligated to make it more real and gritty, full of nudity and slobber. No thanks!

Poseidon3 said...


Thanks so much for your considerable, informative set of comments. This post is from the ealry part of "year one" of The Underworld, before I began to do posts that were so in-depth and went on and one and on as they do now. I often wish I coudl get back to these more restrained ones, but I can never seem to help myself!!!

So your additional remarks are most welcome and compliment my own nicely. Lee Grant is one of my all-time favorites and she has a tribute here, too, which is longer than some of the early ones, but not as exhaustive as the ones I've done more recently.

I've been itching to rewatch this for a long time. I haven't seen it since I got my 55" widescreen high-def TV and I know I'd love it on that. Maybe when I watch it again, I'll have cause to post more about it.


Dave in Alamitos Beach said...

Oh Lordy, I saw this movie at the Castro Theater in San Francisco around 1988 or so. I have never laughed so hard at a screening in my life, and I was the most restrained one in the theater.

I thought Patty Duke was absolutely terrible in this and I so longed for the old Patty & Cathy days of yore. She wasn't pretty or a good singer and her rise to stardom was inexplicable.

Everyone in the audience was acting out scenes, but I had never seen it and could hardly believe my eyes. The scene with Patty and her vegatative boyfriend belting out a duet in the asylum reduced me to snickering giggles from which I never recovered.

Needless to say, I would LOVE to see this again with the right crowd.

Poseidon3 said...

Wow, Dave! You've been wading through the archives! ;-) I can't believe that your first exposure to VOD, not VD, LOL, was in that environment!!! Crazy! I'm glad you were able to enjoy it nonetheless. I"m very protective of my favorite movies and will not allow a lot of distractions during viewing. I think I'd go insane if I ever attended a screening of "The Poseidon Adventure," even though I know it by heart. I just can't bear the idea of a lot of brouhaa taking over the place as I suspect that VOD screening was for you. But, yes, that mental hospital duet is off the hook insane!!! Well, basically most of the movie is. Ha ha!

petercox97 said...

i never understand why so many gay guys loathe valley of the dolls or only like it to ridicule it. it has to be my favorite movie. i saw it afterschool on a television station in chicago when i was seven years old and loved it ever since. i've seen patty duke's screen test on the two disc anniversary set and her performance is much more subdued. i believe her when she says her over the top performance is what mark robson wanted to get out of her. still, be that as it may, i love patty's performance. my only true problem with the movie is why dionne warwick wasn't given a showcase in the movie to sing the gorgeous theme song. since the movie has one club scene after another and even films at the grammy awards, it would not have been hard to include dionne. i actually find the movie version of the song more haunting than the version that was released on dionne's album which is a different version entirely.

i think this movie could be redone just as fabulously today if instead of three women, the leads became three gay men and a heterosexual man playing the helen lawson role. i think william shatner would make a great helen lawson. as for neely, i would cast will horton from days of our lives; for ann, i would cast the kid who was ripped to shreds in the second season of the originals; and for doomed jennifer, i would cast a real life gay adult star.