|Candice Bergen as Anne Welles, |
with her damned classy good looks?
|Raquel Welch as Jennifer North?|
Boobies! Boobies! Boobies!
|Liza Minnelli as Neely O' Hara: |
The whole world loves me!
Jacqueline Susann’s naughty first novel, Valley of the Dolls, was the publishing sensation of 1966 and film rights were quickly snapped up by 20th Century Fox.
|Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, and Patty Duke in 1967's 'Valley of the Dolls.'|
Many superstar actresses and up-and-coming starlets’ names were bandied about before Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins, and Sharon Tate were rolled out for yet another update of Fox’s tried-and-true “three girls” template. Said trio were always looking for romance and riches, but often finding heartache and hard times, instead. Duke plays Neely O’ Hara, a singer with a big voice, plus an equally big pill and booze problem; Barbara Parkins is Anne Welles, the secretary turned supermodel; and Sharon Tate plays tragic Jennifer North, a beautiful starlet who only knows how to do one thing! And for dramatic conflict, Susan Hayward plays Helen Lawson, the aging, tough broad Broadway belter, with a black belt at killing the competition.
|Susan Hayward as Broadway belter/battleaxe Helen Lawson.|
VOTD the novel is significantly different than the film version. The book takes place from the early ‘40s through the mid-60s, versus the movie’s mere few years. Neely’s film career and chaotic personal life are even more obviously taken from Judy Garland’s MGM daze. Anne Welles is a patrician blue-eyed blonde, a poised natural beauty. While patterned after some of Jackie’s model friends, Anne’s archetype perfection and easy rise to superstardom seemed inspired by Grace Kelly. Doomed bombshell Jennifer was actually based on Carole Landis, a 20th Century Fox‘40s starlet and Susann’s close gal pal, with a nod to another Fox star, Marilyn Monroe, who overdosed when Jackie began writing Dolls. Just as Neely O’Hara mirrored Judy Garland more on the page, Susann wickedly spills the beans on Broadway diva Ethel Merman’s diva antics with Helen Lawson. Like Lawson, Merman liked her vino, but saved happy hour for after work. Merman functioned best on stage, where she controlled everything, just like Helen!
|Valley of the Dolls: from book to screen.|
As far casting goes, I have no real beefs. Everybody came off as campy in the film version of Dolls, thanks to the cartoonish script, cheesy direction, harsh lighting, ugly clothes, makeup, and hairstyles (yes, it was the ‘60s, but come on!), and the gawd-awful songs (except for Dionne Warwick’s theme song, which haunts Parkins’ Anne throughout the movie.)
Still, if I could go back into the way back machine, and cast this movie, these would be my dream team dolls.
|Liza, younger than springtime, and twice as exciting!|
Liza Minnelli as Neely O’ Hara: Why not? Fox originally cast Judy Garland as Helen Lawson! So, good taste was not the hallmark of the movie version of VOTD. Liza playing a fictionalized version of her legendary mother could have been awesome or awful. True, we wouldn’t have had Patty Duke braying every line like she was starring as Martha in a showbiz version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or Duke predating Seinfeld’s Elaine Benis’ dance moves during her musical numbers.
|"Patty gave me the number of this great dance teacher!"|
But I think Minnelli could have been fantastic. For one, you could actually believe this Neely O’ Hara as a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Imagine Liza exuberantly performing Neely’s “rise to stardom” montage, with the help of “dolls.” Minnelli also could have put over those showbiz cliché songs by the Previns. And like Neely, Liza already had a Ted Casablanca in her life, first husband Peter Allen. In Duke’s defense, Patty’s over-the-top performance gives Dolls its little energy. If you want to see what might have been, watch Barbara Parkins’ screentest for Neely on YouTube—her attempt at playing Neely’s “lonely at the top” speech to Anne is pure amateur night.
|Candice Bergen may not have gotten to play a "Gillian Girl," but apparently she was a Revlon girl back in the day.|
Candice Bergen as Anne Welles: At the time, Bergen was no better an actress than Parkins, but she embodied the novel’s cool blonde WASP and was really a model. Bergen declined, over money or a film role that took the travel-loving actress to a more appealing location than New York and Fox’s back lot.
|Candice as Anne, that natural Gillian Girl!|
How fun to picture the future no-nonsense Murphy Brown as a “Gillian Girl” or rolling around the surf in a pill-popping stupor. Parkins, a dull, pretty girl with lots of hair and makeup piled on, acts like a doll on downers from the get-go.
|Welch as Jen, primping before her nightly bust exercises!|
Raquel Welch as Jennifer North: Already a Fox girl, Raquel turned down the role because she didn’t want to get type cast as a no-talent famous only for her body. I’ll be kind and not list the films Welch appeared in during and after VOTD! Rumor has it Raquel did a screen test for Jennifer. I doubt that she really did, but to paraphrase Hemingway, wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?
|Raquel plays Jennifer's suicide scene?|
Sharon Tate gives the best performance in Valley of the Dolls, the one most resembling a human being. Jennifer’s death scene, by suicide in the face of breast cancer, is touching. That’s due to Sharon Tate, not the tacky dialogue or lazy direction by Mark Robson. The area Tate is lacking in is Jennifer North’s fabulous figure, especially her bodacious breasts. Constant boob references abound in the film, yet Tate is slim and leggy more than anything.
|Raquel as no-talent Jen? "You know how bitchy fags can be!"|
Welch on the other hand, basically WAS Jennifer North. Like Jen, Raquel was initially slow to soar in show biz, because of family—in Welch’s case, she was a single mother as a starlet. What a hoot it would be to hear Welch’s breathless delivery as Jennifer, doing her breast exercises in front of the mirror, before declaring, “Oh, to hell with ‘em, let them droop!” I doubt that the then-young and humorless Raquel Welch would have agreed.
|"I've Written a Letter to Jac-kie, say-ing, I want to play Helen!"|
The possibilities for Helen Lawson, the Broadway “barracuda,” seem endless. Several veteran actresses threw their wigs in the casting ring. Bette Davis publically palled up to Jackie Susann, angling for the part. Can you imagine Bette singing “I’ll Plant My Own Tree?” That would have rivaled her rendition of Baby Jane’s “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” in the camp department!
|"I'll plant my own stilettos in your thighs and watch your pain grow!"|
Bette’s co-star Joan Crawford was mentioned for Helen Lawson. However, Joan essentially played Helen in yet another Fox “three girls” movie. Nearly a decade prior, Crawford as the book editor barracuda Amanda Farrow killed it in The Best of Everything. Still, imagine Joan snarling, “Now get outta my way, cuz I got a man waiting for me!”
|Joan flips & rips her wig!|
Or later, after getting her wig snatched by Neely, envision Joan, chin jutted, grandly intoning to the ladies room attendant, “I’ll go out…the way I came in!” And Joan already had experience as a tyrant stage star, who rips her own wig off, in Torch Song!
|Would Helen Lawson ride in her limo drinking decaf coffee?|
Lauren Bacall coulda been a contender as Helen, a warm up to her own future as a bitchy Broadway diva. I can hear Bacall’s deep brewed flay-vah baritone reminding Neely, “Broadway doesn’t go in for booooze and dope!”
|Ethel Merman gets singing lessons from Lucille Ball...yes, for comedic effect!|
Or how about Lucille Ball, who once hilariously imitated the Merm when she appeared on Ball’s sitcom? The real life Lucy wouldn’t have had any trouble with the tough as nails part. Maybe Lucy could have added some slapstick while singing “I’ll Plant My Own Tree,” getting tangled up with the mobile tree. Or Ball could have added her trademark “Waaaaah!” as Helen, when Neely rips her wig off!
|The irony if Patty Duke had snatched Lucille Ball's wig in 'Dolls,'|
since Patty later dated Desi Jr., much to Mama Lucy's disapproval!
Still, I think Susan Hayward is great as the Ethel Merman-type star. Red-headed and brash, tough yet a touch sentimental, Susan gives the movie its only genuine star power. Margaret Whiting’s singing matches up nicely with Hayward’s speaking voice (Susie sang in some of her earlier films) unlike the usual stars lip-synching to Marni Nixon. Like the real Merman, Hayward was a force of nature.
|"My fans will PAY to hear me sing!!!"|
|Judy Garland, not ready for her close-up, as Broadway barracuda Helen Lawson. And these are the flattering pictures!|
Watching Judy Garland’s wardrobe tests as the originally cast Helen Lawson, emaciated Judy looks engulfed by the clothes. Also, Judy was one of those superstars who doted on audience sympathy. Garland may have been a bitch in real life at times, but would never play one on the screen—it’d be on par with Doris Day as Helen Lawson. Susan Hayward is the real deal as Helen.
These are the celebrity connect-the-dot thoughts that have popped into my mind over the years, whenever I pop in Dolls for guilty pleasure viewing. Perhaps changing even one doll would be akin to the butterfly effect in trying to make Valley of the Dolls a better movie, but instead, turning it into an even worse movie!
|I look forward to your comments. And remember, all cats are grey in the dark!|