Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Different Dolls for 'Valley of the Dolls?'

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!


  1. boy this was a fun game of "what if", and you need a PhD in camp to play. I actually love this film (I am nothing if not a cliché) because of all of it's failings. It was great to imagine all of it, but the one that seemed most likely was Candice as Anne. That being said what would VOTD be without Barbara Parkins' "classy" line readings?

    1. Hey Gingerguy, my PhD in showbiz trivia is having a long-term memory for all the wrong things!
      What was really funny was how many aging actresses came to mind as the perfect Helen Lawson : )
      Cheers and thanks for commenting, Rick

  2. This was a lot of fun. I actually really like and enjoy the cast the way it is, but cannot deny that these selections also make sense and would have made a wonderful alternative movie. The idea of Liza is inspired, Raquel - as you say - WAS Jennifer at the time and Candy had just the right sort of looks, sense and carriage (and - as you say - modeling experience) to nail Anne. And I could swear Anne was blonde in the book?

    The idea of either Bette or Joan as Helen makes me tingle in weird places! LOL I would have loved that, but - again - Susan is perfection, too. Judy, sad to say, just never would have pulled this off properly. I don't believe she had it in her to "ACT" this way, even if she did sometimes act that way off-screen.

    I notice you didn't attempt to re-cast Lee Grant! No one can "heat up the lasagne" like she can. Ha ha! I also love her reading of "You're a romantic lead..." My God, that guy was just awful. I think he was better in his screen test than in the movie itself! And he was so proud of that wretched sanitarium scene. JS wanted Elvis Presley to play that part!!!! Speaking of tests, Barbara Parkins said that the execs found her too velvety smooth to play the strident Neely and they were exactly right. Velvety is the word for how she spoke, which had its benefits in other roles, just not Neely O'Hara.

    I must commend you for some positively WONDERFUL choices of photos to illustrate this post. I was agog at the ones with Candice looking very Gillian Girl and with Raquel in lavender lounge pants by the pool!! No way... I J-U-S-T watched this Sunday night for the first time in a while and was every bit as enraptured as previous times. My old roomie (a female) was once subjected to this (in 1997 on VHS) and was in agony the entire time, calling it "boring." ! ! ! ! ! Not possible.

    1. Realistically, I wouldn't change a thing either! But I think I was a casting director in another life : )

      The book has a lot more oomph than the movie...and yes, Anne was a WASPY blonde, very Grace Kelly.

      Bette or Joan would make a fascinating Helen Lawson...but watch Lauren Bacall in those old HighPoint commercials and it's like bingo! Helen Lawson! As I wrote, Susie gives the film its only true starpower. And Garland was just stunt casting that blew up in Fox's faces...

      Some of the pics were hilariously apt, weren't they? Even the one of Raquel rolling around on a bed looked a good bit like the one Jen committed suicide in!

      And yes, the enigmatic Lee Grant, made her perfect for Miriam!

      Glad you enjoyed...your blog inspires me!


  3. I have to go along with Poseidon in saying you choice of photos for this enjoyable post add a great deal to being able to envision these "would be" VOD contenders. The casts as-is is fully in my DNA, but I have no problem imagining Liza Minnelli as Neely or Lauren Bacall as Helen. They're both practically examples of type casting.
    Since I've never seen the tiny Judy Garland in bitch mode, she's the one I've always had trouble imagining as Helen Lawson. I wish she'd at least made it through ONE of those "tough broad" scenes before getting the sack. My imagination isn't good enough to picture her throwing Barbara Parkins out of her office (especially as she appears to be swimming in that red suit in clips of costume tests).
    You do have a casting director's eye, Rick, and the casting possibilities for VOD has always intrigued me more than even the Scarlett O'Hara wars for GWTW. Thanks for a fabulous trip down Coulda Been Lane!

    1. Hi Ken, it's always a fun "What if?" game I play in my head while watching VOD. There's only two things I would change for real if I could: Someone other than Barbara Parkins as Anne--she appears sedated from the get-go! Zero warmth or charisma. And a better dubbed voice for Patty Duke. You ever hear Duke sing the theme from VOD on YouTube... Patty's flatter than a pancake! No way did she sing "big" (such as it was) in that movie. And oh, maybe I'd change ALL of the male casting...we've bemoaned before how these kind of movies always feature such bland males to pine or fight over! Cheers, Rick

    2. It is too bad that a better voice match wasn't achieved for Patty Duke. Neely's thoroughly unremarkable voice makes her meteoric rise to stardom such a joke. And of course I concur with the males needing to be recast. Such a sexless collection.
      By the way, I have that Patty Duke sings songs from VOD and she seriously sounds Quaaluded out on those songs. TCM aired "Inside Daisy Clover" today, I can't watch that without wishing they'd cast Patty Duke in that instead!

  4. Rick, so glad I discovered you and your blog. Golly this one was fun! I, too, have an inner casting director. Love your choices for the ladies. I decided to take a crack at the guys. For Lyon Burke, George Peppard had the looks and sex appeal, plus he's just oily enough to believe he'd cheat on Anne. For Tony, imagine Robert Goulet. Big voiced and big boned his slide into ALS could have been really poignant. For Mel, I could see Dustin Hoffman. Attractive in an offbeat way, could be nebbishy enough for Mel, yet convey Mel's integrity.

    Bonus choices: Christopher Plummer as Lyon; James Garner as Tony and George Segal as Mel.

    1. Awesome, particularly Peppard and Goulet, both who had charm that the two cast leads sorely lacked! I'm gonna put your comments on 'em : )

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  6. Yes, actually casting actors who could sing as musical performers would be a novelty, eh? Liza could have brought those arch Dory Previn songs to vivid life!! By the way, just watched Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover again...I can’t stop myself, it’s like a train wreck, but I can’t resist...why did Hollywood insist on casting her in musical after musical, then dubbing her vocals?? ( Except in Gypsy, where we have her in all her off-key glory!!)

    Lucy as Helen Lawson! yes! Lauren was still a bit too young -she needs to be at least as mature as Sally Ross in The Fan!

    This post was too much fun, Rick!!

    1. Hey Chris, this was too much fun to write as well! And finding pix of wannabe dolls was too serendipitous!
      Inside Daisy Clover is such a bizarre film...yet so watchable! Natalie and Audrey both had pleasant, small singing voices. Audrey got by nicely in 'Funny Face,' but obviously needed to be dubbed for 'My Fair Lady.' Same for casting Nat, who I adore, in big Broadway adaptations!

      As for Helen Lawson wannabes, the choices were endless! Maybe they shoulda made 'Valley of the Lawsons" with Susan, Joan, Lauren, Bette, etc!

      Cheers, Rick