December 15, 1967– Valley Of The Dolls Premiers
At 442 pages, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley Of The Dolls was considered so candid in its portrayal of showbiz lifestyles, plastic surgery, abortion, gay sex, suicide and Demerol that my mother hid her copy and so did the mothers of my friends. The characters were based on celebrities like Ethel Merman and Judy Garland, making Valley Of The Dolls a must read for a little gay 12-year-old like me.
I thought at the time that the book was a rather impressive, fast moving Broadway-Hollywood soap opera and morality tale about the trials and tribulations, sex lives and problems of an aging gang of 1945-era girls and their dependence on drink and drugs. The pills they took to pep themselves up, go to sleep and stay slim were nicknamed ”dolls” by Susann herself. The novel made sense to me and I liked it much more than Lord Of The Rings.
50 years after the film version of Valley Of The Dolls opened in theaters, gay guys are still obsessed with the feuding, boozing, pill popping ladies of the camp classic. Neely O’Hara, Anne Welles, Jennifer North and Helen Lawson have all evolved into top Gay Icons.
Susann is indeed, camp, glamorous, and frivolous. Except for Andy Warhol, she is the most understood modern celebrity. Her female characters are always powerful, independent women who are not afraid of going after what they want. The men in her stories are pieces of meat, or fags, or both.
In the film version of Valley Of The Dolls, the bodaciously fashioned, big haired, heavy mascara wearing creatures just could never choose a decent guy. Can we relate? Their over-sized egos matched their over-sized hairdos and high histrionics while these girls frolicked, tripped and dipped through nutty adventures in glorious Technicolor.
It is directed by Mark Robson and stars Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, and Susan Hayward in a role intended for Judy Garland. It also contains a Susann cameo appearance as a reporter in the scene with Tate’s character’s suicide. Richard Dreyfuss got his SAG card for briefly appearing as a stagehand.
Valley Of The Dolls was a huge box-office hit. It had a budget of $5,000,000 and grossed $50,000,000 (about $170,000,000 in 2017 dollars).
Susann hated the film, telling Robson:
”This picture is a piece of shit.”
The ending to the film was changed dramatically from the novel. In the film, Anne (Parkins) and Lyon (Paul Burke) don’t marry and do not have a child together. Instead, she leaves Lyon and returns to Lawrenceville, the one place she found true happiness. Lyon later visits her to propose but she refuses. These last-minute changes in the script, so out of keeping with Anne’s established character, familiar to millions of readers of the novel, prompted screenwriter Harlan Ellison, who wanted to keep the original downbeat ending, to remove his name and credit from the film.
The biggest difference is that the film is clearly set in the 1960s, but in the book the story begins in 1945 and develops throughout two decades, yet in the film the events take place over a few years.
Garland was originally cast as Helen Lawson, but was fired when she was late to the set reputedly drunk; Hayward replaced her in the role after production had already begun.
In 2009, Patty Duke appeared at the Castro Theater in San Francisco for a benefit screening of the film, and said that Robson made Garland wait from 8am to 4pm before filming her scenes for the day, knowing that Garland would be upset and drunk by that time. Hayward reportedly had a difficult relationship with the cast and crew, and her clashes with Duke became part of the dramatic tension between their characters.
20th Century Fox wanted Raquel Welch to play Jennifer, but she refused, not wanting to play a “sexpot” role. Newcomer Sharon Tate got the role. Welch begged to play Neely (Duke) but the studio refused.
Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970) is satirical take on the story produced by Twentieth Century-Fox while the studio was being sued by Susann. Susann created the title for a sequel that was rejected by the studio, which allowed Russ Meyer to film a radically different film using the same title. The suit went to court after Susann’s death in 1974; her estate won damages of $2,000,000 against Fox.
The soundtrack for Valley Of The Dolls was released soon after the film was in theaters. Dionne Warwick sang the title track, but her version is not on the soundtrack album. She wrote her own lyric for the film’s title track because she felt that Dory Previn’s lyric did not establish the background for the story. Warwick was signed to Scepter Records at the time and could not contractually appear on the soundtrack album. Her version appears on the album Dionne Warwick In Valley Of The Dolls. The film contains two versions of the theme song with different lyrics: One version plays over the opening credits, and the other, with Warwick’s lyrics, is heard towards the end of the film.
Margaret Whiting recorded the big number I’ll Plant My Own Tree for the film, but Eileen Wilson recorded it for the soundtrack album. The song is dubbed for Hayward. It’s Impossible and Give A Little More are both dubbed by Gaille Heidemann for Patty Duke. Heidemann and Wilson are uncredited on the soundtrack album.
I’ll Plant My Own Tree, as recorded by Garland before she was fired, can be found on a compilation album Cut! Out-takes from Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals (1976).
Cutthroat careerism, wild sex, and fierce female friends trying to find their way in the glamorous world of showbiz, blending old-fashioned gloss with 1960s grooviness, Valley Of The Dolls is a zany look at the first days of sexual liberation and an entertainment industry coming apart. It remains an unforgettably campy time capsule and a LGBTQ must-see.