(Cue mysterious, almost erotic non-melodic "outer space" sounding synth notes; no background)
You have to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls,
It's a brutal climb to reach that peak,
You stand there, waiting for the rush of exhilaration but it doesn't come,
You're alone. And the feeling of loneliness is overpowering...
(Cue Theme Music)
Imagine if tomorrow I were to enter the office of a powerful Hollywood producer and pitch this idea for a major motion picture:
Three nice girls from nice towns come to The Big Apple in search of fame and fortune in show-biz. They meet up and become fast friends. They're exploited by boyfriends, managers and one-night-stands. They try to claw their way to the top and encounter evil, more experienced actresses at every turn. Cat fights ensue. They're introduced to the glorious world of booze and pills. Two are talented but their lives are wrecked by men, alcohol and narcotic addiction. The other isn't very talented but quite voluptuous so she turns to making porn films to pay the enormous medical bills incurred by her husband, the victim of a mysterious disease. In the end, everyone goes down the toilet but for one of the talented ones, who, realizing the error of her ways, returns to mother and her picturesque New England home.
I'd hazard a guess that my mover-and-shaker at, let's say, MGM enjoys a good laugh and then settles down and says, "Okay, so what's the catch? Are the girls involved with gay cowboys? Are all the girls into S&M? Is it about the Internet porn business? Okay, tell us... the plot de-bunks the stereotype that Hollywood's controlled by liberal Jews and reveals that the movie-making industry is really controlled by gentile, man-eating lesbians, that's it, right?" My answer would be "Nope." Immediately security would be called and they'd say "throw this schmuck outta here, we don't have the time for this shit!"
A Slice of Popular Culture
Well, in 1967, Hollywood did have time for this stuff. The plot synopsis you see hereinabove is a very good one-paragraph description of the setup for the film "The Valley of the Dolls." The film is loosely based on the incredibly successful novel of the same name by author Jacqueline Susann (only in the novel they all go down the toilet; for the movie, Hollywood demanded at least one "happily ever after.") Now of course, thought Hollywood, the novel that sold more copies than any other (but for Gone With The Wind) and spent a whopping 64 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 1963 would make a blockbuster picture. Well, 'twas not to be so. The most shocking thing about the movie Gone With The Wind is when Clark Gable says "damn".
The Valley of the Dolls had a lot more in store for its viewers than that. One of the interesting things about the movie was that, although some of middle-America suspected there were such goings-on as one-night stands, rampant alcoholism, bisexuality, homosexuality and drug abuse in Hollywood, this movie proved it to even the most naive viewer.
The scandalous goings-on in the screenplay seem certainly tame by today's standards. But couple the thought of what constituted "scandalous" in 1967 with a soundtrack that could today pass for elevator music and sets and costumes that then were modern but today just reek of cheez whiz, and one discovers that the movie is a very accurate slice of popular culture. The acting of the day was, indeed, over-the-top; intended for those who'd read the torrid novel and lusted for more. The sets and costuming were right-on and are like a time capsule for anyone with an interest in period pop.
Now, it's been proven over and over that factual life often provides a writer, particularly a screenwriter, with far more drama and interest than nearly anyone's imagination can conjure up. Ms. Susann drew the story of the lead character, Neely O'Hara, from the lives of Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, among others. In fact, Judy Garland was to get the part of Neely O'Hara, but problems with her tardiness on the set and her health forced 20th Century Fox to replace her with Barbara Parkins (a better choice given that Garland was, even in 1967, too old for the part - would that they'd let her sing the theme music, rather than give it away to Dionne Warwick.) More about that later.
The older, wiser, but bitchy actress Helen Lawson was based on Ethel Merman, with whom Susann had an acquaintance during her acting days. One of the young girls, Jennifer North, is fashioned after the life of actress Carole Landis, who committed suicide after being mistreated by men and realizing that she really didn't have much talent (her career diminished along with her looks). Part of Jennifer North's character is also taken from the life of Marilyn Monroe. A character who is treated in sanitariums is based on the downfall of actress Frances Farmer. The vapid, sleazy lounge-lizard who aids Jennifer's downfall, Tony Polar, was based on Dean Martin according to writer Susann, in her biography. (Susann was perhaps seeking revenge on Martin; she'd approached him for an interview but snubbed her in favor of a comic-book he was reading.) Perhaps Anne Welles, the third girl (who survives the movie relatively unscathed, but sinks into barbiturate addiction in the novel) is the only "original" of all.
All This, and it's a Musical!
A young John Williams was responsible for the score, utilizing some stock music and writing various cues for the movie (he garnered the first of his 48 oscar nominations therefor). He was working in collaboration with another composer whose name would eventually become well-associated with classical music (but much later); André Previn. Previn accepted the task of writing the production numbers and the theme music for the film partially in hopes of saving his marriage to Dory Previn, who had her own problems with substance abuse. Dory (nee Langdon) had (and since has) written songs of a satirical nature in a folksy vein, and her albums have enjoyed a few minor hits.
Well, now. How does one take a novel that's a serious as a heart attack, and attach music to it (the producers demanded that "if the movie's gonna be about show-biz, let it be all about show-biz!" The theme music, "Theme from The Valley of the Dolls" was sung in the movie by Dionne Warwick, who reprised it without the John Williams arrangement but nonetheless charted a Number 2 hit single with it in 1968. The song is probably the most enduring part of the entire project. It has been performed on record, beside Warwick, by none other than Tony Bennett, The Boston Pops Orchestra, Ray Charles, Ray Conniff, John Davidson (remember him?), Generation X, k.d. Lang, Jack Jones, Gladys Knight, Ferrante & Teicher, George Shearing, Lawrence Welk, Andy Williams and about a dozen other lesser-known talents. It's heard sung in cabaret performance a lot because of its tender words - it's not what one would call a "show stopper" but does well getting applause for venues and performers in that genre.
The famous theme, along with other production numbers and bits of occasional music were assembled into an LP (absent Warwick, who was signed to another label). The record did not do well, but sold plenty to drag queens of the time whom either in performance, or the comfort of their own living rooms, would lip-synch to the "look at me, aren't I fantastic" lyrics. Really, this stuff makes "Tomorrow" from the Broadway smash Annie seem intellectual in comparison. For example:
I'll plant my own tree and I'll make it grow,
My tree will not be just one in a row,
My tree will offer shade when strangers go by,
If you're a stranger, brother, than so am I...
All that I see, is my tree, oh Lord, what a sight,
Let someone stop me, and I will put up a fight,
It's my yard so I will try hard to welcome friends I have yet to know..
Oh I'll plant... my own tree... my own tree... and I'll... make it groooooooow!
This song, and "It's Impossible," a real show-stopper, which was sung on a in a "telethon" scene by Patty Duke (as Neely O'Hara) were well-acted, but voiced-over. Cabaret songstress Margaret Whiting (the singer who married a gay porn star and male prostitute half her age, Jack Wrangler in the '70s) did all of the singing voice-overs for the movie. The title tune on the L.P. was sung by Dory Previn herself. More musical mayhem ensues when Toni Scotti (as character Tony Polar) does a lounge tune called "Come Live With Me." It is a parody of all the greasy, cheesy lounge singers you've ever seen in your life. This means whirlwind, high-adrenaline intro, reverting to a lone scratching guitar and tom-tom drum background. And a harpsichord solo, somewhere. And to the movie, it was supposed to be meaningful. C'est la vie. (Composer Previn was inspired to write "Come Live With Me" by the Christopher Marlowe poem of the same name.)
A Gay Cult Classic
Speaking of Jack Wrangler, although the movie wasn't released on video tape, and was just officially released to the public in 2006 on DVD, some crafty person managed to get a Betamax copy of the film. It spread like wildfire and for a while replaced Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as the film of choice for gay-bar "movie nights." I mean, what queen in his right mind could resist reciting lines like this, along with the film:
Helen Lawson: The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that's ME, baby, remember?
Neely O'Hara: I didn't have dough handed to me because of my good cheekbones, I had to earn it.
Neely O'Hara: Who are ya hiding from, Helen? The notices couldn't have been that bad.
Helen Lawson: The show just needs a little fine tuning.
Neely O'Hara: Don't worry, sweetheart. If the show folds I can always get a part as understudy for my grandmother.
Helen Lawson: Thanks. I already turned down the part you're playing.
Neely O'Hara: Bull! Merrick isn't that crazy.
Helen Lawson: You oughta know, honey, you just came out of the nuthouse.
Neely O'Hara: It was not a nuthouse!
Helen Lawson: Look. They drummed you right outta Hollywood! So ya come crawlin' back to Broadway. Well, Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope. Now you get outta my way, I got a man waitin' for me.
Neely O'Hara: That's a switch from the fags you're usually stuck with!
Helen Lawson: At least I never had to MARRY one!
Neely O'Hara: YOU TAKE THAT BACK...
(pulls off Helen's wig while scuffling)
Neely O'Hara: ... oh my God, it's a wig! HER HAIR'S AS PHONY AS SHE IS!
Jennifer North: (She's wearing a very large headdress) I feel a little top heavy.
Play director: (Not meaning the thing on her head) Oh, honey. You are a little top heavy.
Neely O'Hara: Ted Casablanca is not a fag... and I'm the woman who can prove it!
Despite all of the preceding, and despite being panned by the critics, the film was a commercial success. And just as the dust was settling on the '67 pic, in 1969 the Charles Manson gang murdered co-star Sharon Tate and others in the Hollywood Hills. Do you think that production company 20th Century Fox was going to miss out on the notoriety merely for the sake of respect for the dead? Of course not! The 1969 re-release was just in time for the tail end of summer. Fox literally got more "bang" for their buck. I take that back - Tate was stabbed; the LaBiancas were shot.
So it turns out that "Valley of the Dolls" has turned into a major cult/camp classic. How could it not have? The cast of beauties is garbed in Travilla gowns (if you don't know the work of the House of Travilla, just think of Bob Mackie on acid). The sets are rife with '60s pop archetypes from the furniture to the lighting to the wallpaper. And on-stage, the moment you've been waiting for is to hear "I'll Plant My Own Tree" sung by Susan Hayward,, dripping with sequins, in front of a 20-foot tall mobile fashioned of circles of colored plexiglas swinging around on black tubular arms and cables. I wonder how many times that scene had to be shot to avoid one of the mobile's circles from knocking the "big hair" wig off of Ms. Hayward's head. And that's another thing; if you like hair, this is the movie for you. Big, big, big, droopy, curly, blonde hair is everywhere.
Finally, on June 30th, 2006 (just in time for Gay Pride Week) a special DVD set of the film was issued. Beside containing the film and all sorts of out-takes and other goodies (including karaoke of the original production numbers) the set contains footage of a party being held on an enormous yacht. It's the premiere party for the movie at the Venice film festival. Jacqueline Susann is one of the attendees. She is last seen tumbling off of the yacht, into the water, screaming "they've ruined my book!"
Cast of Characters
Full Cast and Crew for
Valley of the Dolls (1967) a 20th Century Fox Production in cooperation with Red Lion Productions
Director: Mark Robson
Jacqueline Susann also novel
Barbara Parkins .... Anne Welles
Patty Duke .... Neely O'Hara
Paul Burke .... Lyon Burke
Sharon Tate .... Jennifer North Polar
Tony Scotti .... Tony Polar
Martin Milner .... Mel Anderson
Charles Drake .... Kevin Gillmore
Alexander Davion .... Ted Casablanca (as Alex Davion)
Lee Grant .... Miriam Polar
Naomi Stevens .... Miss Steinberg
Robert H. Harris .... Henry Bellamy
Jacqueline Susann .... First Reporter
Robert Viharo .... Film director
Joey Bishop .... MC at Cystic Fibrosis telethon
George Jessel .... MC at Grammy Awards aka Toastmaster General
Susan Hayward .... Helen Lawson
I must include, although it is out of the scope of this review, that two made-for-television movies have brought this movie back to the American viewing public. (And here I thought it was impolite to serve leftovers to company.) Thank God Ms. Susann (who died in 1974) wasn't around to see them, judging from the reviews. Else she'd have jumped off of a 40-story building instead of the bow of a yacht.
Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls (1981)
Valley of the Dolls (1994)SOURCES:
GreenCine DVD Review Site: http://guru.greencine.com/archives/2006/06/valley_of_the_d.html
The Flick Filosopher: by Maryann Johansen http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/2000/01/valley_of_the_dolls_review.html
Review of the 1997 Re-Issue of the Book "Valley of the Dolls" by Anna Garris Goiser http://www.bookpage.com/9710bp/fiction/valleyofdolls.html
The John Williams Webpages: http://www.bookpage.com/9710bp/fiction/valleyofdolls.html
IMDB webpages (movie): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062430/fullcredits
IMDB webpages (Made-for-Television Movie): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082573/
ASCAP ACE Search: http://www.ascap.com/ace/search.cfm?requesttimeout=300