By R.J. Beaumia
It’s pink, plastic and all about a bunch of bitchy showbiz dames with drug habits and mile-high hair.
It’s the special edition DVD of “Valley of the Dolls.”
If you have any memories of the 1960s, you’re obviously not old enough to have partaken in the mind-altering joys they offered. However, for those of us who were sentient and impressionable Catholic school boys during that decade, one of our main cultural references – besides the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Vietnam War on all THREE networks – is remembering seeing author Jacqueline Susann from sunup to sundown on every single talk show hawking her scandalous novel of show business depravity, “Valley of the Dolls.”
Susann had a marginal career as an actress in New York, but was better known for being seen around town on the night club and cocktail party circuits. Discouraged with acting, she was encouraged to write by her husband, legendary publicist Irving Mansfield.
Her first novel was called “Every Night, Josephine!” which was about her poodle, named Josephine. Incredibly, the book sold well enough to encourage Susann to write another. Mansfield told her to write about the things she knew best, which happened to be the personal lives of stage and screen stars.
Published in 1966, “Dolls” became one of the best-selling books in the history of the printed word thanks to the publicity savvy of Susann and Mansfield.
It also didn’t hurt that the storyline involved topics heretofore considered taboo in polite society; lesbianism, homosexuality, addiction to prescription medication and the wonders of cunnilingus were all fodder for Susann’s tale of four actresses on their way up and down the ladder of fame.
And gayer yet, some of the characters were based on real stars, including Ethel Merman and Judy Garland. What’s not to love?
The book begged to be made into a movie, and naturally enough, in 1967, 20th Century Fox brought “Dolls” to the screen touting it as “the movie you wanted it to be” with “every shock and sensation intact.” It was a movie about “instant love, instant excitement… ultimate hell!” according to the trailer.
The denizens of this ultimate hell are four actresses at various stages in their careers. Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins, who was a huge star at the time on the television version of “Peyton Place”) is the sweet sorority girl, a WASP who within a within what seems like a week of arriving in New York parleys a secretarial career into a glamorous modeling gig.
Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke, the former child actress looking to expand into adult roles, playing the Judy Garland character) is the multi-talented singer and actress who will stop at nothing to further her career or get the men she desires.
Jennifer North (Sharon Tate, most famous, unfortunately, for being a victim of the Manson family murders) is the showgirl who wants nothing more than to be a legitimate actress, only to find herself reduced to sex object at every turn.
Then there’s Helen Lawson (the great Susan Hayward in a role that was supposed to be played by Judy Garland – get the DVD to find out the whole story), supposedly the Ethel Merman character, whose fight to stay at the top includes firing Jennifer from her Broadway show and getting into one of the most famous and fabulous catfights in screen history with Neely in a woman’s “powder room.”
The fuel firing all this lust, greed and ambition is “dolls,” the wonder drugs of their day, washed down with plenty of booze. Nembutol, Seconal and Dexedrine might be lethal when combined with alcohol but makes for intriguing storytelling nonetheless.
As the four actresses struggle with their careers, worse yet they have to contend with men; cheating men, exploitative men, men who are gay husbands, men who are husbands in a vegetative state.
At the premier of “Valley of the Dolls” Susann supposedly said aloud during the screening, “They ruined my book.” If the book was ruined, it’s truly a gift. “Valley of the Dolls” is form first frame to last an exercise in excess and everything that is vulgar with some really bad dialogue thrown in. It’s magnificent.
There is no actor who could salvage such a tremendously bad script, and with the huge hair, “high-fashion” makeup, and spangly wardrobe the histrionics of Parkins, Duke, Tate, and Hayward make an Oberammergau Passion Play look like “Waiting for Godot.”
Oh, and did I mention there are musical numbers? Talk about gilding the lily! A classic verse from one of the songs: “I’ll plant my own tree, and I’ll make it grow.” Depends on where you plant it, honey.
As some have said, “They were going for the Oscar,” and when you see the film you’ll know it’s true.
One of Sharon Tate’s most famous bits of dialogue is an exchange with Patty Duke where she says, “You know how bitchy fags can be.” True enough. We’re also a very dedicated audience, and probably the only reason why “Valley of the Dolls” is marking its coming 40th anniversary with this special DVD.