Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Playing with Dolls

Even from the top of Mt. Everest, Patty Duke can be heard screaming out to God in her final monologue of this monumental camp epic, the likes of which will never be seen again.

Based (a little bit too loosely for my taste) on Jacqueline Susann's ground breaking, incredibly successful, roman a clef novel, Valley of the Dolls concerns three young ladies who wind up in Hollywood and are plagued with a variety of temptations and problems.

Barbara Parkins is Anne, a naive, classy secretary to a New York talent agent who is eventually selected to be the face of a major cosmetics ad campaign and swept into a whole new life.

Patty Duke is Neely, an earnest, talented singer who rebounds from being fired from a Broadway show by its jealous leading lady (Susan Hayward) to become a major film and recording star. Encouraged to slim down and “sparkle,” she has trouble staying on top of it all and progresses through the movie into a selfish gorgon even worse than the one who fired her.

Sharon Tate is Jennifer, a strikingly beautiful performer who can only rely on her face and body to carry her career. When her husband comes down with a mysterious illness, she finds that she has to rely on that and more.

Susann's novel (written with, in many cases, personal experiences of her own and those she knew as an aspiring actress in real life) was a vivid, sensational, yet realistic, account of showbiz heaven and hell spanning a couple of decades. The film manages to cram all the events into present day, with as many of the story elements that could pass censorial muster in 1967 being played out against a palette of insane 60s fashions, hairstyles, sets, musical numbers and artfully handled love scenes and montages. The alternately straight-faced and over-the-top acting of the participants, mixed with the over-ladled glitz and mod trappings have turned this into a cult sensation that few other films can attempt to reach. Scene after jaw-dropping scene features unforgettably trashy or funny dialogue delivered by actresses attempting to overcome the endless parade of hairpieces, false eyelashes and kicky costumes.

Parkins gives the most understated (some might say somnambulant) performance. Her satin voice and built-in elegance go a long way in making her the audience's tour guide through the cesspool of show business. Her psychedelic Gillian Girl commercials rank high in the annals of gay camp.

Duke was crucified for her relentlessly passionate work here. She starts out reasonably subtle, but soon turns into a raging, sour-faced shrew whose drunken, pill-laden ravings have become the stuff of comic legend. No one on earth could scream the way she does in her final scene. Despite the horrendous scenery chewing, her incredibly larger-than-life performance does contain some memorable, even fine, work within it. She does become upstaged just once when her beaded necklace decides to play havoc with her chest during a telethon scene!

Tate (one of Hollywood's most tragic figures ever, thanks to her savage murder a couple of years after this film) is surreally beautiful. Her voice lacks training (and certainly her lines are often hideous), but she is still able to imbue her character with likeability and pathos. Her final moments in this film are a thing of beauty, but she's stunning throughout as well.

In an odd bit of trivia, there is not one scene in the film with all three girls interacting! They appear in one still photograph and have one scene in the same large room, but never as a threesome.

The men of the film couldn't be more disposable. Paul Burke, while an okay actor in some roles, is horribly miscast as an irresistible ladies man. Tony Scotti is repellently smarmy and sings off-key through his nose. He and Duke share one of the all-time loony moments in a sanitarium when he, wheelchair-bound, hears her singing one of his old numbers and temporarily emerges from a vegetative state to duet with her and then immediately regresses! Martin Milner is solid, but can't begin to carve out any focus for himself amidst Duke's hypnotic snarling. Alexander Davion, likewise, has trouble filling in his sketchy role thanks to the switching of it from gay to straight.

Buried in the cast is Lee Grant as Scotti's rabidly overprotective sister. She frets and fusses with a hysterical intensity that overpowers such stellar, kitchen-sink lines as "I'll go heat up the lasagna."

Just as Joan Crawford mopped the floor with her trio of secretaries in The Best of Everything, Hayward completely owns every one of her few moments as a Broadway warhorse. Her bass growl (spitting out foul-mouthed, worldly lines) paired with her fully seasoned star-power allows her to make everyone else in the film seem like a junior leaguer. Even she doesn't escape embarrassment, however. Few things are as mind-blowing as Hayward (decked out in an atrocious fall) flailing around and lip-synching to the planet's most ignorant song ("I'll Plant My Own Tree") as a whacked-out, brightly-colored, plastic mobile swims around her! Then, of course, she and Duke share the pinnacle of cinematic showdowns with a ladies room verbal-wrestling-match and hair-pulling scratch-fest. It doesn't get any better than this, folks.

Hayward’s role was initially to be played by the legendary Judy Garland (who, ironically, was part of the inspiration for Duke’s character in this story to begin with!) Susann announced the casting decision at a press conference that offered up a frail and haggard-looking star. She recorded her song and reported to work, but was tremendously uneasy. Depending on what version you believe, she was either fired or she quit or she was made to quit or she forced them to fire her. One account has her being discovered on the pool table in her dressing room, passed out with her skirt pulled up over her panty-less torso! Thus, her 1963 film I Could Go on Singing would have to serve as her big screen swansong for, sadly, she would be dead within two years of Valley. Hayward was brought in hastily and placed into reworked versions of Garland's costumes (at least one of which she made off with and used in subsequent concert appearances!)

Despite massive critical panning, the film was actually a considerable success and it lives on now as one of the gay community's treasures. Regardless of the ad campaign's claim that every shock and sensation was included, this is actually quite a whitewashed rendition of the story. The biggest omission is probably Tate's character's lesbian relationship, but there are plenty of others. A pallid, drab remake landed on TV in mini-series form in 1981 and a late-night soap popped up briefly (with Sally Kirkland in Hayward's role!) and, even now, chatter continues about a remake, but, while the source novel could still do with a more faithful rendition, nothing could ever or will ever come close to duplicating the overflowing, effervescent tackiness of this version. It's surprising that director Mark Robson, who helmed the tasteful, beautifully appointed film adaptation of another sensational novel, Peyton Place, could turn in a zinger like this, but here it is. Dionne Warwick had a hit song with the title track (which is played endlessly throughout the movie!)

It’s either a credit to me or a black mark that I can recite the entire scene between Duke and Hayward in the ladies room complete with accents and inflections, that is when I can get through it without cackling at myself and it!


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