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Sparkle and Shine

'Valley of the Dolls,' still cautionary after all these years

By Stephen MacMillan Moser, Fri., April 11, 2008

Sparkle and Shine
Illustration by Terri Lord

"They say I'm difficult. They say I'm drunk even when I'm not. Sure, I take dolls – I've got to get some sleep. I've got to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and 'Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!'" – Valley of the Dolls

God, she got that right. Can't you identify with it? The line is a camp classic, among so many camp classics in Valley of the Dolls. It's an old story by now, and it was at the time, too. But it's never been shown like this, before or since. You know the drill – three young women from different backgrounds go to the big city and find fame and fortune, some more successfully than others.

Neely (Patty Duke in her first adult role) is a charming young firecracker who, ahem, "sings like a bird," dances and acts, and becomes a big stage and screen star despite a penchant for pills and booze and an ongoing feud with a Broadway gorgon named Helen Lawson (played by Susan Hayward). Helen memorably tells her: "They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way; I've got a man waiting for me." This leads to one of the most fabulous scenes in any camp classic, but if you don't already know what happens, then you'll just have to see it to believe it.

Anne Welles (Barbra Parkins, who got top billing) is a sweet girl from Massachusetts who becomes a secretary for an entertainment lawyer whose clients include Neely and Helen. But she is spotted by a cosmetics guru and soon becomes a top model ... before her own little bout with pills and a tumultuous affair with her boss.

Jennifer North (Sharon Tate in her first and last major role) is a naive and beautiful – but talent-free – bosomy blonde. She marries the singing sensation of the moment, but he has a secret illness that destroys him and ultimately her. She eventually makes cheesy French porn, knowing that her body is her best asset. But her body betrays her, and she checks out via pills. I mean, dolls.

Perhaps the biggest joke is the statement at the beginning of the movie, which says, "The producers wish to state that any similarity between any persons, living or dead, and the characters portrayed in the film you are about to see is purely coincidental and not intended." What a crock! The characters are clearly drawn from real life: The "fictional" Neely O'Hara was a dead ringer for Judy Garland, Jennifer North for Marilyn Monroe, and Helen Lawson for Ethel Merman. Authoress Jacqueline Susann was rumored to have had a torrid affair with Merman – I'm so sorry about the visuals that creates – but Susann clearly had an axe to grind with Merman and grinds it to razorlike sharpness with the character Helen Lawson. Oddly enough, Judy Garland had been originally hired to play Helen Lawson, but after a falling out (Judy had so many of those), she quit the production and stole the wardrobe that had been designed for her, wearing it for many public appearances. Susan Hayward was then memorably cast in the role, but if Judy had stayed, the camp factor would have gone over the moon.

Then there's that wretched poem at the beginning – "You've got to climb to the top of Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls." Whatever! And the term "dolls" to describe pills was apparently used only by Miss Susann, since most people were clueless about exactly what or where the Valley of the Dolls was. ("Dolls – the instant turn-on ... for instant love. Instant excitement. And ultimate hell.") It was rated "M" for mature audiences, so I know I didn't see it when it first came out in 1967 – I was only 9 years old – but I saw it as fast as I could, and it changed my life forever.

It was the first time I heard homophobic terms in a movie. Lines like, "Only in Hollywood do women faint because some queer deigns to design their clothes." Or Jennifer North saying, "You know how bitchy fags can be." And Neely O'Hara telling her husband (Martin Milner), "Ted Casablanca is not a fag ... and I'm the dame who can prove it." Mainly, I was struck because it was the first time (but not the last, obviously) that I heard the word "fag." Homophobia has always been the curious element in Hollywood. Who exactly do they think designs all those gowns, hairstyles, make-up, musical numbers, and sets?

There are two montages in the film loaded with Sixties special effects – one of Neely's rise to stardom and another of Anne Welles' modeling career as the Gillian Girl, which displays faaabulous hair and make-up. In fact, the hair and make-up throughout the entire movie bears close inspection. Lots of fake hair, massive teasing, and an ocean of hair spray make it all work with the heavy eyeliner, false lashes, and spackled foundation. The entire women's wardrobe for the movie is very fun: Jennifer's metallic striped minidress and matching coat, the exquisite Sixties couture detailing of Anne's clothes. Neely's clothes, however, are a nightmare. The sweater-and-skirt ensemble that she wears to perform on the telethon is execrable, but definitely keep your eyes on the beads she's wearing during the scene at all times. They provide an unintentionally funny moment, as does the scene in which she visits Anne at her house and flops down on the sofa – the bow on her shoes pops off across the room.

The special-edition DVD of Valley of the Dolls is what all special editions should be – hours of backstory, auditions, a documentary on the debut of the film, a lengthy tribute to Jacqueline Susann, and karaoke for the songs in the movie in which the words are highlighted by bouncing pills.

Anne took the green pills. Neely took the red pills. Jennifer took the blue pills. You can choose your own color so you can sparkle, too.


Valley of the Dolls: A Salute to Stephen Moser screens at the Alamo Ritz (320 E. Sixth) on Tuesday, April 15, at 9:30pm. Emcee Joel Mozersky will host games, singing, and dancing at the show, followed by an afterparty at midnight at Oilcan Harry's. To purchase tickets to the screening, visit www.originalalamo.com.

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