In 1967, the world of cinema would begin a seismic shift away from the Old Hollywood heyday of doing things and into what we expect from more modern filmmaking. Films such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Cool Hand Luke, and The Dirty Dozen all came out that year, as did the subject of this article, Valley of the Dolls.
Often described as “campy” and a “cult classic” Valley of the Dolls tackled the abuse of prescription drugs in a soapy melodramatic style. Whether it works or not is up to the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, the movie was a blockbuster at the box office making back over ten times its $4.7 million dollar budget. This is the behind-the-scenes story of this unforgettable film.
In the early 1960s, Broadway and television actress Jacqueline Susann began to reflect on her years in show business. She decided to turn all of the wild events she had witnessed over the years into a novel. Susann had at that point written an unpublished science fiction novel (which would be published posthumously as Yargo in 1979), as well as a book about her poodle, Every Night, Josephine!This was published in November 1963 with modest success.
Susann had attempted to write a book similar to Valley of the Dolls years earlier with her friend, fellow actress Beatrice Cole called “Underneath the Pancake.” However, it was never finished. The novel, originally to be titled “The Pink Dolls” was based loosely on her interactions with stars such as Carole Landis, Judy Garland, and Ethel Merman. Eventually retitled, Valley of the Dolls it was released on February 10, 1966.
The novel received poor reviews. However, within four months of release, it was number one on the New York Times Best Seller list. It remained there for the rest of the year, making it the number-one bestselling novel of the year.
It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling, with 20th Century Fox approaching Susann with an offer for the film rights. Susann had a clause inserted in Fox’s contract that obligated the studio to cast her in a minor role. The studio honored the arrangement, and she appears briefly as a reporter.
While negotiating her contract for Fox’s purchase of her novel, Susann made the mistake of giving the studio the right to make a sequel. When Fox made Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Susann was so aghast by its tacky, B-movie awfulness, that she sued in hopes of preventing its release. She failed. However, Fox was forced to use the tagline:
“This is not a sequel to Valley of the Dolls – There’s never been anything like it!”
Screenplay and Director
Producer David Weisbart hired acclaimed writer Harlan Ellison to pen the screenplay. Ellison’s script was extremely faithful to the novel he was adapting. However, Weisbart was unhappy with his draft and wanted numerous changes made to it. Ellison didn’t agree with what the producer had in mind and left the project, demanding his name be removed from the project. Weisbart brought in Golden Globe winner Helen Deutch (Lili) and Dorothy Kingsley (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) to make the changes to the script.
For directorial duties, Weisbart hired veteran Mark Robson who had directed the movie version of Peyton Place, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. His work on that film was what attracted Weisbart to him for Valley of the Dolls.
In February of 1967, Judy Garland signed on to play the role of aging Broadway star Helen Lawson. This would be Garland’s first cinematic role in five years. She was to receive $75,000 for eight weeks of work, then $25,000 a week if more filming was needed.
A few weeks later on March 2, 1967, Garland appeared at a press conference with Susann at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City to announce her joining the film’s cast. The pair also appeared on the CBS game show What’s My Line three days later to further promote the movie.
At the press conference, Garland stated:
“Let’s face it, the role calls for an old pro over 40. That’s for me. It’s for sure I am no longer Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz…The part of Helen Lawson is no more me than the part in Judgment at Nuremberg. It doesn’t pertain to me”
The sexy role of Jennifer North was first offered to Raquel Welch who turned it down flat. Other actresses who turned down the role included Ursula Andress and Julie Christie. Sharon Tate was eventually offered the role which she accepted despite hating both the novel as well as the script. Still, she felt it would boost her career based on the popularity of the book.
When Raquel Welch turned down the role of Jennifer, she approached the studio brass about the possibility of playing the role of rising star Neely O’Hara. This idea was outright rejected. Helen Mirren auditioned for the part as did Barbara Parkins (who would win the role of Anne Wells). Parkins was a star of the TV version of Peyton Place at the time.
The role was eventually offered to television star Patty Duke. She viewed the role as a serious dramatic career transition that would catapult her from the small to the big screen. Prior to this casting announcement, newspaper columnist Dorothy Manner had reported that Elizabeth Hartman had been cast in the role.
Although not a large role, actor Richard Dreyfus made his film debut in Valley of the Dolls. His minor role was uncredited. He would then appear in The Graduate (1967) a month later.
“…one day I realized that I had never actually seen Valley of the Dolls all the way through, so I finally did it, and I realized that I was in the last 45 seconds of the worst film ever made. And I watched from the beginning with a growing sense of horror. And then I finally heard my line. And I thought, ‘I’ll never work again.’ But I used to make money by betting people about being in the best and worst films of 1967: No one would ever come up with the answer, so I’d make 20 bucks!”
– Richard Dreyfus
Filming and Recasting
Garland began work on March 27, 1967. Her first duties were pre-recording the song “I’ll Plant My Own Tree.” Written by Dory and Andre Previn, Garland thought the song was terrible. She urged Weisbart to hire Roger Edens to write a new song or use bobby Cole’s “Get off Looking Good.” Her thoughts were ignored.
This was only the beginning of the turmoil Garland experienced on the set of Valley of the Dolls. She would arrive for filming in the morning ready to begin. However, Robson would wait up to eight hours before retrieving her from her dressing room to begin to film her scenes. By this time Garland would typically be drunk and unable to perform. On April 27, 1967, Garland was fired from the film.
“The director, who was the meanest son of a bitch I ever met in my life…the director, he kept this icon, this sparrow, waiting and waiting. he had to come in at 6:30 in the morning and he wouldn’t even plan to get to her until four in the afternoon. She was very down to earth, so she didn’t mind waiting. The director decided that some guy from some delicatessen on 33rd Street should talk to her, and she crumbled. And she was fired. She shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, in my opinion.”
– Patty Duke
However, on the way out the door, Garland took one of the Travilla-designed outfits intended for her character. Patty Duke realized this when she went to see the legendary performer in Las Vegas.
“Well, about six months later, Judy’s going to open at the Palace. I went to opening night at the Palace and out she came in her suit from Valley of the Dolls.”
– Patty Duke
The studio then approached close friends Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball about taking on the role of Helen Lawson. Both of them passed due to the script being not up to snuff in their eyes. Ultimately Susan Hayward was cast in the role.
Valley of the Dolls was filmed both on location as well as on Stages eighteen and nineteen of the Fox Studio lot. Scenes were filmed in New York City, Connecticut, as well as in and around Los Angeles. Near the end of production, on July 21, 1967, Weisbart suffered a fatal heart attack while playing golf with film director Mark Robson. He was 52 years old.
Composer John Williams scored Valley of the Dolls. At the age of thirty-six, this work earned him his first of over fifty Academy Award nominations.
The signing performances by both Susan Hayward and Patty Duke in the film were dubbed with Margaret Whiting performing for the former and Gaille Heiderman for the latter. Duke disagreed with the decision.
“I knew I couldn’t sing like a trained singer, but I thought it was important for Neely maybe to be pretty good in the beginning, but the deterioration should be that raw, nerve-ending kind of the thing. And I couldn’t convince the director. They wanted to do a blanket dubbing. It just doesn’t have the passion I wanted it to have.”
– Patty Duke
Dionne Warwick sang the title track in the film. However, her version is not on the album soundtrack due to a contractual dispute with Scepter Records, the label to which she was signed.
Release and Reception
Valley of the Dolls was released on November 28, 1967. Although it was the most financially successful movie released by 20th Century Fox that year, critics mostly panned it.
Critic Roger Ebert was so disinterested in the movie he couldn’t be bothered to keep track of which characters and actors were appearing in scenes he referenced in his review. In a scene involving Anne Wells, played by Barbara Parkins, he wrote:
“Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) meets the handsome young man in the lawyer’s office. Having preserved an example of vulgarity, we should also preserve a classic soap-opera cliché. Miss Duke gulps and blinks her eyes and the handsome young man is cool and suave, and as she leaves she drops her purse. Both of them stoop to pick up the contents, and as their eyes meet from a distance of six inches she says she’s afraid she has made a bad impression and he says he’s enchanted, or something. Zing! Love at first sight.”
Despite the poor opinion of Valley of the Dollsby critics it continues to be remembered and enjoyed by audiences over fifty-five years after its initial release. It is a melodramatic time capsule to the look and feel of the entertainment industry in the mid-1960s that arguably gains more charm and endearment as the years pass by.
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