Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Dolls Less Taken

A Critical Analysis of Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls "1981"

The mythology of the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls is documented on Wikipedia but in short, Jacqueline Susann writes a novel about three gals (and the dolls with which they play) that sells more copies than The Bible. 20th Century Fox buys the rights to make a film. Judy Garland is hired. Judy Garland is fired. Patty Duke. Barbara Parkins. Sharon Tate. Helen Lawson. Barely Pink lipstick. Cross your heart beads. A wig. A toilet. A jukebox. An alley. A rousing financial (if not critical) success. Two deaths. (Tate and Susann.) Cult status. Immortality.

But the saga didn't end with Susann's death from cancer in 1974.

James Coburn, Catherine Hicks and Lisa Hartman

On October 19, 1981 (9-11 PM ET), CBS Television aired the first two hours of a miniseries (four hours total) purporting to be a remake of the iconic story containing material author Jacqueline Susann omitted from her original novel. This project was produced by 20th Century Fox and Irving Mansfield, and is called Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls "1981" (henceforth VOTD81).

"1981" cause it's special

The October 19, 1981 issue of People Magazine mentioned VOTD81 in Picks and Pans:
Susann's widower, producer Irving Mansfield, has made a new, updated version of her '60s bestseller that is even trashier than the 1967 movie — and better. Veronica Hamel is a porno star-turned-movie queen, Lisa Hartman a drugged-out rocker and Catherine Hicks an ingenue learning that, hey, movieland glamor is not a pretty business. The conclusion airs tomorrow.
I can't figure out if this makes VOTD81 a pick or a pan but it certainly makes it seem a lot better and steamier than, upon viewing, it actually is. In fact, VOTD81 is so mundane and sanitized I am convinced Ms. Susann rolled over in her grave when news of this travesty reached it. (Mansfield died in 1988.) Thank god, they kept the abortion!

VOTD81 Commercial

Drummed Right Off Broadway

Not surprising in a remake, the locale and industry for VOTD81 have been changed from New York and a theatrical milieu to Los Angeles and the movie business. Helen Lawson (proudly played by Jean Simmons in spite of it all) is now causing problems on her new FILM, Fanfare. Ann Welles (Catherine Hicks in a prickly performance) is a junior lawyer in the legal department of the studio that is producing the flick. That film studio is owned by Henry Bellamy (James Coburn doing his job).

Ann Welles wiping lint off a basic black suit
she sewed at 16 and still wears at 29.

Welles and Neely O'Hara (Lisa Hartman) are roommates. We find out they were BOTH raised in the mythical town of Lawrenceville (filmed so lovingly in VOTD67 with snow and Judith Lowry and everything but in VOTD81 only as a Hollywood set). Through this small town connection, the unknown Neely get's a supporting role in Lawson's big-budget musical.

The infamous plank and construction dolly

I'm not sure why anyone would make a musical like Fanfare - which WILL be nominated for several prestigious National Film Awards despite the caliber of costumes and songs we as viewers must endure. Let's Be Lovers Tonight (which seems to sample melodically from The Way You Do The Things You Do) is performed by Neely in the shadow of a huge cruise ship - first as a dance with tens of dancers and then with vocal which is abruptly stopped by Miss Lawson's entrance mid-toilette. It is a big bloated production of the type that Hollywood didn't make in 1981 except as a segment of The Love Boat. And why a film director of any distinction (in this case, the distasteful and misogynistic Lyon Burke played by David Birney) would use a construction dolly and a plank of wood to carry his musical star center stage is puzzling.

More of Fanfare's resplendent production values

We Were Meant To Be Lovers is a frightening duet sung by Helen Lawson and Tony Polar (Broadway singer and Tattletales game show host Bert Convy who can't develop a character). It ties up the plot which in some way deals with the hardships the May-December couple has overcome, and seemingly solidifies Fanfare's status as an award caliber musical judging from the kudos when the film wraps.

Bert Convy is a dork.

Midnight Celebration is Tony's solo with eye candy provided by Veronica Hamel as Jennifer North. Convy lacks charisma and can't keep the beat in what is an uptempo number. Plot-wise, this is the number that incites Helen's determination to see Jennifer fired from the picture - as opposed to Neely from the musical in the original movie. Interestingly, I had that same determination when I first heard of VOTD81.

The Veronica Hamel Controversy

In 1981, Hill Street Blues was a huge success and Veronica Hamel, one of its stars, was hired to play Jennifer North. When the first television commercial for VOTD81 was aired, I was dumb-founded by her appearance and why she would be chosen? My guess is the producers didn't want to raise the specter of Sharon Tate so they hired this skinny brunette woman with a bust that wouldn't droop if she tied a weighted rope to each one and dropped the weight off a building.

Jennifer North as the NOW Woman

Turns out that thirty years later, Ms. Hamel gives the best performance in the film. She beautifully takes the high road when Miriam disses her centerfold and, partially because of Camilla Sparv (providing a nice, understated performance as the French woman who falls in love with Jennifer), Hamel makes the Jennifer North story most poignant. In more than a few scenes, Ms. Hamel showed grace and intelligence. And just as Sharon Tate did in VOTD67, Veronica Hamel brings humanity to Jennifer's final moments.

Neely O'Hara

Valley Of The Dolls IS Neely O'Hara, the premiere musical attraction in America today. Neely O'Hara is the part that any actress would relish. Tuneful songs, fabulous fashion montages, breakdowns, award-winning performances, sanitariums and the depths of degradation are all part of Neely O'Hara's oeuvre. It's no wonder that both Patty Duke AND Barbara Parkins auditioned for the role in VOTD67. (The former got the part; the latter played Ann Welles.)

Oy vey

For VOTD81, Lisa Hartman was hired to bring Neely O'Hara to life. Some might remember her as Tabitha on the eponymous Bewitched spin-off. Others might remember her attempts at rock stardom with early 80s LPs like Letterock and Hold On. But to see Lisa's perky facade attempt to reach Neely's personal degradations is just flat. She never reaches them. (To be fair, Patty Duke was a sitcom actress and recorded a few LPs but she was also an Academy Award winner for her powerful portrayal of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.)

Let's Be Lovers Tonight

One measure of a great Neely is the intensity of her breakdowns. There are two. In VOTD81, the first is Neely's high wire act on Wilshire Boulevard (after being told by Ted Casablanca that she disgusts him). The second is shortly after Jennifer's death when she leaves the stage mid-song and begins to hear voices backstage. (It is during this performance Hartman sings However Dark The Night, a credible song copped from the 1980 movie The Idolmaker.)

The schizophrenic Breakdown #2 puts Neely in a sanitarium where she meets Tony Polar, now a vegetable (sic), and reprises We Were Meant To Be Lovers, the treacly duet Polar had done did with Helen Lawson in Fanfare. After the high wire act, she just got better quickly and dyed her hair back to blonde. Neither breakdown is believable as Hartman is just not that deep of an actress but I did enjoy this exchange between Lyon and Neely regarding Ted Casablanca during Breakdown #1.
Lyon: Was he that good in the sack?
Neely: He's not bad.
Lyon: Best in the world huh?
Neely: I haven't done it with the whole world.
I just prefer the depths of degradation reached by Patty Duke in VOTD67.

The Cat Fight


The cat fight between Neely O'Hara and Helen Lawson (when Ms. O'Hara pulls Ms. Lawson's wig off and throws it into the toilet) is by far the most iconic scene in the Valley Of The Dolls legacy. Played for purpose by Patty Duke and Susan Hayward in the original film, that same scene in VOTD81 is mundane and anticlimactic. The irony of the cat fight in VOTD81 is that, although trouble between Neely and Helen is alluded to, we never see anything between them until the cat fight. (To that point in the film, Helen's issues had been with Jennifer.) The audience with no knowledge of the original could realistically wonder why Helen and Neely were angry at each other in the first place.

Not so classic

In the VOTD81 cat fight, after sundry belabored insults have been thrown, Ms. Lawson walks away and a red-headed Hartman pulls off the wig from the back. When the wig is removed, Simmons's hair is coiffed as perfectly as the wig - albeit with silver streaks. It's hard to tell if this was a second wig and for a moment I wondered if we would see the Russian nesting doll of wigs.

Kudos - No kudos

The most exciting moment of the VOTD81 cat fight is seeing a young Nathan Lane as stage manager interrupting the fight to get Ms. Lawson on stage. Personally, I would revel in the opportunity to remake a scene that has become such an iconic moment in the pantheon of gay popular culture. I would think Lane was probably as thrilled despite (or because of) the remake's quality.

Nathan Lane shocked at what women do

Lane's appearance can be looked at as an homage to the small yet pivotal appearance as stage manager by a then-unknown Richard Dreyfuss in VOTD67. How? Hindsight is 20/20.


VOTD81 does not take place in a world where people carry fountain pens and order butterfly steaks as does VOTD67. VOTD81 takes place in a world where people wear the same clothes for almost two decades. This permeance of banality is also illustrated by some of its noteworthy quotables.
  • He's very able. He hired me. (Ann on the job)
  • You're not supposed to be able to find talent like that anymore. (Lyon about Neely)
  • You look like a porcupine in heat. (Helen to Neely)
  • Ohh! You're driving me crazy. (Jennifer to Tony)
  • Good luck to your producer. (Henry to Helen)
Now compare contextually to quotables from the 1967 original:
  • A black Siamese should be very pretty. I'm Ann Welles. (Ann on the job)
  • Look at that face. It's all puffy. You're eyes are bloodshot. (Lyon about Neely)
  • They drummed you right out of Hollywood so, you come crawling back to Broadway. Well Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope. (Helen to Neely)
  • When did I ever do anything my mother told me to do. (Jennifer to Tony.)
  • I've had it rough before. I'm a barracuda. I don't need pills like Neely. (Helen downing her champagne in one gulp)
A favorite exchange occurred in VOTD81 between Henry and Ann after copulation. It alludes to their sexual practices.
Henry: Somehow I expected more reserve from you.
Ann: Why because I'm a lawyer? Everything we did was legal.

The New Material

This event was advertised as using material that Ms. Susann left out of the original novel. It's hard to tell what's new from Ms. Susann's point of view and what's new because the producers updated the story. Here is a list of some possibilities.
  1. Ann mentions that Henry Bellamy had a long-term affair with Helen Lawson.
  2. Ann is no longer a nubile virgin. She retrieves her phone messages (in that kicky, 80s type of way) and hears from three men: Paul Weber whom she met at the Ashton's is inviting her to try his hot tub, Warren Fields enjoyed the other evening, and an unnamed man wants his turn.
  3. Ann sleeps with Henry Bellamy as well as Lyon Burke.
  4. Despite the porno star tag used by People, Jennifer's past in nudies is alluded to but never confirmed. She did a magazine centerfold but, in France, she becomes a drug addict and a painter's model.
  5. Helen wants Jennifer fired not Neely. And Jennifer is not fired.
  6. Ann does not get hooked on dolls. In fact, she doesn't take one pill throughout the entire film. She's a good girl, she is.
  7. Jennifer becomes the successful print model in a nationwide cosmetics campaign upon returning from France and not Ann.

Crawling Back To Hollywood

VOTD81 does retain some things from the original story and film. The most apparent is also the first: Dionne Warwick sings the title theme. This is unfortunate as hearing Ms. Warwick immediately makes one remember the more beautiful original (lyrics by Dory Previn, music by Andre Previn) titled (Theme From) Valley Of The Dolls. Even with lyrics by Sammy Cahn (music by George Barrie), What Becomes Of Love is a pale imitation.

What Becomes Of Love by Dionne Warwick over the title credits

As I mentioned, Jennifer still has an abortion. This gives Ms. North and Maude Findlay the distinction alone of having had an abortion on prime time television. And Tony Polar's sister, Miriam, still does the worrying for both of them because of Tony's congenital degenerative disease that ... was incurable, progressive and that there was not a thing ... they could do about. Of course, this horrible ailment from which Tony's father died in the back ward of a mental hospital - a vegetable is never named; it is just suffered from. In the 1967 original, it was Huntington's Chorea.

The End

Interestingly enough, the Valley Of The Dolls saga continued to continue after 1981. In 1994, a syndicated soap opera aired for 13 weeks (Mon-Fri) in select cities across the United States. It was cancelled after the 65 episodes. There have been umpteen theatrical burlesques that use the original screenplay as a jumping off point. And late last year, it was announced that Lee Daniels, the Academy Award-nominated director of Precious will adapt the novel for NBC, maintaining the original setting and 60s time period. Mad Women anyone?
VOTD81 has never been released for home sale on any media format. I recorded it on VHS tape when TBS ran the program in 1989. With commercials removed, it runs 225 minutes. Leave a comment if you would like a copy.