Friday, February 26, 2016

LIZ SMITH: A New "Valley of The Dolls?

Susan Hayward as Helen Lawson — "Neely hasn't got that hard core like me ..."
by Liz Smith

Will Anne Hathaway Fall Into A New "Valley of The Dolls?" Also — How did Doris Day NOT do "The Graduate?" ... and How To Make Oscar Night Less Boring.  (Don't Watch?)

"ISN'T THAT Neely O'Hara? I thought Merrick was keeping her under wraps."

"He shouda kept her in the nuthouse!"

That was Susan Hayward, as hard-bitten stage legend Helen Lawson, reacting to her younger rival, Neely (Patty Duke) in the screen version of Jacqueline Susann's 1966 blockbuster novel about Broadway, movies, TV, modeling and, but of course, "dolls" (pills to perk you up, calm you down, assuage any physical or emotional pain.)
Patty Duke as the tempestuous musical star, Neely.
The book, despite critical pearl-clutching, was actually a well-crafted roman a clef, with excellent characterizations, smart dialogue and the fun of guessing who was who? Was Neely really supposed to be Judy Garland? ... was Helen Lawson actually Ethel Merman? ... was Jennifer North some amalgamation of Marilyn Monroe? And what about Anne Welles — how many high-cheekboned actresses, models and TV personalities was she supposed to represent?
Barbara Parkins as Anne Wells.
The very next year, 20 Century Fox rushed out a screen version of "VOTD." Everything interesting about the book had been stripped away, leaving nothing but bad, bare-bones dialogue, wooden or wildly over-the-top acting, wretched clothes and cinematography. It was a smash. So bad it was good, and its badness has lived on for decades. There's even a hilarious stage version. Miss Susann was horrified by what had been done to her book, but dutifully publicized the film — she knew which side her dolls were buttered on.

Jacqueline Susann and Judy Garland at the press conference to announce the casting of "Valley of the Dolls."
Jackie had gamely attended a press conference with Judy Garland, who was the original choice for Helen Lawson. Asked by a reporter if she (Garland) found that there was a prevalence of drug-taking in show biz? The star replied: "I find there's a prevalence among reporters!" Within weeks, Judy was off the picture, but was allowed to keep her costumes.

For years, Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins (Anne Welles) and Lee Grant (an overprotective sister/manager/pimp type) tried to forget all about "VOTD." Sharon Tate, who played Jennifer North, didn't have much time left to think about the movie one way or another. She was murdered, horribly in 1969.

But eventually, the surviving ladies came around and saw the film for the camp classic it is. Especially Patty Duke, who had been encouraged to act her ass off as the tempestuous musical star, Neely. There's not a snarled, slurred word out of her character's mouth that doesn't put audiences on the floor, and when she and Miss Hayward have their wig-snatching battle royal in the ladies room, "dolls" are definitely needed! Patty, who was expecting an Oscar nomination out of her histrionics, today laughs at her naiveté.
"OMG, it's a wig!"
Well, as new ideas are hard to come by, I hear that director/producer Brett Ratner is mulling a remake of "VOTD." Anne Hathaway, still very princessy and rom-com-ish, is said to be interested in doing the Neely O'Hara role. Nothing like playing a vicious, self-centered drunken drug addict and alcoholic to make the Academy sit up. (Anne already has an Oscar, but a pair is always nice.)
Anne Hathaway as Neely? Why not?
Now, maybe this was nothing more than casual conversation at the Ivy one night, and nothing will come of it. We shall see. I do hear that Ratner contemplates the new "VOTD" is to be set in modern L.A., grittier and more "serious." Oh, please. Who needs a serious "Valley of The Dolls?" (Remember the short-lived, not-serious 1994 TV series? Or the 1981 TV movie?)
Promo for the 1981 TV movie.
I suggest Mr. Ratner not only read the book, but screen the original movie and while at it, look at "Showgirls." These are the elements needed. Gritty and serious I can get from HBO or Showtime.

Soon, The American Cinematheque in L.A. is planning a 50th anniversary screening of "VOTD" with Miss Parkins and Miss Duke in attendance.

Oh, and how about the divine Helen Mirren as Helen Lawson? I'd love to see her and Anne Hathaway slug it out in the powder room. Maybe Scarlett Johansson as Jennifer, and Lupita Nyong'o as the classy but unhappy Anne Welles? There are men in the story, but it's the women who drive this pill-popping roller coaster ride. Hire, you know — Matt Bomer and Channing Tatum and Zac Efron. Casting complete.
OUR FRIEND Howard Green has sent a long note, giving us another explanation about why Doris Day didn't do, or didn't even try to do "The Graduate." Director Mike Nichols saw DD in "The Glass Bottom Boat" in the summer of '66, and found her to be sexier and shapelier than he'd remembered. He thought she was now womanly and sensuous, and reached out through director Norman Jewison to connect with Day. (Jewison told Doris: "You are much sexier than you realize!")
She was sent the script, but before she could even wrap her head around Mrs. Robinson, Day's husband, the super-controlling Marty Melcher pulled a scene, accusing his wife of not trusting his instincts (which were really quite awful) and warning her she would offend her audience. That was that.

It's fascinating to contemplate Doris in the role, but things generally turn out for the best. Anne Bancroft was perfect and I really can't imagine any other actress doing what she did with the bitter Mrs. Robinson.
ON SUNDAY NIGHT Hollywood once again wallows in that orgy of self-congratulation called The Academy Awards. It will be, as usual, long and boring. (And it always was. We of a certain age just imagine — out of nostalgia for "real stars" and "real glamour" — that the telecast was ever that different.

Cara Buckley in The New York Times wrote an amusing piece of how to "spice up" the Oscars. The suggestions included many I'd spoken of myself over the years. I am particularly annoyed by the insistence on a host, upon whose shoulders must fall all sorts of wit and clever commentary. Few are genuinely funny, certainly not for the entire length of the seemingly endless show. Writer Buckley suggests: "couldn't hosts just bookend the show or be replaced with a voice-over?"

I'm voting for the voice-over myself. As for musical numbers, they are usually unnecessary unless they are fabulously, deliriously tacky and over-the-top. These are the Oscars, not the Nobel Prize ceremonies!

Buckley quotes one Hollywood type commenting that "watching the red carpet is more fun than the show." Yes, indeed, it is amusing to watch stressed-out stars say the same thing over and over again to ten different interviewers, and roll one's eyes at those interviewers, who generally ask the most absurd questions, including the big one: "Who are you wearing?"

Whatever, we'll watch every bit — the hours will fly like millennia and then we'll complain the next morning. That's life, that's show biz.

As the famous columnist Sidney Skolsky used to sign off: "But don't get me wrong — I love Hollywood!"
ENDQUOTE: Spoken by the character Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) in the 2000 movie, "Gladiator": "He [Caesar] will bring death, and they will love him for it. Fear and wonder, a powerful combination ... I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they'll still roar. Take away their freedom and they'll still roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it's the sand in the coliseum."

Just sayin', all you voters out there this year, mulling your choices of emperor — uh, president.

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.