Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1981)

Universally adored as perhaps THE ne plus ultra camp classic of all time, the 1967 film version of Jacqueline Susann’s smut-fueled roman a clef “Valley of the Dolls,” is one of those movies from which you cannot turn away.  It lures you in, traps you and won’t let you go.  For decades, you will be quoting the lines.  And no, you don’t have to be a drag queen to appreciate the myriad treasures of that film.  The performance of Patty Duke alone should have had the Academy changing the rules to take back Oscars from actors who go this far outside of good acting.

But alas, we’re not here to discuss the 1967 “Valley of the Dolls” (though if you would like to, let me know, because I can go on for hours and hours), but the 1981 remake, which added the author’s name to the official title though she was already dead.  This remake resets the piece in 1981, which automatically knocks out any chance of figuring out which characters in the original were based on celebrities (Is Neely Judy Garland?  Is Helen Ethel Merman?), and let’s face it, 1981 was not nearly as deliciously cheesy a time as 1967.  But, a bit more faithful to the Susann novel than the original movie (at least until the half an hour or so), this remake, which spawned a very brief television series, certainly has its goofy charms as well.  It tries very hard to create some classic lines of its own, but none of them compare.

Because of Patty Duke’s immortal performance, the presence of Susan Hayward and the tragedy that would befall Sharon Tate only a few years later, people tend to think of the original as having an A-List cast, but that’s anything but true (how’s life today, Barbara Parkins?).  So, this remake gets by with a B-Level cast just the same, though none of them are in any danger of stepping over the line into immortality from this piece of nonsense.

Before jumping in, let’s give credit where it’s due.  Well, credit and blame.  The original novel “Valley of the Dolls” was a gigantic sensation in its time.  Partially due to Susann’s willingness to play her part nationwide, sales of the book skyrocketed and trashy literature had a new heroine.  It was “Peyton Place” but twenty times dirtier and more fascinating because of it.  So, of course it had to be a movie.  And of course Susann had to write more books in this vein before dying tragically young(ish). 

And that folks, is the central problem with the 1981 “Valley of the Dolls.”  Nearly two decades of familiarity, a movie version and a sexual revolution later, the actions of the characters and their sexual liberties seem almost tame here.  Why do it at all?  With Mr. Susann, Irving Mansfield as an executive producer, I suppose we have our answer.

Note: because the characters in “Valley of the Dolls” are so well-known, I’m going to use character names here.

The first thing to notice is a song by Dionne Warwick, who sang the title song in the original, but it’s not that song, just some pale imitation called “What Became of Me?” by no less than Sammy Cahn of all people.  That sets the tone for the next four hours, pale imitation.

Forget New York City and Broadway, by 1981, the were as decaying as Helen Lawson’s career.  For 1981, it’s all about Los Angeles and Hollywood.  Ann Welles (Catherine Hicks) has graduated from a legal secretary to a full-fledged lawyer, though still for an entertainment agency.  Ann is still somewhat mousy to start, wearing a suit that she tells a co-worker “I sewed when I was 16,” an outfit that is so buttoned up and free of skin it could be worn by a nun.

Ann has to work on some contracts to please superstar and notorious bitch Helen Lawson (slumming Jean Simmons).  We first encounter Helen in a screening room watching a terrifically awful movie musical number performed by Tony Polar (Bert Convy) to Jennifer North (Veronica Hamel).  “Damn her!  I want her out.  I want her out of the picture!” Helen screams, going into the projection room, knocking the movie off the projector.  As she trashes the room, she berates the poor nobody editor with lines like, “didn’t anyone ever tell you ‘Fanfare’ is a Helen Lawson picture?”  The movie’s director Lyon Burke (David Birney) calms him down, telling him that she only rages because she’s old and Jennifer is young and pretty.  He then has to placate Helen, which he does, though she still wants Jennifer fired.  “You’ve heard all those rumors about her doing pornos,” is her rationalization, though she’s also jealous because she assumes Lyon is sleeping with Jennifer.  “You get rid of that tramp or I’ll put everyone connected with this film on welfare,” Helen rails before storming out.  The lines are a hoot, but it’s Jean Simmons, drawing on decades of experience, who makes them work.  Unlike Susan Hayward, who played every role as a “broad,” it doesn’t come as naturally to Jean, making it all the more impressive.

The head of the law firm is Henry Bellamy (James Coburn), who has gone over the Helen Lawson contract and found out that Helen holds all the cards.  To make sure we understand just how important Henry is, their meeting is interrupted by a call from Rome, from Carlo.  Do we need to ask Carlo who?  (Ponti, we assume).  Ann admires Henry’s artwork and Henry is quite taken with her, inviting her to lunch, you know, to discuss business. 

On the movie set, Lyon is shooting a scene with Tony and Jennifer, though Tony is both unable to ride a bike and remember lines.  “It’s okay,” Lyon says, the only director in history to be calmer than anyone else on the shoot.  He pulls Jennifer aside to tell her to cue him, and Jennifer takes the opportunity to make sure Lyon won’t fire her at Helen’s insistence.  When she returns to help Tony, all he can do is ask her out on a date. 

That night, Tony picks Jennifer up, but she won’t get in the car until he opens the door.  “I never let superstars take me for granted,” she jokes.  They take a ride around the Hollywood Hills, bonding over shared experiences of childhood poverty (via one-liners).  He takes her back to his house, where she’s on guard.  When she asks him if he’s ever been in love, he replies, “not until now.”  That’s her cue to pull away.  “I want to be more than a one-night stand,” she says, assuming she’s just another notch on the bedpost, but Tony assures her, “you mean much more to me than that.” 

Lyon meets with Henry and Ann, the only woman he so far hasn’t charmed and promised to call, where Ann summarizes their position with Helen: $5million at stake.  Lyon wants to fire her and recast, but Henry refuses.  She’s the star.  Lyon also will not fire Jennifer, threatening to quit if it comes to that.  “I suppose it’s time to stop catering to her,” Henry says of Helen and then decides to talk about casting another role, another one that has enraged Helen. 

It’s at this point that Lyon notices Ann and invites her out for a drink.  Instead, Ann suggests going to a showcase where her roommate Neely O’Hara (Lisa Hartman) is performing because Ann thinks she would be perfect for the role in the movie.  This gives Neely an opportunity to tear into a truly awful rock song that shows off absolutely no talent at all, but somehow Lyon is bewitched.  I’m not sure what the plot of the movie is, but the number we’ve seen so far (Tony’s with Jennifer) was an old-time type and Neely sings rock.  “You’re not supposed to be able to find talent like that anymore, right?  Wrong!” Lyon tells Ann after agreeing to give Neely a vocal and screen test.  No, Lyon, you should never have to find “talent” like that.  For some reason, this has Lyon going glassy-eyed and talking about the serious types of movies he wants to make.  And that is followed by him inviting Ann back to his house, saying he’s forward because he has no times for games.  “Sorry Lyon, no games, no score,” says out Miss Priss. 

So much ground is covered in that scene, it’s amazing, especially because it’s handled so ineptly! 

Anyway, at 6am the next morning, Neely is laying down her vocal track.  She has a lot of trouble and she’s very nervous, though Lyon has an infinite amount of patience, as usual..  Cue the first “doll.”  Neely downs a pill to perk her up and suddenly she can perform the song perfectly (or perfectly badly, if you are on the outside of the movie).  The screen test is done with Neely dressed like a Mandrell sister.  It takes ten days, but Neely gets the part.  Ann has known, so she has a bottle of champagne ready to celebrate and Lyon himself shows up at their apartment to drop off the script…and to invite Ann out on a second date. 

They stay in, where now it’s Ann’s turn to go glassy-eyed and tell her life story in a bland monologue.  Lyon plays less attention than I did, only wanting to kiss her, which he does, of course.

Get ready folks, it’s Neely’s first day on the set.  She’s so nervous that someone offers her “a little help…to take the edge off.”  More Tic Tacs, I mean dolls.  Remember when I said I didn’t know what “Fanfare” was about?  And remember when I told you to get ready?  On the first, I’m more confused than ever and on the second, you better make sure you’re prepared.  Neely’s first day on the set is as the leader of an elaborate production number where she and a bunch of girls come off a cruise ship in cheerleader outfits dong choreography so ridiculous it looks like it was lifted from the Village People’s “Can’t Stop the Music.”  Neely wears hot pants to distinguish her from the rest of the girls.  Amazingly, her first take is perfect. 

Also on the set are Tony and Jennifer, having a giggle over a terrible meal she made.  Cue Miriam (Broadway legend Carol Lawrence), Tony’s controlling sister, who snorts to Jennifer, “I saw your centerfold…do you do that sort of thing often?”  The conversation is a catfight waiting to happen, but Jennifer retains the upper hand.  Miriam warns Tony not to “get involved,” but Tony tells her, “you manage my business affairs” and he’ll take care of Jennifer.

In her most efficient demeanor, Ann goes to Helen’s trailer to suspend her, and Helen is outraged, though Ann manages to chide her for her behavior because she is “someone I’ve loved all of my life.”  Idol worship has to be put on hold as Helen hears more of Neely’s production number being shot and storms out.  This part takes on the second story of a double decker bus with the band dressed in sailor outfits.  Why?  Beats the hell out of me!  Helen gets even angrier because “that’s my song!”  “Not anymore,” Lyon says, informing her that the picture is being reshot around the younger cast.  “What’s my next shot?” a defeated Helen asks, even taking a moment to thank Ann for her harsh words. 

Because of the way Ann has handled Helen, Henry buys her a painting and puts her in charge of everything regarding “Fanfare” while he’s out of town.  “Beware of Lyon.  He has a way of devouring baby moguls,” a phrase Ann had just coined for people so young in the business who rise so high.  This means she has to be on the set all the time.  She invades the pastries, but Neely doesn’t because she’s busy popping pills.  When Henry calls to inform Lyon that they have decided to give Neely two extra numbers (musicals by 1981 barely had two, let alone two extra!), he also talks to Ann, who is so super smart about everything she knows exactly how much money it costs every time Tony can’t remember his lines. 

Anyone in screenwriting classes should take notes on a scene between Tony and Jennifer, because it’s everything one should not do in constructing a scene.  Jennifer, emerging from the pool, somehow gets to the subject of children and Tony says he loves them, but never thought about having any.  “Are you trying to tell me something?” he asks.  “No,” she says.  She takes five steps.  “Not really,” she says.  Pours lemonade.  “Well, think about it,” she says.  Giving himself nearly a full minute to ham it up, Bert-as-Tony registers about 15 facial expressions and slowly walks over to Jennifer to ask if she’s pregnant.  She’s “not sure,” but wants to prepare him so he can prepare Miriam.  The scene should have taken 10 seconds, not 10 years. 

It’s been decided to do an all-out “media blitz” on Neely and turn her into a star in five minutes.  In order to act, record, model, pose and live through it all, Neely needs more and more dolls.  She’s so wired that her faithful Teddi Casablana (Steve Inwood), who presumably is still “not a fag” in the immortal words of 1967, gives her dolls to sleep.  “We’re streetfighters, you and me…we’re going to show this town who we really are,” Teddi tells her, for reasons I can’t comprehend because there has been no establishment of his character or who the hell he even is!  “Teddi, love me,” Neely says as she pulls him close to her. 

Steel yourselves, it’s time for a Jean Simmons number.  No, not Gene Simmons, Jean Simmons.  Only because Margaret Whiting handled the vocals and a mobile pulled concentration away from her, was Susan Hayward able to pull off “I’ll Plant My Own Tree” in the original movie version.  Jean is not so lucky.  Stuck on a sound stage that looks like the old set of “Hollywood Palace,” on a block with a band around her, poor Jean is drenched in a red dress so voluminous it must have come from “Gone With the Wind,” she lip syncs to someone who is definitely no Margaret Whiting.  Thankfully, it soon turns into a duet with Tony, and since Bert Convy can actually sing, he melds with her ghost vocalist better than when said vocalist sings solo.  I ask again the question of “what the hell is this movie about?”  The two are dressed for something from the 50s, though the song sounds like vintage 70s Carpenters.  When that scene is done, the movie is officially full shot and since the sound stage is so enormous, it can be used for the wrap party. 

Helen asks Henry if he indeed would have canceled the picture if she hasn’t “backed down on Jennifer North.”  Absolutely he would have.  “Ann did a good job of bluffing me down, but it’s nice to know I still have some clout,” she says wistfully.  You want to rethink that, Helen?  Whatever this movie is about, it ain’t gonna be good!  Jennifer informs Tony she’s pregnant and he goes to the microphone to announce his engagement to Jennifer.  Even Helen claps at this news, though Miriam is is pissed.  “When you have a moment, meet me in your dressing room.  It’s urgent.  And don’t tell Tony,” she hisses at Jennifer.  Before she can go, she has to accept congratulations from Ann and Neely, while everyone else spreads good cheer to Tony.

Lyon gets a call from Paris, telling him his new art film there is a go, but the call actually sounds like it’s from 1967, because Lyon tells Ann she’s coming with him, but she has her job in LA.  “Is that suddenly more important than us?” he asks.  “Either come with me or forget about it,” he snaps when she offers to take long weekends in Paris.  She says no and he walks out.

Now what is so urgent that Miriam had to drag Jennifer away from the party?  “I don’t dislike you, Jennifer, I never did…now I think you really care,” Miriam says, and then makes Jennifer promise to keep this conversation a secret.  “There is no easy way to say this,” she starts.  It seems that Tony’s father (not hers, FYI), “died in the back ward of a mental hospital, a vegetable.”  Ouch!  Tony was only four and given a lot of tests, only to find out he was born “with a death sentence over him…he was going to die the same way his father did.”  Mugging to the back row of the balcony and lays out some fancy medical terms that essentially add up to the fact that Tony is soon to be a goner.  She has the paperwork to prove it.  “He’s going to die.  He’s dying right now.  Only first he’s going to become a helpless child, only it won’t be in the back ward of a mental hospital.  I’ve already picked the best sanitarium there is.  There only thing I can hope is that he doesn’t know what is happening to him,” Miriam dramatically tells Jennifer, who dissolves into tears of her own.  Jennifer asks what will happen if she has a child, and of course Miriam says it’s not at all possible.  Uh oh.

Tony has been making plans in Jennifer’s absence, culminating in a desire to fly to Rome the next day to get married.  Jennifer wants a drink first.  Is that okay, wonders Tony?  She assures him it is.  I think at this point, Jennifer is no longer worried about the health of her never-to-be-born fetus, and a glass of wine won’t make things any worse.  In fact, she tells him that she would like to go on a very very long honeymoon together and a baby would be in the way.  “Let’s put off having this baby,” she says, to which Tony angrily replies, “you want to kill it?”  She makes it sound like she wants a few years of alone time with him before they settle into family life.  “After we kill our child, we can have a ball.  We can celebrate!” Tony snarls.  “Are you just a lousy ambitious actress on the make?” he fumes, asking her if she’s just been using him until the picture ended?  “I can’t go through with it, Tony, I can’t,” she says simply.  “I’m going on the concert tour and you can go tot hell,” he says before storming out.  This is 1981 and not 1967, so Jennifer can have an abortion free, clear and legally. 

Jennifer then goes to Paris when she buys her own dolls at a news stand.  She becomes an addicted mess very quickly in a rat trap of an apartment (though with strong windows because closing just one mutes all the tolling bells of the city) which she can’t pay for. 

Neely becomes an overnight sensation, the kind that is mobbed by fans when she tries to walk down Hollywood Boulevard (you know, where all the fans hang out and thus stars are bound to be mobbed).  A fan puts a sticker saying “I Love Neely” over Helen Lawson’s billing on a poster for “Fanfare.”  She and Teddi fight over her career.  He feels Ann and Henry have stymied it by controlling it so tightly, and she won’t fight them. 

As for Ann, she’s on her way up as well.  She has bought a best-seller to turn into a movie…no, a musical for Neely, and she’s reminded that “there is a great part in it for Jennifer,” though no one has heard from her.  Ann has scads of men leaving her messages proposing dates, but she ignores them all.  She misses Lyon. 

In a seedy Parisian bar, a blond woman with a severe haircut and big shoulder pads buys Jennifer a drink, saying she’s an artist.  “I’ve been watching you for some minutes and I can tell you are a very unhappy woman,” Vivienne (Camille Spary) opines.  She invites Jennifer to her studio for some wine.  “Why not?” Jennifer tartly replies.  Anything for free booze.  Vivienne offers Jennifer a modeling job, and Jennifer collapses, not having eaten since she started on the dolls.  Vivienne offers to help her.  “You need someone.   You shouldn’t be alone,” she says.  Remember, folks, what a severe haircut meant in 1981. 

Guess who is nominated for Best Supporting Actress?  Neely!  Yup, word comes via telegram (apparently also from 1967).  Oh, what award is this?  I have no idea, no one actually says.  It can’t be an Oscar, because that would be a trademark violation, and last I checked, they didn’t send nominees telegrams ahead of the announcement.  Guess who is not nominated for Best Actress?  Helen, and Ann feels sorry for her.  “This started out as a Helen Lawson picture,” she whines to Henry and then asks him, “could you arrange for one of those Lifetime Achievement Awards” for Helen.  He can arrange that, no problem.  This definitely isn’t the Oscars.  They discuss Lyon’s time in Paris, where apparently he’s already made his movie and it tanked.  That was quick!

It’s the night of the awards and Army Archerd is playing himself on the red carpet.  He interviews Helen first.  Does she think Neely will win?  “Oh, I’m rooting for her,” she says with a recognizable sneer.  He has to be fed the name of Tony’s date.  When Neely shows up, whoever designed the costumes for this movie should be shot.  Starting with the tightly braided hair, it’s a mess from top to bottom (hey, it’s an awards show, we’re allowed to judge the outfits).  Teddi doesn’t let her answer anything, doing it himself.  Ann and Henry come together and Lyon jumps out from the crowd to greet them.

“Look at that hair!” Henry says, supposedly lovingly, when Neely is announced as the winner and kisses everyone in the cast on her way up.  Everyone except for Helen, that is.  Helen is backstage wearing a giant frown and puffing on a cigarette, unhappily watching on a monitor. 

The fur flies backstage.  “Those pills must have affected your mind, you thanked everyone but the star of the picture,” Helen snaps.  “I thanked everyone who helped me,” Neely retorts.  “You look like a porcupine in heat,” Helen notices (and she’s right).  “You’re a hag…has-been of the year,” Neely says when Nathan Lane, of all people, playing a stage hand, tries to get Helen onto the stage.  Helen gives Neely a resounding slap across the face and is then help by two women, but soon escapes in time to pull off Helen’s wig to reveal her natural gray hair just as Helen’s name is announced on stage.

Neely takes the wig and holds it over a toilet so Helen can see it, dropping it down and chirping, “go get it, Miss Lawson,” as she flushes.  Nathan Lane is about to have a heart attack in his attempt to get Helen on, and she finally decides to go with her gray hair (which is a really bad wig–you can see the wig line!).  She’s a pro, strutting out on stage and accepting the award with a joke about her hair and noting that she’s in good company getting this award, with Helen Hayes and Laurence Olivier.  And then she tops it all by saying that, “when I was very young, I had a walk-on in a movie about Mary, Queen of Scots” who famously died wearing a wig, covering gray hair.  “I’m glad I showed you mine while we still have time to get to know each other,” Helen says to a rapturous crowd and strides off stage a self-possessed veteran.  Take that, you newcomer swine, Neely O’Hara! 

At a celebratory lunch, Teddi fires away at Henry and Ann.  “I’m serving notice right now…unless you are prepared to renegotiate,” he warns.  Henry and Ann agree, but then Henry says that “everything is negotiable except her hair,” cutting Teddi down to his first job as a hair stylist.  “The amateurs have a tendency to bring everybody down to their level,” Henry snarls, “and in this case, that’s intolerable.”  He storms out and then Teddi storms out, so Neely has to run after him.  “That’s baby’s in trouble.  She’s far down the road,” Lyon notes to Ann, who has worked her addiction into the shooting schedule.  Lyon wants to direct the picture and Ann, wearing the same color as the booth and therefore blending into it, won’t give him a firm yes or no on that.

Neely passes out during a recording session and awakes to find Teddi gone.  She follows him to a bar where he’s canoodling with another woman.  Neely throws a drink in the woman’s face and slaps Teddi.  “You pig, you slob,” Teddi spits out, “you make me sick.  You disgust me.”  Neely falls up against a parked car, in her tight Spandex pants and then drives away, deprived of the howler of a monologue Patty Duke got around this time in the original version.  Instead, she gets a trip in an elevator where she pushes all the buttons and cries.  She heads to the roof, tries to get some dolls and accidentally drops them over. 

Henry gets the news first and calls Ann, but Lyon picks up and refuses to let Ann have the phone for no apparent reason but to be macho and waste a few moments.  When Ann and company arrive, Neely is still on the roof and the reporters are watching from below.  “Is there anyway we can help?” Lyon asks a policeman?  “Hey, maybe!” he says and lets Lyon and Ann up to the roof.  Teddi is stopped by a reporter who has one question: “why?”  He blames Henry and the “exclusive contract.”  When Teddi tries to go up, they won’t let him. 

Instead, Ann and Lyon are harnessed and sent to the edge to help her.  Uh huh, right!  Because both of them are such great negotiators.  “Don’t you remember all the dreaming we shared in that crummy apartment?” Ann begs of Neely.  Why is she doing it?  Because Teddi is “cheating on me.”  “You’re going to turn him into the world’s #1 stud,” if she jumps, Lyon asks her.  “Is he that good?  Is he that good in the sack?” Lyon continues.  That’s the most ridiculous line of reasoning, but it seems to work.  It gets Neely to accept a cup of coffee from Ann so Lyon and the rescue team can grab her. 

“I really wanted to die and come back to see what everyone thought of it, like the dailies,” Neely blubbers in the ambulance.  Lyon and Ann take this seriously, but the cop on hand, if I’m not mistaken, is having trouble stifling a laugh. 

A way-too-long sequence of scenes where the movie wants us to think there might be something between Henry and Ann ends with Lyon showing up at her apartment very jealous.  “Move in with me,” Ann suggests.  “I want to make love to you, not do the dishes,” Lyon answers, in his usual sexist way, though with this odd non-sequiter.

Remember Jennifer?  You do?  I had quite forgotten about her since it’s been oodles of time since we last saw her in Paris with Vivienne, the artist with the severe haircut.  She has heard the news about Neely and calls Ann to find out how she is.  A painter friend of Vivienne’s named Robaire (David Hess), wants to paint Jennifer too.  “For a hundred francs an hour,” Vivienne says, “that’s what I pay her.”  “Ah, but you get extras,” he points out, causing all eyes to look at the floor.  Jennifer has the opportunity to buy more dolls, does, but doesn’t take any.  Instead, she returns to Vivienne to tell her, “I’m living a life that’s not me” and announces she’s moving out. 

Typically, Lyon wants to get back to directing.  “Without my work, I just don’t feel alive,” he tells her as a break-up line, in this, the first scene we’ve seen of Lyon and Ann since they declared their love for each other.  Lyon hasn’t made a lick of sense since his first scene, so are we surprised?

His directing gig is in Paris, with Francoise (Britt Ekland) handling business affairs.  Lyon makes a reference to taxes.  “You should move to Europe, only poor people pay taxes here,” Francoise says, apparently in the park of the script written before the events of 1789. 

Neely arrives home from the hospital with three men in tow.  He notes that he should have brought flowers.  “Get some lilies, Teddi.  For yourself.  I’ve signed with Famous World Talent,” Neely says confidently.  Honey, if you signed with an agency named Famous World Talent, you have bigger problems than addiction!  “Get out, Teddi.  Your bags will be downstairs tomorrow,” she says.  “Teddi, you lose, split,” one of her new agents warns.  She then does a press conference at the Bellamy offices, back to her blonde hair.  She’s not upset about losing the role in Ann’s movie because “it’s too soon after my high wire act above Wilshire Boulevard,” she notes, but apparently a music tour will be fine for her sanity. 

Jennifer is still posing for Vivienne, who introduces her to Enid Marshall (Tricia O’Neill). Enid is an agent who wants her back in the states to do commercials.  As for Ann, she’s decided she wants to spend the night at Henry’s, and does.  Ewwwwww. 

In Paris, Lyon and Francoise attend a fashion show (why? who the hell knows?) that is spoken entirely in English, and he sees Jennifer with her gal pals.  He asks her to dinner, at a place where they pour wine out of miniature cannons.  Jennifer goes through her tale of woe, making it clear she’s no longer a) on drugs or b) with Vivienne.  After spending a lot of the night with Lyon, she wakes him up to say she’s going back to LA.

Enid takes Jennifer to meet cosmetics mogul Kevin Gilmore (Gary Collins), who can’t get enough of Jennifer.  “We’ve been testing your photos all over America and what we’ve come up with is, despite your looks, women all over America love you!” he tells her.  Okay, I guess that’s a compliment.  He wants her to model cosmetics, to be the “Now Woman.”  What follows is, of course, a montage of Jennifer’s cheesecake shots for the cosmetics.  If Veronica Hamel weren’t so stunning, it would probably be laughable.  While becoming a success, she starts seeing Kevin, who teaches her to fish.  “You mean, I have the pleasure or re-opening your beach house?” she asks.  “Re-opening my life,” he replies, as he’s been alone since his wife died.  He tells her that happy story with a roaring fire.  Not only was the wife sick, but apparently a horrible person as she was dying.  “Too bad you never had any children, you’d still have a part of her,” Jennifer lovingly coos, obviously thinking of her own situation.  She’s finally found a man who doesn’t love her just for her looks and that makes her happy, though you couldn’t real tell from the wooden acting what it is Kevin really feels. 

Well, unfortunately, Neely has started hitting the dolls and booze again and the tour is suffering.  “You want me to function, right?  I just need a little help,” she tells a worried Ann.  Neely says she’s bored talking about herself (that’s news), so what about Ann?  Does she think about Lyon?  “I try not to,” she says.  Lyon’s new movie, his second made in the blink of an eye, is a giant hit, and Francoise has a new movie lined up for him, but he wants to go back to LA so he can not only director, but write, his new movie. 

It turns out that Henry and Kevin are old friends, so they take their women to lunch, but Ann notices something isn’t quite right with Jennifer, so it’s time for an emergency trip to the powder room, ladies only.  Ann wants her to see a doctor, and she agrees.  “Make it in the morning.  I have a photo session in the afternoon,” Jennifer tells her.  In the middle of her shoot, Jennifer get an important call telling her to rush back to the doctor, to “something called an Oncologist…it means a specialist in tumors,” Jennifer tells Ann.  The rather diffident doctor diagnoses breast cancer, which has spread into her body.  “You’re telling me, I’m dying?”  “Once again,” says the doctor nastily, explaining that it’s not hopeless, but it’s not looking too good unless she does aggressive treatment, starting with a double mastectomy.  The bitchy doctor has one negative thing after another to tell Jennifer, who asks if she can have children.  “To even think about children at this point is completely unrealistic,” the doctor replies, with all the warmth of an Alaskan nun. 

“I’ll do whatever I have to do, not here, not LA,” Jennifer finally agrees, picking New York City so Kevin won’t know.  She doesn’t want him to know anything because of how he lost his first wife.  “I’ll write you a prescription for some tranquilizers,” is the doctor’s end line.  Yippee, more dolls!

Jennifer lies to Kevin, at first, but he’s figured out she’s sick because her answering service called his answering service.  So, she tells him the truth, but tells him, “I won’t put you through that again.”  He loves her too much to let her go and insists they will get married that weekend, “even if it’s in the hospital…and we can adopt a couple of children.”  It all seems so perfect until she wakes up that night, sees Kevin crying outside and comes up with a new plan.  One that involves a whole bottle of dolls.  Finding her dead is a sure way to make Kevin feel better! 

Not only is Jennifer North the most sympathetic character in “Valley of the Dolls,” but Veronica Hamel gives the movie’s best performance, so spending the final hour without her is going to be pretty damn painful.  Missing Gary Collins?  Not so much.

Neely insists on performing that night, but Ann is asked to be there because “she’s been acting really weird lately.”  Poor Ann, always there to hold everyone’s hands.  The concert gives us another chance for a Lisa Hartman song.  The arena looks like it seats 74 comfortably, and not two of them can clap in time with another.  Neely starts off with a ballad, but it soon turns into a up-tempo song where she gets to smile and snap her hair back and forth a lot.  If she’s dedicating this to Jennifer, no thanks!  Ah, that’s not the dedication song.  Neely stops the show to mention Jennifer’s death and THEN dedicates a song to her (killing more time through bad singing).  At least this one is a ballad, but after just a verse, she is too upset to finish and dashes off the stage.  Ann wants to stay and help Neely, who wants to be alone and promises to call her in the morning. 

Alone in her dressing room, Neely hears voices saying “they are going to kill you,” so she bolts to the stage, where finally she allows herself to be taken to the hospital.  The funky camera angles and running make-up tell us she’s fully crazy, fully hooked on dolls.  Things get worse at the hospital, where she is in a full “amphetamine psychosis” and runs around the halls like a lunatic.  This can mean only one thing, a trip to the Betty Ford Cen…some fancy rehab in Southern California that caters to the rich and famous.  Getting there, a clearly disturbed Neely asks Ann, “is Jen going to join us?”  “No, honey, she can’t,” Ann says sympathetically.

Ann’s co-worker sets her up to go on a lunch date with Lyon by telling her he’s a writer with his first script and she needs to meet him.  Ann actually likes the script idea, about a girl from Kansas with problems, aka “The Neely O’Hara Story” in a nutshell.  He also apologizes to her.  “I’m still in love with you,” is supposed to cover all of his nonsense.  Pig that he is, he says, “what I’d like to try is to make a commitment, a real commitment.”  Try? 

“Henry, Lyon and I were married last night in Las Vegas,” Ann tells Henry, who has been courting Ann for “nearly a year now.”  He’s understandably upset, mainly because he doesn’t think Lyon is good enough.  Ann’s reply?  “I still believe in love.  And if you love someone, you marry him,” she snaps, proof that Lyon’s 60s mentality has rubbed off on her big time. 

I guess the news has shocked Henry worse than expected, because he has a heart attack that very day!  Ann calls Lyon to tell him she has to stay at the office “to make contingency plans.”  When she gets home, the King and Queen of Selfishville have a whopper of a conversation.  “Why did this have to happen right after I told him about us?” she asks.  “Coincidence?” he answers, seriously.  King tells Queen that she’s expected to run the office because Henry has “groomed her for it,” which lights her up.  King then thinks of himself, being alone without her so many hours, noting, “I won’t have an excuse not to finish the script.”  These two get worse and worse with every scene!  Lyon has always been unbearable, but Ann used to have her good moments.

In rehab, where “this is no such thing as instant therapy,” according to a doctor, Neely is actually the sanest of the bunch.  There’s a woman who tells her “if I leave here, they’ll kill me.”  “Who?”  “The Russians.”  Um, yeah.  Neely wisely chooses to worry about the fact that she’s lost the ability to sing.

Ann and Lyon have many reasons to celebrate.  He has finished the script and she’s been promoted to “run the production end of the film division.”  Lyon claims to be very proud of her and also claims that he’ll be fine with her increased workload.  Even better for him, she’s already negotiated a contract for the rights to his movie, provided Neely stars in it (in her own story?).  Neely is still in rehab, but she has her voice back.  Apparently it was all in her mind, explains the doctor, or some man in a white coat pretending to be a doctor, because his explanation isn’t based at all in medical science.  There’s no denying she has her voice back, because she’s giving her fellow patients an impromptu concert, belting out another rock song to an audience who can’t clap well (okay, it’s a sanitarium, they have an excise).  She pulls up one of the men from the crowd and it’s…

…Tony!  Yup, 163 hours later, we meet Tony again.  He’s in the institution withering away, just like Miriam promised he would be.  He’s something of a zombie, and doesn’t recognize Lyon or Ann.  The unhelpful doctor, who discloses Tony’s condition willingly to Lyon and Ann, suggests it’s time for a nap and takes him away so Ann and Lyon can talk to Neely about the movie.  Neely thinks she only needs “a month or two” more of rehab, and Lyon is just fine with that.  Is he starting to care about someone else?

Out on her own, Neely is assured by Lyon that “you are going to be wonderful” and that he will protect her during the filming process.  Is she worried about going back to Kansas to shoot?  Nah, she’s okay with it, now that she’s clean.  Ann will not be attending because she’s too busy at the office, Lyon says rather nastily (good, his selfishness is back).  There’s a great deal of tension between husband and wife at the office where she has to make sure the business end of the movie is okay, butting heads with his creative needs.  Actually, Ann tries to smooth things over, but Lyon is too focused on himself to work on the marriage.

The rushes from Neely’s picture impress everyone (except me, to whom it seems just plain badly acted), and Ann puts in a call to Lyon on set in Kansas.  He’s busy in a bar pumping up Neely’s ego.  “You always made me feel like someone special,” she tells him, apparently not realizing that he’s thinking more of her body than her psyche.  When he invites her into his motel room, she begins to understand, but she goes anyway.  He gets the message from Ann, but declines to call her back.  Not thinking of Neely’s issues, he offers her cognac, but she remembers them before falling into his arms for big kissing. 

When Lyon returns home, Ann greets him with, “I missed the hell out of you.”  “Sometimes I forget how lovely you really are,” he says.  That’s a troubling line, but she doesn’t catch it.  It’s not until she’s watching the dailies that she hears about “the special coaching” Neely is getting, “eight hours of rehearsal every night,” according to others in the room.  Ann storms out to “think about it,” but loyal Henry is “here if you need me.”

She rushes to the location where they are shooting, barges into Neely’s trailer and finds Neely and her husband kissing.  “Oh, Ann, I’m sorry,” Neely pouts before ditching the trailer.  Why is he sleeping with her?  He has a few choice reasons:
“Part of it’s the work, you put people together…”
“Neely needs to feel love”
“Part of it’s us.  Your work.  You don’t seem to need anything these days.”

The first makes no sense, the second is a cop-out and the third finally gets to some truth.  Ann realizes that and goes for the kill.  “Aren’t we really talking about what you need, Lyon?” she asks, apparently unaware that for the last four hours, that’s all they’ve talked about.  “My career threatens your masculinity, it always has.  It didn’t have to, that’s what’s so sad.”  Bingo, she’s finally gotten it!  “I’m good with film.  I’m not good with commitment.  I do love you and I wish you would give this another shot,” he says, turning from anger to guilt in one sentence.  “You finish your picture and then get out of my life,” Ann says, making the right decision.  Ann can’t hate Neely, and in fact reassures her that they are fine and nothing can hinder her continued recovery.  “We’re friends and we’re always going to be friends.  That’s a deal.”  Wow, that’s one forgiving friend! 

“Well, that’s done,” Lyon tells Neely.  “I’d like to see you after we finish,” he also says, as if the last scene didn’t happen!  What a cad! Is there no limit to this character’s corrosive selfishness?  “As far as we’re concerned, it’s a wrap,” Neely tells him, which would be a decent line to throw in his face if she wasn’t crying.  It just seems cheesy delivered that way. 

Dionne and her song are back, which cues the end of the movie.  Ann strides to her car, where she forces us to watch a flashback of Ann and Tony’s Greatest Moments before driving off.  That’s not quite the end Jacqueline Susann had in mind, but it is a happy ending, of sorts.

The miniseries movement was not above remakes, but “Valley of the Dolls” was an odd choice.  There was no way to remake the original movie or even the Susann novel because that time had long passed.  So, someone had the bright idea to modernize it.  Not bright, bad.  The gasps it elicited in the 1960s were the gasps of the coming sexual revolution, of the Women’s Liberation movement, of paperbacks that could only be sold in certain stores.  In 1981, what’s to gasp about?  Only a new angle on the story could have made this work, and there is no possible new angle.  So, we’re left with a cartoonish story, vapid acting (except for Veronica Hamel and Jean Simmons, who do their best with what they have) and a script that tries way too hard to make itself seem important.  It’s not, with the exception of a few lines.  By 1981, “Valley of the Dolls” was simply another insider’s look at Hollywood, which was nothing new. 

Categories: Romance Miniseries

6 Comments to “Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1981)”

  1. Carri 10 December 2013 at 10:51 pm #

    I loved your review of the mini series. I, too, thought it was dreadful minus Jean Simmons. You covered the entire film quite well and often had me laughing out loud (really, just what WAS Fanfare supposed to be???). Thanks for the good reading, i don’t know you but i know we could talk b-rated movies for hours.

    • Bj Kirschner 12 December 2013 at 8:45 am #

      Hours? Probably days! These miniseries are full of material that I know keep me chatty for days, weeks, months! Thank you for reading. Stay tuned, more fun is on the way. 🙂

  2. Brian 11 October 2014 at 9:24 am #

    I don’t suppose you know where I could get a copy of this miniseries?

    • Bj Kirschner 19 October 2014 at 11:53 am #

      As far as I can see, it is still unavailable in any format. My copy was recorded when it was on TV. It has popped up on AMC now and then.

      • Brian 19 October 2014 at 7:07 pm #

        Thanks for that! I can’t even get a bootleg copy anywhere. I bet with today’s broadcast and recording quality you would end up with a pretty reasonable version. It hasn’t been broadcast in Australia for decades.

  3. trevorrg22 3 February 2017 at 5:56 am #

    I enjoyed reading your summary of the mini series. I just watched it, first time I’d seen it since it was broadcast in 1981. I looked for a recap because I wanted to be sure that really was the ending when Ann got into her car and drove off. I had imagined her and Henry might become closer.

    Thanks, I enjoyed reading.

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