Do you want to read a very good book about a very bad film?
If the answer’s yes, Stephen Rebello’s Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!: Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, the Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time tells you just about everything you could possibly want to know about the production of the 1967 cult classic, Valley of the Dolls. Starting with the Jacqueline Susann and her decision to write the book that scandalized America and caught Hollywood’s imagination, Rebello offers up information on every bit of the process that brought Valley of the Dolls to cinematic life. From the search for the right director to the effort to turn Susann’s novel into a filmable script, it’s all here. Everything from casting to recasting to the costumes to the music to the release to the film’s subsequent status as a camp classic, none of it is left out.
Perhaps not surprisingly, to anyone who knows me, my favorite part of the book were the two chapters that dealt with the casting of “the dolls” and “the dopes.” A truly impressive number of performers were considered for the roles that were eventually played by Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and Sharon Tate and, as I read about the casting process, I found myself thinking about all of the alternate casts that could have been assembled. Some of the possibilities feel inspired. Others boggle the mind.
Imagine, if you will, the famous fight scene between Patty Duke and Susan Hayward if the roles had been played by Barbra Streisand and Bette Davis. It could have happened! Imagine Raquel Welch as the tragic Jennifer North and Elvis Presley as her talented but simple-minded lover. Again, it could have happened. Among those who make appearances — some extended and some just as cameos — in the casting chapters: Candice Bergen, Ann-Margaret, Debbie Reynolds, Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Mary Tyler Moore, Marlo Thomas, Shelley Winters, Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Faye Dunaway, Angela Lansbury, Millie Perkins, Tony Curtis, Christopher Plummer, James Garner, Adam West, James Caan, Martin Sheen, Tom Selleck, James Brolin, Robert Reed, Richard Beymer, Alain Delon, Richard Chamberlain, Anthony Perkins, Kevin McCarthy, and hundreds more. That’s quite an impressive list for a film that no one was apparently expecting to be very good!
The book devotes quite a bit of space to Judy Garland’s casting as Helen Lawson, a character who may have very well been based on her. Garland was infamously fired from Valley of the Dolls and replaced with Susan Hayward. The book explores all of the conflicting accounts about what led to Garland’s firing. On the one hand, if you’re into old Hollywood gossip, you’ll find a lot of it here. At the same time, Rebello shows a good deal of empathy and sensitivity in describing the situation that the phenomenally talented but emotionally insecure Garland found herself in when she was cast as Helen. For all the space that this book focuses on the sometimes unbelievable drama that went on during the shoot, Stephen Rebello is never less than sympathetic to the performers who worked on Valley of the Dolls. Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and Sharon Tate are all brought to vibrant life in Rebello’s account. (Rebello is especially to praised for reminding readers that Sharon Tate was more than just the tragic victim of a terrible crime. She was also an actress of great promise and, from everyone’s account, a wonderful human being as well.) In fact, perhaps the only person who really comes across badly in the book’s account of the production is director Mark Robson, who is portrayed as being the type of manipulative showbiz hack that you would expect to find in a sordid, Hollywood roman à clef. Perhaps one like Valley of the Dolls!
Along with telling you everything you could possibly want to know about Valley of the Dolls, the book is also a sometimes humorous and sometimes thought-provoking portrait of Hollywood at the end of the studio system. Trying to keep up with the popularity of television and the permissiveness of European cinema, Hollywood tried to prove that it wasn’t culturally out-of-touch with its version of Valley of the Dolls. Of course, the end result was a film that showed just how out-of-touch Hollywood actually was. That’s one reason why Valley of the Dolls continues to be such a beloved bad film. Stephen Rebello’s informative book tells you everything you could want to know about it. Dolls! Dolls! Dolls! is a must-read for anyone who loves movies or who is interested in the history and development of American trash culture.