Resurrection of the Dolls

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "Valley of the Dolls Weekend" was how, well, respectful the proceedings were. From Friday night's presentation of the 1967 cult classic movie to Saturday's performance of Theatre-a-Go-Go!'s over-the-top staged adaptation, the program's pair of sold-out audiences were remarkably sedate.

Sure, there were some campy moments--Courtney Love appearing in a beaded dress once owned by "Valley" author Jacqueline Susann and mimicking the "bust exercises" Sharon Tate performs in one of the film's many unintentionally silly scenes. Or Barbara Parkins, who played Anne Welles, receiving a standing ovation as she sashayed down the aisle of LACMA's Bing Theatre, only to be asked by E! Online columnist Ted Casablanca what she'd been doing for the last 30 years.

Still, in a city where even going out for groceries can be an excuse to play a part, the weekend's most absurd event, the "Parade of a Thousand Dolls" (in which people were invited to dress as their favorite characters) had to be canceled when no one came in costume--not even the drag queens who, over the years, have made "Valley of the Dolls" what some call "the gay 'Rocky Horror Picture Show.' "

Of course, there are certain ironies at work here, for when it comes to absurdity, it's hard to top the idea of a "Valley of the Dolls Weekend" at all. Until recently, "Valley" occupied a fringe position in American popular culture, like a dirty secret no one would admit they knew. The story of three young women whose dreams of love, happiness and stardom gradually dissipate beneath an onslaught of alcohol and pills, the novel originally appeared in 1966 and spent 65 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, even while being derided as mindless trash.

Even Don Preston, the editor assigned by publisher Bernard Geis to work on the book, judged it harshly, calling Susann's writing "painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling, and thoroughly amateurish." Although the movie, too, set box office records, it was hammered by the critics, dismissed as an "auto-satirical soap opera" and an "utterly ridiculous film." Susann, apparently, agreed with such assessments; according to Barbara Seaman's 1987 biography, "Lovely Me," she was so upset at the premiere that she confronted director Mark Robson and told him, "This picture is a piece of [expletive]."

Three decades later, that seems to be precisely the point. "The thing about 'Valley of the Dolls,' " says Bruce Bibby, a.k.a. Ted Casablanca, who took his nom de plume from a character in the book, "is that it's so awful and so great. It's outrageous, over the top. You can't get rid of it--it's like some disease." Part of the appeal is the story's guilelessness, its naivete, which is especially true of the movie. "There's a quality of innocence to the picture," says Parkins. "There's no graphic nudity or violence. It's slightly old-fashioned, but beginning to touch on things that were prevalent just the same."

Ian Birnie, who as director of LACMA's film department, helped coordinate the weekend, calls it "a conventional story; it's a morality play, about how we have to pay for our sins." "Valley's" lingering attraction, Birnie believes, has a lot to do with its synthesis of opposing elements, in which art and entertainment might collide. Bridging the gap between adult and youth culture, it was very much a product of its moment, reveling in the kitschy side of Hollywood and the emerging middle-class drug culture.

"It came along," Birnie notes, "at one of those crucial fissures in American life when there was a gap between public and private morality. That's why it was considered shocking in its day." Still, he says, "There's an American tradition of celebrating bad acting, bad drama. Last March, for instance, we had a weekend with John Waters."

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Theatre-a-Go-Go!'s interpretation of the story, joining the ironic stance, magnifies the film's faults under a satirical lens until they take on a life of their own. Beginning with a lockjawed rendition of Anne Welles' opening monologue--"You've got to climb to the top of Mt. Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls"--it's a nearly line-by-line re-creation of the picture that operates like a knowing wink between actors and spectators, with every inflection played for full camp effect.

The best moments mock "Valley's" own impromptu hilarity: Lizzie Murray's sendup of Sharon Tate--vacuous, unable to get her lines out--and Kate Flannery's exaggerated turn on Patty Duke's pill-crazed Neely O'Hara. The audience participated fully. When Benjamin Zook, whose demented Helen Lawson resembles a drag queen version of Mimi from "The Drew Carey Show," intoned the immortal line, "They drummed you right out of Hollywood. So you come crawling back to Broadway. Well, Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope," people happily shouted along.

Such devotion certainly marks the "Valley" cult as obsessive, but it's only lately that the fixation has crossed into the mainstream. "There was always a rumble of it, especially in the gay community," says Lisa Bishop, who manages the Jacqueline Susann estate. "But now, that's turned into a groundswell." Poet David Trinidad, recently invited by Bishop to catalog Susann's archives, recalls that, in the mid-1980s, when he started using "Valley" motifs in his writing, "I had no idea that anybody else was interested. Today, you hear about 'Valley of the Dolls' drag parties, but back then, they didn't exist."

New attention has been spurred by Grove Press' decision to reissue the novel in a pink paperback edition, with a cover featuring pill-shaped cutouts, after an astonishing 16 years out of print. Coincidentally, Fox has chosen the same moment to issue a 30th anniversary edition video of the movie, while singer k.d. lang covers the "Theme From the Valley of the Dolls" on her new album, "Drag."

It doesn't stop there--in January, Grove will republish two more Susann bestsellers, "The Love Machine" and "Once Is Not Enough." Actress Michele Lee, who attended Saturday, is reportedly planning to play the author in an upcoming CBS movie on Susann's life. "It's complete serendipity," says Ira Silverberg, Grove Press editor in chief, about the confluence of "Valley"-related releases. "But obviously, this points to some kind of zeitgeist."

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Given the recyclable nature of American culture, it seems inevitable that "Valley of the Dolls" would be rediscovered. "As we get closer to the year 2000," Silverberg suggests, "we seem to be doing a lot of looking back, and just about the only thing left from the '60s is Jackie Susann." But what's surprising is the serious consideration paid to both the late author and her fluffy novel. For example, New York's New School for Social Research last month hosted "The Other Jackie," a panel discussion on the influence of Susann's work. Interview magazine had Lypsinka dress like the author and stage a Q&A; with her ghost.

"It's an effort to explain who we are as a culture," declares Silverberg. "The County Museum, or the New School--these cultural institutions--are willing to take 'trash' seriously."

Beyond the prose and the plots there's Susann herself, a larger-than-life figure who died of breast cancer in 1974. Grove's marketing strategy is personality-based, referring to the author as "The Other Jackie," who "preferred pills over pillbox hats." Susann, by all accounts, would have loved that; a frustrated Broadway actress and TV pitchwoman, she lived for the limelight, promoting her novels, Silverberg says, "like cereal."

According to Esther Margolis, president and publisher of Newmarket Press, who as publicity director at Bantam Books helped mastermind the original promotion for "Valley," "She didn't overestimate what she had. She was a terrific popular storyteller and didn't present herself as more than that." Still, Margolis says, "She'd be thrilled by what's going on," not least because, as Ted Casablanca puts it, "a few more bucks could be made from her words."

Casablanca's comment is germane in more ways than one. On Saturday, after Theatre-a-Go-Go! had put an exclamation point on things, producer Jon Kean announced that the group still owed Bishop the dollar they'd agreed to pay her for the rights. To remedy the oversight, the cast members brought out a framed memento featuring programs from the Los Angeles and New York productions, as well as a single dollar bill. As a gesture, it was singularly appropriate, a reminder of what the weekend was about.

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