Editor’s note: This interview was originally published on Nov. 18, 2010, in the Chicago Sun-Times
It’s the law of Hollywood that even the most successful actors have careers that hit highs and lows. In Patty Duke’s case, though, there were plenty of peaks and one deep “Valley.”
Fortunately, now the actress can laugh about starring in one of Hollywood’s all-time camp classics: 1967’s showbiz schmaltz “Valley of the Dolls.”
“It took me years to make my peace with the way ‘Valley of the Dolls’ was done and what the final product came out to be. Gay communities have brought me into the fold, and I can actually watch it and not cringe now,” Duke , 64, says. “Thank God I can see it with a sense of humor now. It was a terrible burden, and no matter what I did people wanted to talk about that movie.”
Her good humor intact, on Saturday Duke will make a rare appearance in Chicago to answer all your “Dolls” questions after a screening of the film at the Music Box Theatre.
“Valley of the Dolls” was an eagerly anticipated film adaptation of the critically reviled but huge-selling monster of a book by Jacqueline Susann about three women trying to make it in show biz: the up-and-coming actress-singer Neely O’Hara ( Duke ); the no-talent, doomed starlet Jennifer North (played by Sharon Tate; see related story), and Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins), a small-town girl sucked into Hollywood’s pill-popping, booze-soaked scene. (The “dolls” in the title refer to pills – uppers, downers, or in the movie parlance “greens, reds.”)
“When we were filming, we all thought we were going to win Academy Awards,” Duke says. And then it was premiered aboard a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean packed with the stars of the film, members of the press and even Susann herself.
“Oh, my God, we got into the screening room and, if the film itself wasn’t bad enough, our voices were all high and screeching because the generator was running at a higher speed than normal. People were hysterical with laughter at all the wrong places — our serious scenes. They were just hysterical,” Duke says, laughing. “Cast members scattered when it was over and didn’t come out of their rooms until we were docked somewhere. I, being a glutton for punishment, went out among the press because I thought we were supposed to be selling the film.”
But it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Sure, Duke had spent her teen years toiling as “identical cousins” on the highly rated but kitschy comedy “The Patty Duke Show.” But Duke was also a serious actress with an Academy Award for best supporting actress under her belt, for her role as Helen Keller in 1962’s “The Miracle Worker.”
Duke and all of Hollywood thought that “Valley of the Dolls” would make these actresses stars.
But instead of playing the material for laughs, the director Mark Robson ordered the cast to play it straight. Meryl Streep couldn’t make some of these doozies comes to life:
– “Look. They drummed you right outta Hollywood! So you come crawling back to Broadway. Well, Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope!” (Aging actress Helen Lawson – played by the late Susan Hayward – to the young upstart Neely.)
– “You’ve got to climb Mt. Everest to reach the valley of the dolls.” (Anne)
– “Mother, I know I don’t have any talent, and I know I all I have is a body, and I am doing my bust exercises.” (Jennifer, on the phone to her mom)
– “I don’t need anybody. I got talent, Edward. Big talent.” (Neely)
– “I’m Neely O’Hara, pal, that’s me singing on that jukebox!”
And of course audiences howl when Neely pulls off grande dame Helen Lawson’s wig and sticks it into a toilet. And when Tony Polar (Tony Scotti) sings “Come Live With Me” to a besotted Jennifer.
Because of the book’s popularity, audiences poured into the theaters to see the film, and it enjoyed astounding box-office success. But Duke says it set back her career for at least a couple of years.
She rebounded nicely with a winning turn in 1969’s “Me, Natalie” (co-starring a young Al Pacino), which earned Duke a Golden Globe. And the actress has done scores of television movies (and earned multiple Emmys along the way) over the last few decades, all the while battling a bipolar disorder that she details in her haunting and harrowing 1990 autobiography, Call Me Anna. (And she does, in fact, go by the name Anna in her private life. She was born Anna Marie Duke . Visit Duke ‘s website at officialpattyduke.com for more information on her mental illness and her career.)
You can see Duke next Nov. 29 in the Lifetime television movie “Unanswered Prayers,” based on the Garth Brooks song.
Copyright 2010 Chicago Sun-Times