I’ve been waiting eagerly for the release of the JACQUELINE SUSANN’S VALLEY OF THE DOLLS TV remake on DVD, but still no such luck. And I’m not talking about the forgettable ‘90s late-night soap opera that starred Sally Kirkland and her hair but about the two-parter mini-series event that came our way in 1981 via the CBS affiliates. The one executively produced by Susann’s hubby Irving Mansfield. I was a young teen back then. I had already seen the original on TV with my mom (I talk about it here) and I just couldn’t believe I might experience that same camp appeal all over again. Because let’s get this straight: VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, whether the film or the novel, is by far the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, and just the thought of settling myself in front of the TV screen for this new version gave me goosebumps all over.
From the moment Dionne Warwick What Becomes of Love cues in at the start of the mini-series, I knew I was in good hands. Not only is the piece as catchy as the title song from the original but also just as syrupy; so much so that many like moi still wish the song was available somewhere (hint, hint, Ms. Warwick). But moving on, of course the whole plot is about the same: good girl gets caught up into the world of show business and suffers greatly. And orbiting around her is a whole bunch of colorful but ever-so troubled characters. The difference in this one, however, is that most appear a little less one dimensional. Take Ann, for example. She’s not just a victim of her bad choices but a survivor as well. She does not retreat back where she came from to mend her broken heart or rely on drugs and alcohol as the character did in the 1967 version. She faces her problems head on, as do many others throughout the mini-series five-hour run.
Like in the original, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS “1981” brings to light a big chunk of melodrama found in the Susann novel, not to mention some extra goodies since this TV presentation is also based on material omitted from the book. But all the characters you’ve come to know are there, from Ann to Jennifer to non-gay (!) Ted Casablanca. And if you look quick enough you’ll even see a young Nathan Lane as a stage manager (reminiscent of the small role Richard Dreyfuss had in the original). The part of Helen Lawson is played by silver screen beauty Jean Simmons. She really nails down the role of the jealous fading star, from her hard facial expressions to her dismissive gestures. Susan Hayward would be proud. Wish the same could be said for Lisa Hartman Black’s performance as crazy-ass Neely O’Hara. As much as she’s lovable on screen, her portrayal of an insecure, pill-popping songbird is a little bland. Don’t get me wrong, when she goes ape shit she does it in a big way (that includes the infamous wig throwing in the bathroom stall) but the end results are not as rewarding as they should be.
The whole production is very ‘80s kitsch, from the cheesy song numbers (most interpreted by Hartman) to the casting choices (Bert Convy, Gary Collins, David Birney…). But at times its budget seems far less generous (though I may be wrong on this) as certain scenes look awfully restrained, in need of some pizazz. The acting overall is quite decent, the most noteworthy being Catherine Hicks and Veronica Hamel as Ann and Jennifer respectively. Both bring a certain depth otherwise missed by Barbara Parkins and Sharon Tate in the original. As much as I wanted to dig this version, I got to say that it left me a little cold. Perhaps it was the constant comparison I made to the 1967 film every time anyone appeared onscreen. It never succeeded in making me forget the original, and that’s where the faults lie mostly. That said I’d still indeed get this well-made mini-series if it officially ever came to DVD. Why shouldn’t I? Fool of me to ever pass up the chance of owning part of a legacy taken from the Jacqueline Susann library. I barely think she’d have hated that version like she supposedly did the first one but she would have wanted someone else to take another shot at it, I’m sure. Hence Fox’s megahit EMPIRE which has a Susann story of its own and may very well be discussed here in the near future.
Until next post—Martin