Sunday, April 17, 2016

Junk Cinema Remembers Patty Duke

Patty Duke in the role that made her shameless: Neely O'Hara in the ne plus ultra of trashy flicks "Valley of the Dolls".

Greetings, movie lovers.

As you may already know, Oscar-winning actress and mental health advocate Patty Duke has passed away.

Duke first rose to fame as the young Helen Keller in the 1962 film "The Miracle Worker". Both she and Anne Bancroft (who played her teacher Annie Sullivan) won Oscars for their performances. Years later, Duke would play Sullivan in an acclaimed TV-movie version of "The Miracle Worker" opposite Melissa Gilbert as Helen.

Her Oscar win earned Patty her own sitcom. "The Patty Duke Show" which ran from 1963 to 1966 and focused on the high school high-jinks of "identical cousins" Patty and Cathy, both played by Duke. As the show's famous theme song explained, Cathy favored "the minuet, The Ballet Russe and crepe Suzette", while Patty "loved to rock and roll" and "a hot dog (made) her lose control".

Although Duke would assemble a resume of impressive credits in film and TV (winning several Emmy awards in the process), Junk Cinema fans will always remember her for her over-the-top, out of this world, supremely nutty turn as the tortured starlet Neely O'Hara in the ne plus ultra of trashy flicks "Valley of the Dolls" (1967).

"Booze! It's what for dinner! And lunch! And breakfast!": Neely O'Hara pours herself some instant breakfast while Paul Burke looks on.

Based on the runaway best-seller by Jacqueline Suzanne--who supposedly felt her book was a serious work of literature!--"Valley of the Dolls" told the sad, sordid saga of three friends (Duke, Sharon Tate and Barbra Parkins) who dreamed of careers in show business but instead found themselves undone by vicious co-workers, faithless men, nasty in-laws, evil producers and big hair. To cope with all these injustices, our heroines swallow a truck load of "dolls" and wash them down by gulping oceans of alcohol.

Of the three gals, poor Duke had it by far the worst. Neely O'Hara (partially based on Judy Garland) starts out as a sweet Broadway baby who is rehearsing a featured role in a new musical. The star of the show is the roaring, hard-as-nails Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward), who believes O'Hara will steal her thunder and the show. "The only hit to come out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson!" Hayward bellows and thus poor Neely is kicked to the curb.

She rebounds by singing on a star-studded TV telethon and staging a night club act. Before long, Hollywood beckons. To keep up with the demands of her film career ("Everybody says 'Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!'") Duke starts popping the dolls and hitting the bottle. Her growing addiction makes Neely uppity and bad tempered and she turns on her long-suffering, nice guy husband Martin Milner (of "Adam-12" fame). 

"I'm not the door man!" Marty complains when faced with his wife's continuous demands.

"You're not the breadwinner either!" wifey spits back.

Another source of friction between the two is Neely's growing dependence on AC/DC hairstylist Ted Casblancas. When hubby fumes, "You're spending more time than necessary with that fag!" Neely screams back, "Ted Casablancas is not a fag! (pause) And I'm just the dame who can prove it!"

Anne Wells (Barbra Parkins) is worried friend Neely is popping more pills than she is.

Then one night a burned-out Neely comes home to find Ted splashing in her pool with a giggling bimbo. Horrified, Neely pours bleach in her pool and staggers off. This leads to her epic nervous break down, where Duke wails, "I can't sleep without a doll!" She's later sent to a nervous hospital to recover. It's there Neely comes upon the terminally ill Tony, the husband of pal and "art film" star Jennifer North (Sharon Tate). Experiencing the last stages of an unspecified neurological disorder, the two old friends sing a duet (!) and then the poor Tony keels over and dies.

Finally cured, Neely has a chance to make a come-back in a new musical. Before that happens, however, Duke has a final showdown with the terrifying Helen Lawson--who knows all about O'Hara's personal and career problems.

"They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you came crawling back to Broadway!" Helen sneers. "But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope! Now, get out of my way," Hayward informs Duke, "I've got a man waiting for me!"

Before Helen can flounce off, Neely grabs the legend's wig off her head and flushes it down the john.

Of course, when Neely tries to make her comeback, her nerves get the better of her and she starts using again. Opening night arrives, but Duke is too stoned to go on. Her scheming little understudy, of course, is ready to go and becomes an instant sensation. Poor Neely is out on her ear again. When last seen, the once great star is staggering through a back alley, bumping into garbage cans and screaming the names of everybody who has wronged her--ending, of course, with her own.

"Hair we go again!": Epic enemies Neely O'Hara and Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) battle it out in one of Junk Cinema's most iconic cat-fights.

"Valley of the Dolls" is such a corker of a bad movie that it holds an honored place in The Bad Movie Hall Of Shame. However, without the wonderfully terrible performances of the cast, especially Patty Duke's, the flick would have been just another Show Business Sucks cautionary tale. As the troubled, temperamental Neely, Duke rose to operatic heights to convey her character's torment: screaming, wailing, crying, crawling on the floor, smoking cigarette after cigarette--everything but acting. Only Stephen Boyd as the louse-of-all-louses Frankie Fane in "The Oscar" matches Duke's hysterical histrionics. Without Duke, "Valley of the Dolls" just wouldn't have been as bad.

So, we say a fond farewell to Patty Duke, an actress and activist who gave so many memorable performances over her impressive career. However, as good a Duke could be, she was even better when she was bad. Patty Duke, Junk Cinema salutes you!