ARCHIVE: Hedda’s Bowling for Dolls

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Green screen: esteemed cinema scholar Hedda Lettuce returns to the Asbury Lanes to shred the over-the-top/ into-the-gutter melodramatics of 1967’s VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit January 20, 2010)

“There’s nothing like cocktails and campy cinema to take the edge off a winter night,” as they say — and, as a notorious trio of tragic heroines found out way back in pseudo-psychedelic ‘67, there’s nothing like a fistful of “Dolls” to put the bumpy back into the showbiz rollercoaster ride.

When sexsational novelist Jacqueline Susann published Valley of the Dolls more than forty years ago, she became nearly overnight one of the most famous figures in all of pop culture — a branded superstar with her own private jet for book tours, and a guilty-pleasure household name in an era when America was just starting to loosen up the MadMen collars and girdles.

And when Dolls (the name refers to the primary-color uppers and downers that get its characters through those long days and nights) became a hotly anticipated moviein the post-Summer of Love, audiences expecting something truly groundbreaking found instead a fun but fatally flawed curio; directed by a guy who worked onCitizen Kane, with a tacked-on happy ending (the screenwriter, sci-fi hotheadHarlan Ellison, had his name sanded off the credits) and a truly bizarre cast.

There’s TV sweetheart Patty Duke (just coming off her show where she played “cousins, identical cousins”) as the prematurely pilly, Broadway-to-Holywood headcase Neely. The truly tragic Sharon Tate (wife of Roman Polanski and the most famous victim of The Manson Family) as Jennifer, the chorus girl turned poignant porn star. Peyton Place veteran Barbara Parkins as Anne, a small town girl swept up by the sinful city — and old-Hollywood leading lady Susan Hayward (replacingJudy Garland, who showed up drunk) as the aging star whose catfight with Neely is a definite highlight.

If you’ve ever delighted to MST3K reruns or created your own home version, you know this sort of thing is overripe for parody — but sometimes you need to leave this sort of thing to the professionals, and this Saturday night down at the atom-age Asbury Lanes, they’re doing just that, as chlorophyll queen Hedda Lettucereturns for a special benefit screening of Dolls, featuring a bevy of extras that you won’t find on the Blu-ray bonus menu.

The “drag performer and comic chanteuse” that middle America got to meet onProject Runway has been packing in crowds of fanatical cinephiles at venues all over the east coast — including a weekly gig at Clearview Cinemas in Chelsea —  with her series of screening events built around some of the (often inadvertently) campiest features ever released, from Airport ‘75 and Earthquake to Xanadu andMommie Dearest (which was also the main attraction the last time this best-dressed salad in stilettos hit the center lanes).

That event last June was produced by Brad Hurtado (of the website Asbury Park Events), and when the doors creak open at 7pm on January 23, the star will present an event in which 40% of the price of all 42Below cocktails will be dedicated to The Center In Asbury Park and its outreach programs in the community. La Lettuce will open the evening with a live musical salute to Dolls, then proceed to shred the film with a running commentary that’s anything but garden variety.

We feel it only fair to point out that the hostess also performs “key scene re-enactments with audience members, special guests and, if you should be so unfortunate, identification of ‘virgins’ – mousy first-timers who have never seenValley of the Dolls or its ilk and are dragged mercilessly into the spotlight.”

Whether dialogue-spouting cultist or extra-virgin neophyte, this is the only way to travel that particular Valley. Red Bank oRBit talked to the Queen of Green about the peaks and valleys of the business of show, the legacy of the Dolls and beyond. Read on.

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Lettuce prey: The 1967 VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is setting ‘em up, and Hedda’s knocking ‘em down at the center Lanes, this Saturday night.

RED BANK oRBit: We’ve been wondering what you were going to do for a followup to the Joan Crawford thing, and I gotta say it looks like you picked a lulu here…

HEDDA LETTUCE: Oh, the Asbury Lanes is great— such a campy, crazy, cute place. It has a definite East Village vibe, and I hope it lasts for years and years.

This weekend I’ll be doing what you could call a guided tour of the Valley — a roast of sorts, with quips to heighten the effect of the film; a little comedy and musical numbers to get the audience energy up. I did the show last summer in Provincetown, and at Clearview for New Year’s Eve — people really loved to ring it in with ‘the original Sex & the City cast.’

Well, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS offers up a very plump target for raking over the coals — the thing that always struck me about it was that, for a highly anticipated major release based on a huge best-seller, it looks kind of cheap. And it’s loaded with TV people instead of movie stars.

Well, it did have Susan Hayward; I think she was quite good here. And Patty Duke, you could say she does a good job doing a complete image change. Then there’s poor Sharon Tate; she’s really not very good in the movie. And Barbara Parkins is just so terribly dull and monotone — her voice is like Thorazine.

But the men are just these TV actors — Paul Burke, and Marty Milner? You’re fighting for the guy from Adam-12?

One explanation could be that Jacqueline Susann herself was the marquee name; we’ve kind of forgotten just how much of a celebrity she was.

Right; the book was just uber-famous — both Jackie Susann and her book were a big, big deal. And her cameo in the picture is lovely!

Okay, so you go up to Mohegan Sun or something, and you wind up hitting the jackpot on the progressive slots — you decide to spend it all on your own personal fantasy remake of DOLLS. Who you gonna call? 

Oh, there are just so many C-list actresses popping out of the woodwork these days — but I think Britney Spears would be perfect for Neely, the Patty Duke role. Can’t you just see her screaming in the alleyway after the concert?

Then maybe for Sharon Tate’s part we’ll get Jada Pinkett Smith. And for the Barbara Parkins role, maybe Katie Holmes — I’d buy that. I wouldn’t buy a ticket, but I’d buy the casting!

But what about the Susan Hayward part — Madonna? Susan Sarandon? Meryl Streep? 

Madonna — I don’t know, she’s so altered by the surgical knife anymore it just wouldn’t look right. Meryl Streep is too long in the tooth, although Demi Moore — what is she, 63? — she can play 50.

But Nicole Kidman, the planes of her face look so bizarre on camera anymore — I just saw her in Nine and it was so disastrous. Daniel Day-Lewis sounds like one of the Mario BrothersDolls, on the other hand, is a train wreck, but you want to keep looking at it. It walks that fine line between a good and a bad movie. They don’t make bad movies like that these days.

Do you think we’ve lost something within the past generation or so, meaning that the technical aspects of filmmaking have advanced to the point where even the crummiest movies achieve the same level of proficiency — and they just kind of lay there instead of going totally out of control, like some completely crazed, anything-can-happen old picture? 

There are a few that really stand out, though. Showgirls is absolutely a good bad movie; it definitely crosses that line. Mommie Dearest of course, which by the way I’ll be showing again later this year. And I’d love the chance to do a show aroundGlitter, which I think is right up there with the rest of them — but the studio won’t let us do it!

Off the top of your head, any other titles you’d like to feed into the salad shooter? How about BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, which as we know is still the sole screenplay credit for Roger Ebert? 

I wanna show that one, too, although to me it’s more a cut and gore, slasher sort of film. But any movie that features a three-boob tranny has to be worth preserving. Some other ideas would be TROG, Joan Crawford’s last movie and my favorite; she’s drunk all through that one. And The Anniversary, with Bette Davis in an eyepatch, is just delicious — ‘Oh God, you’re scummy!’

Here’s an inevitable question: which of the VALLEY characters do you most identify with? 

We can all relate to the tragic females in the drag community, but me, I’d rather be the Susan Hayward character — she’s already lived through it all; she’s lonely, no estrogen, but still refusing to exit the stage.

And one more — since you gave out wire hangers at the door for MOMMIE DEAREST, what would be an appropriate accessory to distribute at VALLEY OF THE DOLLS

Good & Plentys! They look like pills without the horrible aftertaste.

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