The tale of Judy Garland’s involvement in Valley of the Dolls has grown into a legendary saga over the years. While there are conflicting stories surrounding her departure from the production, one thing remains clear: Judy’s immense talent and the mistreatment she endured during filming.
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The Contract and the Characters
In February 1967, 20th Century-Fox signed Judy to play the role of “Helen Lawson” in the film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s scandalous bestseller. Susann’s book was filled with juicy Hollywood stories, both factual and fictional. The character “Neely O’Hara” was famously inspired by Judy’s own tumultuous experiences. The book even mentions that O’Hara’s voice was a blend of Mary Martin and Judy Garland, further fueling speculation about the book’s origins.
While Judy was too old to play O’Hara, she was the perfect fit for the tough-as-nails Lawson, loosely based on Ethel Merman. Lawson symbolized the old guard of show business, contrasting with the pill-popping younger generation. The infamous bathroom scene, where O’Hara snatches Lawson’s wig and tosses it in the toilet, underscores this clash. Judy brought her unique sensibilities and immense talent to the role, infusing it with humanity.
The Announcement and Filming
On March 2, 1967, Judy and author Susann held a press conference at the St. Regis Hotel in New York to announce Judy’s casting. The news caused a stir, with everyone drawing parallels between Judy and the O’Hara character. Judy herself remarked, “Let’s face it: the role calls for an old pro over 40. That’s for me.” She acknowledged that her days as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz were behind her.
Filming commenced on March 27, 1967, with Judy participating in wardrobe tests. She also prerecorded the song “I’ll Plant My Own Tree,” which would be the last time she recorded a song for a film. Interestingly, Judy disliked the song and advocated for the hiring of Roger Edens. She wanted to sing “Get Off Looking Good” instead. Actual filming began in mid-March, but reports indicate that Judy spent most of her time holed up in her dressing room, resulting in limited usable footage of her first scene.
The Turmoil and Departure
Decades later, Patty Duke (who played Neely O’Hara) recalled how director Mark Robson mistreated Judy on set. It was a hostile environment that further added to the chaos surrounding the production. Then, on April 27, 1967, Judy was “fired” from the film. Fox claimed she “resigned for personal reasons,” but Judy vehemently denied resigning and asserted she was ready to film that day at 6 a.m. Speculation abounded, with various opinions floating around.
Tom Green, a close friend of Judy’s, revealed that on their first day on set, they were filming a nude scene. There were also rumors that Susann convinced Judy the role wasn’t suitable for her, or that Judy objected to the script’s obscenities. Another theory suggests that Judy’s dissatisfaction with the script and song led to her wanting out. Moreover, Judy might have felt uncomfortable with the Neely O’Hara character being too closely based on her. Finally, some believed that director Mark Robson didn’t understand Judy’s nuanced approach to the character.
Susan Hayward replaced Judy in the film, while Margaret Whiting dubbed Hayward’s performance of “I’ll Plant My Own Tree.” Judy’s prerecording circulated among collectors before being released years later on the LP “Cut! Outtakes from Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals Volume One” in 1976. The stereo version received a remastering and featured on the 2017 CD release, “Soundtracks.”
In the end, the film fell short of everyone’s expectations, showcasing neither Judy’s talents nor those of the cast and crew. The premiere became a joke, with Patty Duke quipping, “…they showed the film!” Once again, Judy’s reputation underwent scrutiny by the sensationalist press, focusing on her alleged unreliability, drug and alcohol use, and more. Nevertheless, Judy walked away with a paycheck of $37,500, half of the agreed amount. She also acquired the iconic beaded pantsuit, which she wore during her concerts for several years. Over time, the film has attained cult status, ranking alongside the likes of Mommie Dearest and Showgirls. Judy’s unique interpretation of the Helen Lawson character might have added depth and humanity to the film, even if it clashed with its overall tone.
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