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Richard Knight, Jr. Patty Duke: Guys and 'Dolls'
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2010-09-15

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Patty Duke


"I licked pills, booze and the funny farm! I don't need anybody or anything!" What self-respecting gay man can't immediately identify the source of that quote as Neely O'Hara, the ultimate diva and central character in the Mt. Everest of camp movies, 1967's Valley of the Dolls? Neely—with her endless tantrums, self-destructive behavior and insatiable need for "mass love"—was the creation of novelist Jacqueline Susann, who based the fictional character on the stormy life of the mega-talented Judy Garland. But it is Patty Duke's over-the-top portrayal in the rancid but fabulous movie that has turned both Neely and the actress into camp icons, beloved by generations of gay audiences.

For years Duke disowned the disastrously reviewed ( but financially successful ) Valley of the Dolls but by the time of her best selling 1987 autobiography, "Call Me Anna" ( Duke's real first name ) , she had learned to not only accept the adulation but to embrace it. In the ensuing decades Duke has attended several screenings on behalf of the film. Now, Duke will attend—for the first time—a Chicago screening of the film on Friday, Sept. 24, at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport. [ NOTE: Patty Duke has signed to do a movie and has to cancel all the events scheduled for next weekend including the Valley of the Dolls screening. We are hopeful that she will reschedule the Music Box event and we have a tentative date ( November 20 ) on the calendar. ] The evening, a presentation of Camp Midnight, will begin at 7 p.m. with a pre-show emceed by my alter ego, Dick O'Day; the pre-show features David Cerda and the Handbag Production Players, followed by an interactive screening of the film ( shown in an archival print ) and, finally, an in-depth Q&A with Neely O'Hara herself that will include audience participation. The entire evening will partially benefit the Queer Film Society. See www.musicboxtheatre.com .

The multi-talented Duke—who lives in Idaho with Michael Pearce, her husband of nearly 25 years—has many other claims to fame aside from rotten egg Neely, that Oscar win at 16 for The Miracle Worker and the sitcom where she played identical cousins. She's a multiple Emmy Award winner; a two-time best-selling author; mother of renowned actors Sean and Mackenzie Astin; a passionate spokesperson for bipolar disorder, an illness that she bravely brought under control after years of suffering; and more—much of which she discussed in a lively interview with Windy City Times.

Windy City Times: What is it about hearing the name "Patty Duke" that gets people so happy, brings such recognition? Is it because you've been a part of our lives for so long?

Patty Duke: You know, I'm noticing as the years fleet by that that's certainly part of it. Most of my audience now is baby boomers but because of all the reruns of the TV show and all of that, occasionally a 20-year-old will ask me if I'm Patty Duke and after I faint [ laughs ] , I say that I am.

WCT: I think a major reason why you're still on the radar is because you have given iconic performances in theater, on television and in film.

Patty Duke: Yes, I often think of my career as similar to kudzu [ laughs ] that has taken over the South.

WCT: I can't wait anymore—let's talk about Valley of the Dolls.

Patty Duke: [ Delighted ] Okay!

WCT: What made you finally come to terms with the movie that you abhorred so deeply? Was it seeing how much the gay community embraced it that changed your mind?

Patty Duke: Yes. I was mortified by that movie to begin with, because I had an image of what we were supposed to be doing and it didn't even remotely match what we did. But it was and is the gay community that either allowed me or forced me to come to terms with it and to enjoy the parts that are enjoyable and enjoy the fact that the fellas love me! [ Laughs ]

WCT: I think your appreciation of the movie would be a good lesson for Faye Dunaway to learn with regard to Mommie Dearest.

Patty Duke: I wish that she could plug into that because sometimes it's not going to be the way we think it should be. That doesn't invalidate it. And if that many people are enjoying it, who the hell am I to say it stinks? [ Giggles ]

WCT: Let's talk about Judy Garland, who was cast as the Helen Lawson character and then fired from the movie shortly after filming began.

Patty Duke: What I wasn't conscious of immediately was how much I identified with her. I couldn't bring that to my consciousness because I would have fallen apart. I remember humor. I remember pain. I remember sadness. I remember outrage that without discussing it with anyone who was actually making the movie she was replaced. That was just horrifying to me. And you know what she did? I like telling this story.

WCT: I love this story.

Patty Duke: She was fired and we had our brief goodbyes and then she invited me—I can't remember how many months later—to her opening at the Palace in New York and of course I went and when she came out onstage I was hysterical because she was wearing the Helen Lawson, glittery copper outfit which they did not give her! [ Laughs ]

WCT: Gay men love Valley of the Dolls but you also made a film that lesbians adore.

Patty Duke: Oh, yes! By Design. I played a lesbian; I showed my boobies.

WCT: [ Laughs ] Oh my…

Patty Duke: I'm telling you, this woman will stop at nothing! It was a wonderful experience until Dec. 8, when Lennon was killed and there was a pall over the shoot. But Sara Botsford, this tall gorgeous redhead who played my lover really inspired me. I don't know if she even knows this. Everyday I would think, "What am I doing here? I don't know how to play a lesbian" [ laughs ] and Sara, who was also straight, helped me by her commitment. I basked in it and it really helped me.

WCT: I'm happy to point that film out to people but I was thinking of 1965's Billie, where you play the high school track star who wants nothing to do with boys and refuses to wear dresses.

Patty Duke: Oooh yeah! I have a lot of lesbian friends from that. What about the golden hair with the black roots? [ Giggles ] They used to bleach my hair every morning to try and keep the roots away but they were back by lunchtime.

WCT: You definitely had your wild years as a teenager.

Patty Duke: It actually surfaced when I was 20 but it had been there all along because [ bipolar disorder is ] a genetic disease but in my 20s it was, "Okay, I'm not married anymore, done that, I'm going to drink everything there is to drink, I'm going to mess with everyone there is to mess with," and I had no sense of consequence.

WCT: So when you see someone like Lindsay Lohan, does it resonate?

Patty Duke: It really does. The difference that I note is I didn't know enough to have attitude. After watching what's happened with Lindsay all this time I believe that she cops attitude—that's her wall that in her mind keeps her safe—that she can do anything she wants. I just happen to personally believe that she has some medical issues but no one has asked me for my doctorate credentials. [ Laughs ] If I had done some of the things that Lindsay and Paris and all of them do back in our day the career would be gone.

WCT: We can't end without talking about The Miracle Worker, which has been a running theme throughout your career.

Patty Duke: It's been a part of my daily life for more than 50 years. You know I used to hear that actors didn't like to be known for one particular role but I don't have that feeling. I have always been thrilled and honored to play Helen and then over the moon to play teacher, Annie Sullivan. As a matter of fact, I'm trying to say that my swansong with Miracle Worker will be when I direct it next spring locally.

WCT: That's lovely. Now, you know there's been a lot of speculation over the years that the relationship between Helen and Annie included physical intimacy.

Patty Duke: I, too, have heard that speculation but you know, I never went there. When Bill Gibson wrote "Monday After the Miracle" there was a hint of that in there but not the balls to really state it and I hated that play and I was supposed to be in it but then they forgot—which was fine. [ laughs ] But you know what? The feeling I get is, "Who cares?" It wasn't about their sexuality. It was about what they could impart to people and doors that they could open.

WCT: I think "Who cares?" but, from another perspective, I hope that they had that love and if it went into the physical realm, good for them.

Patty Duke: I do think they had that love but a love that maybe others couldn't quite understand. Whatever they had was far more powerful than anything I can imagine.

WCT: Well, I'm so looking forward to continuing our conversation onstage at the Music Box.

Patty Duke: I am too! We're going to have a good time.

WCT: I think—I hope—that I've earned the right to call you Anna.

Patty Duke: Yes sir, you have!

Note: As of the press deadline, there was a possible scheduling conflict with this event; please check with the Music Box to confirm. Patty Duke will appear at the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre in Woodridge Saturday, Sept. 25, at screenings of The Miracle Worker. Duke will also attend the Hollywood Celebrities & Memorabilia Show on Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 25-26, at the Hilton Rosemont/Chicago O'Hare Airport Hotel.

Look for more movie reviews by Richard Knight, Jr., next week.


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