By Richard Knight, Jr.
It's delightful that Barbara Parkins, the star of Valley of the Dolls, is polite enough to identify herself by saying, 'Hi, I'm Barbara' at the outset of our interview—but it's hardly necessary. There's no mistaking the voice of Anne Welles, the 'damn classy' character that she played in the 1967 film version of Jacqueline Susann's infamous and tawdry showbiz saga. After decades of listening to Parkins begin the film by reciting 'You've got to climb Mt. Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls,' the sound of that cultured voice, with its perfect diction, is as distinctive as the Mt. Everest of camp classics that follows it.
Now Fox Home Video has released a two-disc special edition of the movie ( and its in-title-only sequel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls ) and the good-natured Parkins was happy to talk about the film and its extraordinary enshrinement by the gay community. Excerpts from our conversation:
Windy City Times: Everybody I told that I'd be interviewing Barbara Parkins was so thrilled. We all love this movie so much—my sisters, my parents, and all my friends. So it's not just gay men [ who ] get Valley of the Dolls.
Barbara Parkins: I was going to say, 'Does it go beyond the gay community?' and I know that the answer is that it does. Even my daughter would have friends over and say, 'Oh, we're going to have a Valley of the Dolls night' and they're laughing and hooting.
WCT: That was one of my questions. How do your daughter and your family respond to the movie?
BP: She loved it. Like I said, she'd have her friends over and I'd go storming into her room saying, 'It's not that funny! It's dealing with drugs and sex and three women spiraling out of control and it's a sad story,' and she'd say, 'Oh, but it's soooo funny, mommy, look at you.' They really enjoyed it.
WCT: But your performance, ironically, is really filled with a lot of conviction and balances the camp stuff.
BP: You're the first one that's said that.
WCT: You're kidding!
BP: You're the first one. And that's interesting because I've never even thought that. I've always thought, 'Oh, well, it's all over-the-top, even my lines—I got some pretty silly lines.' But I've never felt that my character was the balance of it all.
WCT: Oh, but Anne Welles is so sweet.
BP: I love that you said that. She's very naive, as a lot of young girls coming to Hollywood or New York during that time would have been. That's how I perceived her because I was playing the bad girl in Peyton Place and I thought, 'Well, there's got to be such naivete and such innocence in this young girl that's just lived with her family up in Connecticut.' And coming to the big city, she's overwhelmed and excited and just goes with the flow.
WCT: Well, I think you really caught it. There's a lot of warmth and tenderness there. But, of course, then you finally have to go to the dolls—the red gel caps.
BP: Of course—got to get that cap off and get those dolls down.
WCT: But before that there's that fabulous Gillian Girl commercial with those fabulous hairdos and crazy gowns. Did you get to keep that fabulous hairspray bottle or some of those gowns designed by Travilla?
BP: No I didn't—but Judy Garland ran off with them.
WCT: That's right. You talk about this on the DVD but can you speak for a moment for the Windy City Times readers about working with Judy Garland, Patty Duke and Sharon Tate?
BP: Well, I think the strongest image in my mind in working on the film was working with Judy. It was the biggest thrill for me and stays with me because she was this icon; she was this phenomenal singer and my first scenes were done with her. It was the scene where she tears up the contract and I've said in many interviews that the night before filming I called up Jackie Susann, who I had become close to—I didn't call up the director strangely enough—and I said, 'What do I do? I'm nervous about going on the set with Judy Garland and I might get lost in this scene because she knows how to chew up the screen.' She said, 'Honey, just go in there and enjoy her.' So I went onto the set and Judy came up to me and wrapped her arms around me and said, 'Oh, baby, let's just do this scene' and she was wonderful. But she was also an emotional rollercoaster and I saw her go through many different types of emotions—angry, happy and sad. ( Eventually, she locked herself away in her dressing room and was fired. ) That's who I enjoyed truly working with the most—even though it lasted two days.
WCT: Weren't you Sharon Tate's matron of honor at her wedding to Roman Polanski?
BP: Yes. Sharon and I became very close. We became very good friends. We'd kind of go onto the set and watch Patty because, you know, Patty had won an Oscar at something like seven years old and she was the pro and we thought, 'This is pretty amazing.'
WCT: I would imagine watching some of her really intense scenes in person were probably very different than seeing them on the screen. Maybe they didn't seem quite so over-the-top.
BP: No, they didn't. None of us found it over-the-top at the time but the way the director directed it probably was over-the-top, and maybe he didn't get it right or maybe he did get it right and that's why it achieved the cult status that it has. It was all filmed on a surface level and that's why I think, as the years went along, the scenes became fun and comical to watch, as opposed to saying, 'My God, these girls are losing it.'
WCT: It's not too often that you see somebody in rehab and it's funny.
BP: Well, yes—the funniest scene to me is when Patty finds Tony Scotti in the hospital and they sing to each other. I mean, how did that scene ever come to be? It's just wonderfully hilarious—
WCT: —yeah, it really is.
BP: —and his singing is so bad!
[ Both interviewer and subject laugh. ]
WCT: Why do you think gay men have embraced the movie almost 40 years later?
BP: Well, I tend to turn that question around and ask the gay community or the people that I speak to at the various screenings I've gone to watch the take-offs. I ask them, 'Tell me what it is' and—
WCT: So actually I'm the one that should answer my own question.
BP: OK, yes, right. So, give me your play on it.
WCT: Well I think it's what Ted Casablanca ( and don't you love that he took his nom de plume after a Valley of the Dolls character? ) and other gay media people have said: 'It speaks to our community.'
BP: In what way?
WCT: A lot of that surface stuff of being an outsider and all this tragic, 'It's a rotten business but I love it' stuff and then it's the wigs, the gowns and the big drama of it. You three women are so incredibly beautiful in the film and I think any backstage story really appeals to gay audiences. It's also one of the first movies where they said the word 'faggot' and, though it's derogatory, there's an undercurrent of acceptance, too. I really think that that's the place where Jackie Susann broke new ground; she broke open the closet door in a way with that.
BP: She opened the door in a sense, yeah, that's right. Well—thank you for answering your own question for me. [ Laughs. ]
WCT: [ Laughs. ] You're welcome. So, tell me, almost 40 years later, how it feels to be recognized for this movie for you?
BP: It's still an honor. I'm still in awe. I'm still proud of it and I continually thank the gay community. I think it's the gay community that has kept it going through all these years. I always say, 'thank you, thank you, thank you' at these events I go to. Your community is the reason it's getting this special DVD. I'm proud of it; it was my first film. I loved it, I loved working with the people and I love the people who say, 'Oh my God, I love Valley of the Dolls,' and I say, 'Wasn't it wonderful?' I think Jackie Susann, were she alive, would have been having her Friday night champagne parties, kicking up her heels and absolutely loving every minute of this.
WCT: She would have reveled in this?
BP: Yes, absolutely.
WCT: Can you finish by saying the line for me that starts it all—the one that transports you into that world of 'too much, too soon?'
BP ( recites ) : 'You have got to climb to Mt. Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.' Everyone does!
Entries for the GLBT Pride Movie Survey were still pouring in at press time so the results will appear in next week's column. You can still take the survey by heading to www.knightatthemovies.com .