Sparkle, Neely, Sparkle: In Praise Of Patty Duke’s Iconic Role In Valley Of The Dolls

Actress Patty Duke died today at the age of 69. She won an Oscar at the age of 16 for her portrayal in The Miracle Worker, starred in the sitcom The Patty Duke Show, and, after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1982, dedicated herself to mental health advocacy.

She also played Neely O’Hara in one of my favorite movies of all time, Valley of the Dolls. More on that in a moment.

The first “favorite show” I ever remember having as a kid was The Patty Duke Show which aired in reruns on Nick at Nite when I was growing up. I cannot tell you how desperately I wanted an identical cousin of my very one, and firmly believed (for perhaps to long), that this was a legitimate possibility.

After giving up hope that I would ever have an identical twin, I didn’t give much thought to Patty Duke–outside of occasionally singing the theme song in the shower. At least not until I grew up and saw Valley of The Dolls.

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Valley of the Dolls is a camp classic, and absolutely one of my favorite things on earth. Sure–it’s not a “good” film. It would have been better had the writers been able at the time to stick to more of the original storyline from Jacqueline Susann’s book without fear of censors, if Judy Garland had played Helen Lawson as originally intended (not that Susan Hayward wasn’t awesome) or if myriad other things had occurred. Part of the tragedy of Dolls is the feeling you get that it really could have been a genuinely good movie if things had fallen into place.

Still, it’s enjoyable as hell, and I would argue that Patty Duke’s performance in it as Neely O’Hara was actually pretty damned good, and for sure the most interesting part of the movie.

Though melodramatic and over-the-top at times, Duke’s portrayal of down-and-out actress Neely O’Hara likely the primary reason Dolls became a camp classic in the first place, rather than simply a forgotten “bad” movie that starred a woman who was later murdered by the Manson family.

Roger Ebert–who wrote the screenplay for the parody “Beyond The Valley of The Dolls” (which you should also see)–also praised her performance, in particular her first musical number, despite questioning why she had taken the role at all.

Obviously, some aspects were way, way over the top-but if I’m honest, it’s what I love best about the movie. It’s what everyone loves about it. I, for one, have actually taken to using “NEELY O’HARA!” as a minced oath.

Though Duke herself was embarrassed by the film early on (as was Barbara Parkins and basically everyone else in it), she later grew to appreciate it and see what fans saw in it, which was the fun of it all. This honestly makes me think she was a pretty cool person, because so many stars–when they appear in bad films that become cult classics–get angry and bitter whenever they’re brought up.

Valley of the Dolls is currently available on Netflix, and if you’ve never seen it, I implore you to go watch it ASAP.

[NPR]