Monday, August 22, 2005

Sparkle, Lisa, Sparkle

The weekend, I've been indulging in a guilty pleasure: watching Valley of the Dolls. Not the movie with Patty Duke and Susan Hayward; no, this is the 1981 made-for-television remake. It's sort of like binging on ice cream - really cheap store-brand ice cream that comes in a gallon bucket and has little ice crystals in it from melting and refreezing in the store.

(If you haven't seen the original, pry up that rock you've been dwelling under, and go rent it. You haven't lived until you've seen Patty Duke's rendering of the immortal lines: "Boobies! Boobies! Boobies!")

I'm only about an hour and a half through this four-hour extravaganza, but already I'm having flashbacks to 1981 (I actually caught this on television the first time around.) We hadn't quite shaken off the 70s at this point - in scene after scene I kept wondering, what the hell were people doing with their hair back then? Lisa Hartman stars as Neely O'Hara, who in this version is some kind of rock singer. She's done up in the baby-pink makeup colors of the time, with her hair brushed out like cotton candy. Her make-up artist-turned-boyfriend-slash-manager in this version is a Jon Peters-alike, who starts slipping her pills on the set of her debut film, a bizarro musical called "Fanfare." The few scenes we see seem like an implosion of the dancing sailorettes from "Anything Goes" with crappy seventies rock-combo lounge music. Crooning out tunes in a Captain Stubing uniform is none other than ubiquitious 70s game show host Bert Convy, as the doomed singer Tony Polar.

If you all refer to your texts, children, you'll remember that Tony Polar is the young, handsome singer who falls in love with showgirl Jennifer North, who discovers from his controlling older sister Miriam that Tony has a congenital disease which will shortly kill him, and will be passed on to the child Jennifer is carrying. Got it?

Well, the key words are young and handsome, and with all respect to Mr. Convy (who tragically died of a brain tumor), he was almost fifty at the time this was made. Carol Lawrence, playing his "I'm ten years older" sister, was actually only a year older. (The opening credit sequence has an odd shot of Ms. Lawrence; it's one of those credits where they show shots of all the actors as their name comes up. When they get to Carol Lawrence, it's a shot of the back of her head. You know she's going to do the "turn-around-and-act-surprised" thing that you see in these kinds of sequences, but the shot stays on the back of her head ... and she's not turning around ... just not turning around. I was wondering, is this role actually played by Carol Lawrence's stunt double? Or Cousin Itt? Finally, of course, she does turn around and act surprised.)

Jennifer North, played in the original by sweet Sharon Tate, is played by Veronica Hamel, Joyce Davenport from Hill Street Blues (recently reduced to spraying a white streak in her hair as Lily Munster in Meet the Munsters.) It's an odd choice. I think she's also a good actress (we'll overlook Beyond the Poseidon Adventure) but she's tough rather than innocent. And she does her best to generate some chemistry with Bert Convy, but that's above and beyond what almost anyone could do.

Another sign how times have changed: they made the daring choice to have Jennifer go for an abortion, at Miriam's urging, when she learns about Tony's condition. The scene in the hospital is short, with Jennifer dressed in a dark suit being led down a corridor by a nurse - actually well done.

Then Jennifer does what anyone would do, which is go lay around in a garret in Paris, getting drunk and high, until she is picked up by a glamorous blond lesbian painter.

The third lead is Catherine Hicks, who was the whale-keeper love interest in Star Trek IV, and currently the mother in "Seventh Heaven." She plays Anne Welles, played by Barbara Parkins in the original. In that version, Anne starts out as a "career girl" secretary and ends up improbably becoming a cosmetics model. In 1981, they actually had an interesting take on this character: she is a young entertainment lawyer who starts climbing the ladder toward studio mogul-dom, the way a lot of women did in the 80s. Her scenes involve a lot of discussion of contracts and options and distribution deals, and seem fairly accurate (unlike the bizarre movie she is helping to produce.)

I'm realizing that I'm making this movie sound not all that bad. Don't get me wrong. It is dreck, oh yes it is. The hair, the clothes, the awful pseudo-rock music: bleah. Strangely, they lured Dionne Warwick into singing the theme song -- she also sang the (different) theme to the 1967 original.

This show is also a classic example of how far the art of lighting has come: every scene has one strong, flat light, with deep shadows everywhere - classic TV lighting. In contrast, I just read an article about what goes into the cinematography of Six Feet Under, which has the most amazingly subtle and beautiful lighting.

Okay, if I'm critiquing the lighting, you know I'm in too deep here.

I have to get back to watching: Jennifer is with the blond lesbian, Neely has just won Best Supporting Actress while strapped into an outfit that makes her look like an escapee from Cirque du Soleil, and Ann is wearing sensible pleated skirts and being rejected by David Birney for not dropping her career to follow him across the globe.

Anybody want a spoon? There's plenty to go around.


Blogger Jason Rohrblogger said... Bert Convy as the inimitable Tony (bi)Polar? I HAVE to rent this thing NOW!

8:42 PM  

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