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Producers for Valley of the Dolls wanted Judy Garland.
After all, when Jacqueline Susann wrote her best-selling novel, she based the part of Neely on the actress.
Patty Duke, who played Neely, remembered, “…some of the excitement about the role was reenacting the dynamics of [Garland]. I don’t think we’ve yet begun to scratch the surface of Judy; there was a wild bunch of cells thrown together in that lady.”
For 20th Century Fox, Garland was the perfect fit for the character of Helen Lawson, and in Judy's mind, the money – $75,000 for the small but critical role – was a good deal.
Things began wonderfully, with Garland receiving star treatment, and the studio even gave her a pool table in her dressing room, knowing she loved to play.
Judy was thrilled to be part of the production as well and expressed as much at a press conference for the film on March 2, 1967 alongside the novel’s author. For her, it was yet another return to the screen after too much time away.
“I don’t think any actress could get a better role. I think there’s a good chance to sing one song and yet I don’t have to depend upon singing. I like to act, too, so I think it’s going to be good. I hope I am good in it,” Garland said.
Still, there were concerns that the part was too much for Garland, given her complicated personal history. After all, Susann’s novel dealt directly with substance abuse; “dolls” was her nickname for pills.
One reporter even asked: “The book deals with pills, to some extent. Have you found that prevalent around show business people?”
To which Judy responded: “Well, I find it prevalent around newspaper people, too.”
The first scene that Barbara Parkins filmed for Dolls was with Judy, and it was quite the memorable experience. She said, “I went onto the set and I was so nervous. She was the legend. She was so charismatic. I just loved being with her. I was in awe. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.”
As the production continued, however, things took a turn for the worse. According to Garland’s ex-husband, Sid Luft, Judy’s insecurities were the stumbling block. Despite being prepared, she refused to come out of her dressing room. By many accounts, director Mark Robson wasn't much help, as he was either non-verbal (leaving actresses to guess if they were doing what he wanted) or insulting so as to stir up the emotions he wanted his cast to have for a particular scene.
“I knew she was terrified,” Luft said. “Finally, after several days like this, Judy said, ‘I cannot read these lines. I just can’t.’”
Jacqueline Susann said, “You know what I think went wrong? Here she was, raised in the great tradition of the studio stars, where they make thirty takes of every scene to get it right, and the other girls in the picture were all raised as television actresses. So they're used to doing it right the first time. Judy just got rattled, that's all.”
In the end, the studio decided there was only one thing left to do – fire their star.
Parkins said, “She would have made this movie. I’ve said to people she would have won an Academy Award for this performance. But she freaked out because she was afraid that she was over the hill, that she was too old, that she would never work again. I think it was too close. It paralleled her life too closely.”
Patty Duke remembered, “When Judy was fired like that, it was really the end of the movie for all of us. It was so ugly, so unkind… Also, they were a little too ready with a replacement. They had gotten their P.R. mileage out of the situation, the ‘Judy comeback’ stories had created extraordinary publicity for the film, and now she was expendable.”
But never wanting to be a tragic figure, Garland liked to project resilience. When speaking with Jack Paar, she said, “I got fired again. Oh, I know the studio says I ‘withdrew for personal reasons,’ but don’t believe a word of it. Judy Garland was fired, canned… It’s just as well… Valley of the Dolls isn’t my kind of motion picture. I don’t want to be a harridan on the screen, and I don’t think people want me to be.”
In the end, Judy did find her “comeback,” though it was in a different venue.
Duke remembered, “[The day Judy was fired] was the last I saw of her until the following year, when she was appearing at the Palace, in tiptop shape and doing a great show, wearing her costume from Valley of the Dolls.”