The Power of the Pantsuit

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TCM’s Star of the Month, Susan Hayward, in a publicity still for VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) airing tonight on TCM at 11:45 EST/8:45 PST

“What we have here is a dirty soap opera. It is dirty because it intends to be, but it is a soap opera only by default. It tries to raise itself to the level of sophisticated pornography, but fails.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

“Pure trash, based on a trashy book with trashy performances. . . Banal, ignorant and just plain lousy.” – Jay Robert Nash, The Motion Picture Guide

“Dull, sex-teasing, talky, sudser.” – Variety

“Bad as Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls is as a book, the movie Mark Robson has made form it is equally bad or worse. It’s an unbelievably hackneyed and mawkish mishmash of backstage plots and Peyton Place adumbrations.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

As the quotes above illustrate, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) tends to generate strong reactions. Critics generally hated this soapy melodrama when it was originally released and seemed to relish finding new ways to insult the movie as well its audience. Based on Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling gossip-fueled book, the film claimed to illuminate the sleazy side of showbiz with lurid stories about the sexual appetites and drug-habits of its female protagonists who are looking for love, fame and fortune in all the wrong places. Today the uproar over the film and its source material seems rather quaint but contrary to popular belief, the sixties weren’t completely swinging in 1967. There were still plenty of conservative pockets in the country as well as bourgeois intellectuals who balked at the popularity of Susann’s book and were appalled that a Hollywood studio had decided to turn the trashy tell-all into a big budget movie. VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is now considered a cult classic. Its fans relish the over-the-top performances and ridiculous dialogue but I think it contains some genuinely great moments and one of the movie’s best scenes features Susan Hayward in a jewel-encrusted paisley pantsuit.

In VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, Hayward plays Helen Lawson, an aging Broadway star supposedly based on the very real Ethel Merman. She sports the glittering gilded suit at a swanky shindig where she’s the center of attention until her young rival, Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), unexpectedly shows up and tries to steal her spotlight. When Helen sashays into the bathroom for a cigarette, Neely follows her and the two inebriated women get into a verbal sparring match that turns physical. In the scratching and snarling melee that follows, Neely rips off Helen’s luxurious wig and tosses it into a nearby toilet. Naturally, Helen is both enraged and horrified. How will she face the posh party crowd now?

After Neely flees the scene of the crime a somber bathroom attendant advises Helen that she can escape through the kitchen unnoticed if she doesn’t want to be seen without her wig. The seasoned actress turns away slowly and as she gazes into a vanity mirror at her gray-haired visage, Hayward’s face displays a well of pent-up emotions. Fear, disappointment and sadness give way to defiance, resilience and finally strength as she drolly delivers the film’s most memorable line.

“I’ll go out, the way I came in.”

Latching onto the moment with fists clenched and head held high, she whips off her neck scarf and elegantly wraps it around her head before confidently marching out the bathroom door to face the music.

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The entire scene, between the time Hayward enters the bathroom and leaves it, only lasts about 2 minutes but she and her paisley pantsuit completely own it. It’s a spectacular exit and although plenty of people like to point out the campy elements in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, Hayward’s sincerity is undeniable in that moment. She was living in Helen Lawson’s skin and it’s evident that she deeply related to the character’s desperation and disappointments as well as her success. And that dazzling suit she wears represents her achievements.

In the sixties pantsuits or “power suits” worn by women were a relatively new thing. They’d been worn on and off for decades but in the late sixties, women’s pantsuits were becoming more commonplace and designers such as Yves Saint-Laurent and Ossie Clarke were making them essential fashion staples. However, until the 1990s they were still considered overtly masculine and even women in the US senate were not allowed to wear pants on the senate floor until 1993. Let that fact sink in for a moment! Thankfully, times have changed but Susan Hayward’s suit was one hell of a bold fashion statement in 1967.

I should point out that Hayward wasn’t particularly fond of the pantsuit. It was first designed for Judy Garland by costume designer William Travilla and Hayward worried that it added extra pounds to her thin frame. She ordered Travilla to remove the lining and agreed to wear the altered suit in the film but it remained permanently linked to Judy Garland.

Garland had originally been cast in Hayward’s roll as the booze laden, bitchy, aging Broadway star but depending on whom you believe, she lost the part when her own drinking habits interfered with filming. In an act of rebellion or drunken defiance, Garland reportedly pinched the pantsuit when she was ordered off the set and it had to be recreated for Hayward. Others claim it was given to her as a parting gift by the studio but whatever the case may be, Judy Garland toured the country belting out her hits while wearing the brassy pantsuit during the last two years of her life.

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Top: Original costume sketches for Garland and Hayward
Center: Judy Garland performing in the infamous pantsuit
Bottom: VALLEY OF THE DOLLS stars Sharon Tate & Susan Hayward model the pantsuit

And is it any wonder that she wouldn’t let that suit go? It’s brash and gaudy and it screams, “I have an Oscar sitting on my mantel and champagne on ice waiting for me in my limo. I’m a star, damn it. LOOK AT ME!” If any celebrity thrived on the public’s attention and adoration it was Judy Garland, so it’s fitting that the suit became her signature fashion statement before she took her final exit. It’s also fitting that a courageous and confident star like Susan Hayward had the backbone to wear such a bold fashion statement in a movie that riled up critics and thrilled audiences.

VALLEY Of THE DOLLS may be a trashy, talky, dirty and hackneyed movie but it’s anything but dull and one of its greatest achievements is allowing Susan Hayward to wear that garish power suit while she battles her female rival and utters the unforgettable line, “I’ll go out, the way I came in.”

5 Responses The Power of the Pantsuit
Posted By Steve Burrus : September 24, 2015 8:46 pm

Well one of the truly memorable features of “Valley of the Dolls” is seeing Sharon Tate in one of her all too few movie acting roles before her murder!

Posted By Martha C. : September 25, 2015 1:22 am

I didn’t know the back story of the pantsuit until now. I’ve seen this movie dozens of times and love it! Recording it tonight…watching it tomorrow with a tub of popcorn.”Sparkle Neely, Sparkle!”

Posted By Lamar : September 25, 2015 11:38 am

For further info on Travilla and the pantsuit check this out:
http://travillastyle.blogspot.com/2013/01/valley-of-dolls-judy-garland-susan.html

Posted By Stephen Foster : September 25, 2015 12:46 pm

What memories this film brings back!!!
Of course, initially thrilled that Judy Garland was coming back to the movies!!! At least you can see her do the number in the DVD. I thought that pantsuit looked familiar on the cover of her “Live at the Palace” LP!!!
I think Susan Hayward ultimately was the right choice for Helen Lawson (even dubbed by Margaret Whiting in her number).
Never knew that Dory Previn actually sings the song on the soundtrack LP. She sang it pretty well, considering the marriage and her life were about to go on the rocks for awhile.
Great camp now, but were people ever disappointed when the movie opened. I remember Jacqueline Susann going on all the talk shows the previous summer and announcing, “Patty Duke is going to win the Academy Award!!!” and then distancing herself when the film got trashed. I think it’s great Patty Duke recorded all the songs on her own LP, which was available for awhile on CD. It IS worth a listen.

Posted By SeeingI : October 5, 2015 3:07 pm

Definitely the high point of the film, and doesn’t Hayward look stunning with her natural white hair? She’s the only one who escaped that film with her dignity intact, catfights or no.

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