The character of Neely O'Hara was partially based on Judy Garland's own history (with pills, alcohol, and failed marriages). It was Garland's real-life pill addiction that contributed to her leaving this film.
The novel begins during a heat wave in New York City at the end of WWII whereas the film opens in the middle of winter with lots of snow. This occurred because the producers were anxious to get the film into production and didn't want to wait for the warmer weather; a fact which infuriated the book's author Jacqueline Susann. The film version was also updated so that instead of taking place from 1945 through the 1950s, the storyline ran from the mid to late 1960s.
The Helen Lawson character was based loosely on Ethel Merman and the Neely O'Hara character is a mixture of Betty Hutton, Judy Garland, and Frances Farmer. Ethel Merman actually ordered a musical number cut during previews of the show "Panama Hattie" before it opened on Broadway. The singer of that number was Betty Hutton, who was creating quite a sensation with her performance of the song. Just like in "Valley of the Dolls", the producer of the show took Hutton to Hollywood and made her a star to make up for her treatment in the show. (Betty Hutton starred in the film version of Annie Get Your Gun (1950), adapted from the Broadway show starring Ethel Merman.) The character of Jennifer is based largely on Marilyn Monroe but also on Carole Landis, while Jacqueline Susann later admitted that Tony Polar was inspired by Dean Martin.
Judy Garland was originally screen-tested and signed to play the main supporting role of Helen Lawson. The studio even provided her with a pool table in her dressing room at her request. Eventually she backed out of the film and was ultimately replaced by Susan Hayward. She kept her costume when she walked off the film, and proceeded to wear the sequined pantsuit while performing in concerts around the world. The character of Neely O'Hara in the film was partially based on her own history (with pills, alcohol, and failed marriages). Sadly, it was Garland's real-life pill addiction that contributed to her leaving this film.
Some ads for the film featured photos of the female leads, along with taglines about each individual character and her pill color of preference ("This is so-and-so; she took the red pills.") Unfortunately, the ad department hadn't paid much attention to the movie because same approach was taken with Susan Hayward's character Helen Lawson - the only lead female character who didn't take pills and was in fact quite vocal in her dislike of recreational pill-popping.
Upon its release the picture was roundly scorned and condemned by critics. Moaned Bosley Crowther in the December 16, 1967, issue of The New York Times, "... all a fairly respectful admirer of movies can do is laugh at it and turn away." Nevertheless, audiences filled the theaters, and the film became 20th Century-Fox's top moneymaker of 1968.
Censorship restrictions at the time prevented some of the more colorful instances from the book making it into the film, such as Sharon's experimentation with lesbianism, Ted Casablanca's homosexuality and Tony's predilection for anal sex.
Dionne Warwick was under contract to a different record label than 20th so the theme on the soundtrack album was sung by Dory Previn, who also wrote the lyrics. Margaret Whiting dubbed Susan Hayward but she was also under contract to a different label, so veteran voice double Eileen Wilson sings "I'll Plant My Own Tree" on the soundtrack album.
There are shots of the exterior of the Playhouse Theatre in New York. This venue was the home of the original Broadway production of "The Miracle Worker", in which Patty Duke, who plays Neely O'Hara, starred in "The Miracle Worker" from 1959-61.
Judy Garland was originally cast as Helen Lawson but was fired when she showed up on set drunk. She was replaced by Susan Hayward at the last minute. Patty Duke later claimed that director Mark Robson deliberately kept Garland waiting in her dressing room all day, knowing that when he finally allowed her on the set, that she would be drunk by then.
Mark Robson had a very combative relationship with all his actresses, particularly singling out Sharon Tate for his harsh treatment. Patty Duke hated working with him and, years later, after his death, still called him "a mean son of a bitch".
Patty Duke took the role of Neely O'Hara as an opportunity to transition into more adult roles in film, and because she saw the role as the most dynamic in the script, allowing her to act, sing and dance. When she learned that despite her preparations her vocals were dubbed for the film, she was furious.
Despite its strong box office performance, the general consensus was that audiences had difficulty accepting the clean-cut Patty Duke in the role of a pill-popping prima donna. The irony was that Duke in real life had become addicted to drugs because her guardians fed them to her to help her with her acting.
Frequent references to Broadway producer David Merrick and his stage production of Hello Dolly (which characters attend) was no doubt tied to the fact that the Fox studio had purchased rights to make a film version of that musical.
Stephen M. Moser of the Austin Chronicle wrote about this film: "The definitive camp classic ... "Valley of the Dolls" is a great movie in the very same way that Showgirls (1995) is a great movie. Rent it and howl!"
Three of the actresses concerned with this movie would turn down roles in The Graduate (1967) later the same year. Candice Bergen (the first choice for Anne Welles) turned down the role of Elaine Robinson, as did Patty Duke (who played Neely O'Hara), and Susan Hayward (Helen Lawson) was the original choice for Mrs Robinson. However, both films featured small roles by a young Richard Dreyfuss.
Dionne Warwick's Scepter rerecording of the movie theme would peak at number two on "Billboard"'s Hot 100 chart in February 1968. Dionne's 45 held the second slot for a month. Without Miss Warwick's presence, the soundtrack album, released by 20th Century Fox Records, entered the "Billboard" pop albums list in January 1968, and the LP then climbed to eighth place.
Her last album release for United Artists Records, "Patty Duke Sings Songs From Valley of the Dolls and Other Selections" failed to rack up robust sales, and the LP would go out of print after just one year. Gene Kelly, writing the liner notes, extolled, "Of course, Patty is an exciting singer, but precisely because her voice is excited and emotional and full of action."
The three-minute movie trailer accompanying the DVD release features an alternate take on one part of the infamous ladies' restroom scene. Susan Hayward's lines (and her delivery) to Patty Duke's Neely O'Hara are a bit different than in the completed film.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In the scene in the bathroom when Patty Duke's character fights with Susan Hayward and rips off the latter's wig only to reveal a head of white hair that the actress had been hiding, Susan Hayward insisted on dyeing her own hair white for the scene as opposed to wearing a white wig as the studio had requested. Hayward, in a testament to her professionalism and commitment to the character, insisted on dyeing her own hair as she felt it would not only look realistic, but add more to the already tense scene.
In the film, Jennifer - played by Sharon Tate - discovers she has malignant breast cancer. In reality, this mirrors what happened to author Jacqueline Susann who had a mastectomy in 1962. Cancer would ultimately kill Susann in 1974.