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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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.
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."