Only two movies come to mind when one thinks of the late Patty Duke — who died on March 29 at age 69 — The Miracle Worker and Valley of the Dolls.
For all the success she had in an acting career that began at age 7, Duke led a grueling private life even by Hollywood standards. There was parental abandonment, sexual molestation, four marriages, mental illness, at least one suicide attempt — you name it.
But with The Miracle Worker and Valley of the Dolls, expressions of vastly different movie genres, Duke firmly staked her claim to cinematic immortality.
The first stemmed from the original 1959 Broadway production of William Gibson’s drama about a young Helen Keller, a tempestuous deaf-blind child given to violent rages. Onstage and in the 1962 movie version, Duke (who was all of 12 years old when she first played the part) was paired with Anne Bancroft, who plays Helen’s teacher, Annie Sullivan.
Duke threw herself completely into the highly physical role which included onstage fights lasting more than 10 minutes. Brooks Atkinson, the revered Broadway reviewer for The New York Times called her performance superb — a plain sullen, explosive, miniature monster whose behavior makes sympathy for her afflictions impossible. The movie adaptation won Duke a best supporting actress Oscar.
Valley of the Dolls won Duke no such official plaudits.
The 1967 adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s soap operatic novel about the travails of three pretty young women lost in the sinful wiles of the big city (the “Dolls” in the title is a euphemism for pill stimulants). The book has become a huge best seller and its movie rendition has developed into a pop culture/camp classic.
Duke elevates the material as Neely O’Hara, addicted to sex, drugs and alcohol. (The two other principal femme roles were taken by Barbara Parkins and Sharon Tate.) It’s pretty much all sex, drugs and alcohol without the rock and roll.
One British critic wrote that Duke’s performance put a flamethrower to her child star image. The phenomenon of Valley of the Dolls transcends Duke’s strong performance but the movie was certainly helped by it.
One wonders how much Duke’s chaotic personal life informed her portrayal of Neely O’Hara. In any case, we thank Duke for it and for her acclaimed role in The Miracle Worker.