I love Valley of the Dolls.
I love Valley of the Dolls unequivocally. I’ve loved it since the first time I read the book, and every time I’ve reread it since that first time. I’ve watched the movie a dozen times–even if the first time I just stared, mouth agape, not believing what I was seeing–and I watched the televised mini-series remake in the 1980’s, and interesting casting choices aside, found it interesting. (There’s really a terrific article, essay, or book about all those glamorous, soapy mini-series that literally defined the 1980’s waiting to be written…)
When I was younger I was also really into the whole Hollywood thing; movie stars, Hollywood history, scandals, celebrity culture. I read a lot of biographies and memoirs of old Hollywood, watched tons of old movies (still do, in fact) and while I never really considered writing any Hollywood histories or star biographies, it was more of a hobby than anything else; just another one of my many interests. I love these books that talk about how movies get/got made (Sam Staggs has done some of these with some magnificent films–he’s covered All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Imitation of Life), and so when I discovered there was one about the making of Valley of the Dolls, how could I resist? (And at some point, I would love to write a book of essays about what people consider trashy books, called Guilty Pleasures.)
The book is quite a fun read. It opens with a history of Jacqueline Susann’s life–she was, indeed, fascinating on her own–and her marriage; how she came to write her first book, Every Night, Josephine!; and how she had always wanted to be a star of some sort, and finally decided she would become a famous author, and started writing Valley of the Dolls. She succeeded far beyond her wildest dreams; the book sold a ridiculous amount of books and made everyone involved a fortune, so inevitably of course it was made into a film. (Again, another wormhole from reading the book–how fantastic would Liza Minnelli have been in a production of Mame in the 80’s or 90’s?)
Much as I love the film, the story of 20th Century Fox and the feuding father-son Zanucks for control of the studio in the 1960’s would also make a fucking fantastic book–as well as examining the studio’s films during the period; everything from disasters like Cleopatra and Dr. Dolittle to The Sound of Music, as the studio went from near bankruptcy to rolling in cash to bankruptcy again.
And I do love the film, even though it is flawed, not well done, and not well-written. For me, the strength of the book is the relationships between the women–particularly Jennifer, Anne, and Neely–and really, the book really is about how difficult it is to be a woman in show business. Helen Lawson is the cautionary tale of the star-monster, and Neely’s story is about how one become a star-monster. The character of Neely is a masterstroke, really; the sweet uneducated young talent whom everyone takes advantage of because of her naivete, who then grows into yet another Helen Lawson-like monster. This makes her betrayal of Anne in the final third of the book more meaningful and powerful; the elimination of the closeness of the women from the film robs it of its emotional heart. Having the movie end on a hopeful note was a mistake, if an understandable one; the sad ending of the novel, with Anne caring less and less about Lyon’s infidelities and gradually becoming addicted, like Neely and Jennifer before her, to the dolls to get through the day. I also thought them cutting all the stuff about Anne’s “fiancee” and his father Gino being chased after by Helen–as well as Anne and Helen’s weird friendship–also undercut the emotional impact of the story; the falling out between the two of them was also integral to the plot.
But I do enjoy the movie, even as I appreciate how badly it’s done. (in the book, Rebello at one point refers to its popularity as a camp classic, playing to audiences who shout out the lines with the characters, and says that it’s kind of ‘the gay Rocky Horror Picture Show’–which begs the question, um, what do you think Rocky Horror is?
If you’re a fan of the movie and/or the book, you will probably enjoy reading this book. I highly recommend it; it’s quite gossipy and fun, and it’s always interesting to see how the sausage gets made.
And Valley of the Dolls frankly needs a mini-series remake that is more true to the book. Have fun would it be to see someone like Patti LuPone take on the role of Helen Lawson? Songs by Stephen Sondheim? Margot Robbie as Anne? Lady Gaga as Neely? Peter Skarsgaard as Lyon? Darren Criss as Tony Polar? Natalie Dormer as Jennifer?
Ah, one can but dream.