Let's Talk 'Valley Of The Dolls': Barbs, Boobs And Revolting Kissers

It’s Valley of the Dolls, everyone! This is definitely Gateway Classic Trash. It’s that first friend who hands you two pills and tells you that what you REALLY need is just one good night’s sleep; the next thing you know, you’re doing European “art” films to support your loser boyfriend, and your bookshelf is stuffed with Themes And Variations On Flowers In The Attic. Valley of the Dolls goes down pretty easy, lovelies. I’m going to get the basics out of the way, and then you should all have at it in the comments.

I’m sure that some of you cheated and just watched the movie. And what do I care—who am I, your librarian? I initially wrote four breathless paragraphs about the movie, and then had to say, hey, step off, Nicole, no one wants to talk about how Judy Garland lost the role of Helen Lawson for being, um, Judy, much less argue about whether Patty Duke was actually a little more adorable than Sharon Tate (who, to be fair, looks, correctly enough, like a Dippy Angel From Gawwwd in this movie). So we’ll stick to the book, but, trust, you want to Netflix this. Harlan Ellison wrote the original screenplay before running in terror! They forced a happy ending on us! Patty Duke is Sean Astin’s mom! She had NO idea who the father was! (That doesn’t even have anything to do with the movie, it’s just that the casting alone on this movie is like being inside Carrie Fisher’s mind for a couple of hours.)

THE BOOK, people. You can really think of it as a sequel to Peyton Place, should you wish, with Anne Welles arriving in New York fresh off the bus from her wee New England town in order to experience Life. Lawrenceville, to be fair, seems to have involved fewer sheep-pen-murders and secret abortions and enemas, but I’m sure that Jacqueline Susann could have sexed it up if given a little time. Anne herself, of course, starts out so aggravatingly naive that you WANT to stuff pills down her throat. Oh, what, the 40-something actress WON’T appreciate it if I tell her I’ve loved her since I was a little girl? THOSE people are LOVERS? I might make a perfectly decent salary in Manhattan and still not have enough money at the end of the week? Honestly, within two chapters you’re all “Christ, Anne, just marry the super-rich douche you don’t really love, don’t sign a pre-nup, divorce him ASAP, and then buy pretty hats.” Which sounds terrible, but then again NO ONE gets out of this novel with her dignity intact, you know?

This, obviously, is why you like Neely O’Hara best, because she’s Just Like Us!, but with, you know, the ability to sing and dance and act. Here’s her bitching about men in New York: “I’ve never had a real date. The only men I know are my brother-in-law and his partner Dickie. And Dickie’s a fag.” (People say “fag” a lot in Valley of the Dolls. They also say things like, “There’s nothing like a wop in the kip.”) She adds “O’Hara” as her stage name as soon as she finishes Gone With The Wind. She eats whatever the 1940s equivalent of four sleeves of Thin Mints is! Until, obviously, she goes on her obligatory-ingenue-crash-diet—which, and I can only speak for myself, gives you a real complex if you’re ALSO 5’5, and had no idea that being 118 pounds would make you a fuckin’ whale.

Jennifer North, love her, is a gorgeous Ralph Wiggum. She would pronounce it “Ver-sayce.” She has adorable vanilla lesbian sex with a nice Spanish girl, because, well, why not? She has no guile (until she gets hooked on the dolls, obvi). She does that thing you always imagine stunningly beautiful people do: “She dropped her bra and pants to the floor and stood before the full-length mirror. She surveyed her body with clinical interest. It was perfect.” She’s the one your ex gets engaged to fifteen seconds after you break up, and then you have that YOUR GIRL IS LOVELY, HUBBLE moment, and you feel like a tool because you’re not even original, you know? Don’t bother hating Jennifer—obviously, she winds up dead. But a SELF-SACRIFICING kind of dead.

Fun, right? It totally is. Valley of the Dolls is All About Eve mixed with The Best Of Everything mixed with “Gypsy!” mixed with… Ralph Wiggum. And, for the most part, the characters keep their shit together until (respectively): p. 220 (Anne realizes that her boyfriend is a jerk who has no intention of committing to her), p. 227 (Neely starts the dolls), and p. 336 (Jennifer gets accidentally caught in her blouse and suffocates to death. JOKE, she kills herself rather than lose her boobs, which her weirdo Senator boyfriend calls “his babies,” to cancer). Before then, it could really be Valley of the Bi-Coastal Friends Who Have Sexy Adventures. When it starts to get rough, though, it gets rough fast.

Important Topic Number One: Sex!
Mad props to Jacqueline Susann for Neely’s description of losing her virginity to her adorbs Jewish boyfriend:

“It hurt a lot and I didn’t come. But Mel made me come the other way.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He went down on me.”
“Neely!” (ed.: SHUT UP, Anne)

Neely even goes on to say, “I bet coming the other way won’t be half as great,” and you think, God, Neely, you are the coolest.

Important Topic Number Two: Drugs!
First up, MOST barbiturates aren’t really any fun for anyone. My elderly dog is on a decent regimen of seizure-preventing phenobarbital (one of the original dolls), which, although basically lacking in any recreational potential—not that I would know, or anything, but you have to take about six of the dog-size pills with a glass of wine in order to feel sort of warm and snuggly THE NEXT DAY—and he shows no sign of being amused when you tell him to “SPARKLE, DENALI, SPARKLE!” I have no personal experience with Seconal, Nembutal or the other faster-acting barbs, but, generally, you should probably ask yourself, “Did Edie Sedgwick take these drugs? How did that work out for her?” Honestly, most of these fall more in the category of “drugs given to you by Louis B. Mayer so that you’ll dance with Mickey Rooney for 18-hour days, followed by drugs that will knock you out for a few hours,” than they do “drugs you take to have an awesome time.” (We’ll save those for Classic Trash 3: Hammer of the Gods.)

Now we come to the fundamental question posed by Classic Trash: Is it any good?

Sure, why not? The characters are pretty broadly drawn, but some of them ring reasonably true (Helen Lawson, especially), and it ticks along merrily at 120 mph, and people wind up miserable, so it seems artistic! What more do you want?

Things Men Often Turn Out To Be, According To Jacqueline Susann
1. Drunks.
2. Mental defectives.
3. Secretly Jewish.
4. Secretly Catholic.
5. Revolting kissers.
6. Uninsured.

Susann was rumored to be bisexual, but probably in that sort of Evan Rachel Wood way. The strongest evidence, as far as I can tell, is that she reportedly found it sensual to stroke her friend’s breasts (who doesn’t!), and that she tried to start something with both Coco Chanel and Ethel Merman, which, honestly, just makes her sound like she was super fun to have at your drug-fueled theater party.

Okay, kids, let’s talk. Some questions to get you started!

• Wait, IS it any good?
• Who, in your opinion, makes the stupidest decision in the entire book? GENUINELY CURIOUS.
• Any quibbles with the canonical list of who’s based on who?:
Neely O’Hara – Judy Garland, Jennifer North – Marilyn Monroe, Helen Lawson – Ethel Merman, Tony Polar – Dean Martin (ouch).
• Is Evan Rachel Wood really bi?
• Did she really have sex with Marilyn Manson, not just once, but many different times?

Discuss below and then let’s meet back here in two weeks to talk about HAMMER OF THE GODS.



Nicole Cliffe is the proprietor of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews. She lives, mostly willingly, in Sandy, Utah (much like the Henricksons—she sees herself as a “Margene”), and her favorite work of Classic Trash is Jilly Cooper’s Riders.