Friday, April 22nd, 2011

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.

32 Comments / Post A Comment

THAT'S THE THING, it's like, "Was J. Susanne a crazy harlot?" No ma'am: FUN AT PARTIES.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Ethel Merman?? ???

Pass the pills.

mrschem (#1,757)

@KarenUhOh Merman was in the crossword yesterday and I was so ashamed for mistaking it for like, a male mermaid. Shame.

Aatom (#74)

I will always love the movie, but reading the book is essential.

La Cieca (#1,110)

Neely is 95% Judy Garland, but there's a soupcon of Betty Hutton in there too. Betty spent the last 40 years of her life telling everyone that Ethel Merman had her fired from a show, which wasn't true.

Jennifer has a large dollop of Marilyn, but she's mostly Carole Landis, a blonde 1940s star who committed suicide when Rex Harrison wouldn't leave his wife for her. She acted in a play Susann wrote and REPORTEDLY the two had an affair.

Helen is Ethel Merman, though SIGNIFICANTLY an Ethel Merman who never got the greatest role of her career, i.e., Gypsy. Had Merman retired from Broadway after the miserable Happy Hunting, she would have ended up getting her wig pulled off in a nightclub for sure. Apparently Susann had a crush on Ethel but Ethel wasn't into it, which, when you consider that Ethel slept with Ernest Borgnine, must have been a terrible blow to Jackie's self-esteem.

The best thing about VOTD is how it ends: inconclusive with a strong chance of misery.


permafrost (#2,735)

@La Cieca @La Cieca – OMG this is great dish, most of which I have never heard before. Gracias!

scroll_lock (#4,122)

@La Cieca- You are the best.

Thanks so much for doing this. I love this book. I recently found a copy of it on the street in Brooklyn. I love it for a few reasons that I think address the first of your questions above. The first is genderized. After the VITA stats came out I looked at my bookshelf and counted the number of female authors there. It was 4 out of 65. That's a clear injustice. So I decided to limit myself to only female authors. (I actually considered publicly boycotting DFW's "The Pale King" for this reason. I'm doing it privately and I guess this makes it public.) When I found "Valley of the Dolls" I reveled in its critique of gender. The book stands as a monument to the terror of patriarchy and I'm pretty sure its entire genre does also, along with Peyton Place and others. These books must be re-read with this in mind. The second reason I love this book is political-economic. "Valley of the Dolls" might be the best literary critique of late capitalism I've ever read. About 20 pages into it I realized that the women in the story are just human beings and the men are capitalism incarnate. Reading it that way, the book provides a unique window into what our economic system does to personal relationships: every conversation is about contractual security and material gain, every sexual act is rape, and the only way to survive it tolerably is by addiction to pharmaceutical products. It echoes "Infinite Jest" in this way. For this reason–its critique of capitalism–the book deserves a lot of serious critical attention. I think Susann was aware of this facet of her work, but obviously–just judging from the way the book was marketed when it came out–nobody really understood what she was talking about. (The back cover of my edition introduces Susann by saying "This is the Doll that wrote 'Valley of the Dolls'!" I think they missed the point.) Finally, as you've mentioned above, the book is well-written, compelling, and just plain riveting. It's sexy, real, and heart-wrenching. My favorite scene is when Tony Polar shows up in the mental institution. I'm haunted by that still. It's the only literary image that's made me want to learn to paint just so I could paint what happens in my head in that scene. As to your other questions about celebrities, I'm not sure. I'd rather want to talk about how this book is really a statement about how we all relate to one another, particularly in New York City, the beating heart of the global hegemon. The book begs us to ask if we see ourselves and each other as commodities, as things that are bought and sold, or if we see one another as beings that deserve love and respect. Anne's story is a tragedy for me. She comes to New York to escape the traditions of her small town, much like the founders of our nation under monarchy, looking for freedom and a good life. But better than the founding "fathers" Anne looks for love, which is different–dare I say better–than independence and private property. What does she find? A byzantine concrete jungle of humans distorting one another. And she falls prey to it, trying to "buy" Lyon's love (which she could never have had even if she didn't try to buy it) thereby succumbing, body and soul, to the inexorable force of late capitalism, of which Lyon is a perfect avatar. All she can do is take her pills and waste away. It brings me to tears just thinking about it. This is why I consider "Valley" a great American novel: it tells our country's story perfectly. Is this how anyone read the book? I'm sorry to rant like this. I felt like the only person that was rereading it, so I'm ecstatic that you chose it for the book club.

SciMom@twitter (#11,379)

@Dave Backer@facebook If you haven't already read it, you should definitely check out Mary McCarthy's "The Group." VOTD and The Group were the two books passed around for the sex scenes back in the day, but the latter is the one I finished and find myself going back to. Although maybe I missed something and should go check out VOTD!

@SciMom@twitter "The Group" is amaaaaazing!

jellybeanboom (#11,354)

Such a good book! My favorite part is when Neely tears herself out of the locked-in bath in the mental institution.

La Cieca (#1,110)

Stupidest decision in the book? Perhaps Jennifer pressuring Tony to marry her even though she didn't know anything about him (e.g., he's developmentally disabled).

Anne carrying that torch for what seems like decades for Lyon who is Not The Marrying Kind, and the silly stunt she pulls by secretly investing in Bellamy's agency to force Lyon to quit writing and settle down in New York as an agent.

Neely's getting herself a Demerol dependency was pretty stupid too, but, as the book makes clear, the immediate rewards are getting her own TV show, losing weight and nabbing Lyon as a lover — besides banishing that pesky back pain. So you can see why she'd be tempted. (I can remember overhearing my mother tell a friend, "That was the only part of the book that made me happy, when that silly tramp got herself hooked on dope. That's what I call justice!")

@La Cieca TOTALLY. I mean, even if Tony WASN'T completely opaque to her, having that crazy sister doling out her pin money would make anyone despair. Anne could not be a more obvious recipient of the He's Just Not That Into You award, and, well, love you, Neely. BUT.

Aatom (#74)

@La Cieca I want to watch the movie with you so bad right now.

@Aatom Co-signed! La Cieca knows his/her stuff.

GiantsCauseway (#5,314)

Aah! I loved this book so much. I read it at a very impressionable age (13/14?) and even though I knew it was garbage it had a huge impact on me. Despite what happened to the poor ladies in the book, it still somehow inspired me in a twisted way to move to the big city and make something of myself (which I did, thank you very much, with no help from Lyon Burke or any other man!), and also to buy a set of gold lame hostess pajamas (that's lame as in "la-may"; I don't know how to make an accent), which I still wear when my hostessing duties require it. My friend Peter and I also spent years trying to figure out what bar was the model for the Lancer Bar in the book (never really did, so if anyone has ideas, please share).

@GiantsCauseway I saw these fabulous so-called "Anne Welles" boots online, if you want to accentuate the pajamas.

I can't believe I forgot to mention the "sleep cure." Not the fake one they promised Neely, but the one they used to knock Jennifer out with for ten days until she lost those aggravating last few pounds. Conveniently leaving her with just enough loose skin for a bitchin' facelift. I'm sure that Vogue would happily send their beauty editor to check something like that out.

ejcsanfran (#489)

@Nicole Cliffe@facebook: I still have fantasies about flying off to Switzerland for the sleep cure.

La Cieca (#1,110)

And I disagree with the idea that Jennifer has no guile. Really, she's trying to work an angle from the first moment we see her, which, if I recall correctly, is her putting off a sugar daddy whom she'd slept with the night before in exchange for a fur coat. The only reason she's denying him sex is that she is worried that if she doesn't sleep two nights in a row she's going to look haggard and therefore she will lose the bargaining power her looks give her.

In fact, we hear her name mentioned before she appears in person: Bellamy is handling Jennifer's annulment from a prince she married, and Jennifer is fully prepared to lie in court (and to have a stranger, Anne, lie for her) about her relationship with the prince in order to receive a favorable settlement.

She likes Tony well enough, but her real motivation in marrying him is that she thinks he has a long-term bankable talent that is sufficient to support her and her family. (She even comes up with a scheme by which her mother will pretend to be her aunt, so the numerous lies she's worked into her backstory will remain consistent.) She hooks Tony through a whole series of manipulative tactics, deliberately teasing him and then refusing him sex unless he promises to marry her, and later pretending to cheat on him with other men when she's actually at home sound asleep thanks to the dolls.

Jennifer is the one who hears a bit of the pitch Gillian is making to Anne and immediately grasps that it's a great deal that could launch Anne into a new and lucrative career. Of course, Anne works very hard, but it's Jennifer who intuitively sees the angle.

I don't think Susann intended for Jennifer to be perceived as being "hooked," at least not in the same way Neely is: we don't see any down side of prescription drug use for Jennifer, though she regularly uses sleeping pills through most of her adult life. The only time she seems to abuse them is when she commits suicide.

We're all strongly influenced by Sharon Tate's performance in the film, which is lovely, but it's really nothing at all the character in the book.

@La Cieca Her annulment is so completely managed by Bellamy, though, you know? Her guile, as it exists at all, is so that basic female-sexuality sort of manipulation. I think she can lie in court because she IS so easily handled by others. I absolutely agree with you, though, about her understanding the Gillian angle right away.

Baboleen (#1,430)

I love the theme song from the movie.

@Baboleen I have the soundtrack! Obviously I'm insane!

Rrreeeeeddd (#9,212)

@Baboleen Me too; the entire opening scene, actually. I think VoTD is partially to blame for my (regrettable) decision to move up north.

okratso (#1,978)

Having to have an abortion because you discover you've failed to notice you married a congenitally retarded, terminally ill lounge singer is a pretty fine plot line. Can't you just see it in Middlemarch?

(Smile, Jen, she told herself. You’ve made it. You’re Mrs. Tony Polar.)

Renee Dumas (#7,992)

It's clearly all about Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the best movie in history about how abortions turn you lesbian

permafrost (#2,735)

This is one of my favorite books! I still have an old, beaten up paperback that is missing part of the cover and has torn corners and food stains all through it. I might have to give it another re-read now.

Margaret Cho once said that the gayest name she had ever heard belonged to a bar named CeCe Bloom's in Ireland. But I think I can top that. I know a lovely gentleman who christened his boat the "Neely O'Hara." Yes, it totally sparkles.

Rain Jokinen (#6,357)

Read this while sitting by a pool in Palm Springs. I can think of no book better suited for that.

Go back and randomly read any selection of dialogue. I bet you anything the person speaking addresses the person she's speaking to by name. This is done OVER AND OVER and it drove me nuts, before it just became hilarious. I mean, when was the last time you used someone's name when speaking to them? Much less over and over during the course of a single conversation? Perhaps Susann assumed her readers would be zonked out on dolls and would need constant reminders of who is speaking to whom in order to keep up.

1143922675@twitter (#252,936)

Am I the only person on earth that thinks that Anne was based on Evelyn Nesbitt?!!!

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