Every so often a hot publishing property comes along – it’s shocking, it’s bestselling, it’s a gilt-edged hit and the movie rights are snapped up. It’s an easy equation: you’ve read the book now you have to see the film.
Back in the 1920s Elinor Glyn’s racy novel It made Clara Bow a silent film star who was thereafter known as the It Girl. The “it” referred to sex appeal. In 1956 the novel Peyton Place by Grace Metalious became a hit film and later a long-running TV soap. In the current period EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey was turned into a (rather depressing) movie. Valley of the Dolls, by former queen of the airport novel Jacqueline Susann, was published in 1966 and threatened to lift the lid on barely-disguised Hollywood stars who had become addicted to pills (the “dolls” of the title).
Thanks to its salacious content and publishing hype – Susann was said to have invented the modern book tour – it was a soar-away success and Hollywood began salivating over the rights. “She types on a cash register,” observed the young David Frost. “Valley of the Dolls can be enjoyed as the ultimate plush, trash, human-interest story – three decades of gossip columns distilled into one fat novel – but also as a document of some cultural interest spanning the years from optimistic postwar 1945 to world-weary pre-deluge 1963. The sheer breadth and depth of this particular disco-ball gives it lasting clout,” wrote Julie Burchill in the introduction to the Virago reprint in 2003.
Susann had been a frequently-fired actress, then a failed playwright. A diagnosis of breast cancer made her a driven woman determined to make her mark. The novel became an enormous international bestseller with 30 million copies sold and was translated into dozens of languages. It was one of the top-selling books in publishing history. Susann became the first novelist to achieve three consecutive New York Times number one bestsellers, and one of the richest self-made women in America. Naturally the critics hated the novel. Nora Ephron wrote in her New York Times review that the female characters were “the most willing group of masochists assembled outside the pages of de Sade”. Memorably, Truman Capote said that because of her “sleazy wigs and gowns” Susann resembled “a truck driver in drag”.
The premise of the film was looking pretty dated by ’67 when it was released. The author had begun her story in the 1940s and her characters were said to be based on the stars Ethel Merman, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. The Young Turks of 60s Hollywood were all getting high on grass and LSD. The pep pills (and dated morality) of the plot were very passé. When Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights it was desperate for a hit. The studio had made a number of expensive clunkers, notably Cleopatra in 1963. The studio also had bet a bundle on Myra Breckinridge, which proved to be one of the worst films ever made. Dolls broke studio box-office records, grossing a total of around $70 million.
Dolls was the story of four female performers at different points in their careers – the backstabbing Helen Lawson (played by Susan Hayward) the tough old Broadway broad who won’t countenance any newcomers stealing her thunder; Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) the neophyte who becomes an overnight pop star; Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) the dim blonde bombshell; and Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins) who starts as a publisher’s secretary and becomes a fashion model (a character who resembled none other than Jacqueline Susann herself).
The plot charts the women’s rise and fall and fatal relationships with fame, money, men, drugs and booze, and female rivals; and encompasses self-harming, mental illness, degenerative disease, nervous breakdown, drug addiction, abortion, breast cancer, and substance abuse – subjects which were absolutely unmentionable back in the mid-1960s. Unfortunately the movie takes these serious subjects and gives them a totally inappropriate soap opera gloss and ends up a bit like Sex in the City without its realism. The filmmakers had absolutely no feel for the material – it’s as if the movie’s been made by a teenager. On the whole, the thing looks gorgeous and a fortune was spent on the costumes (and hairpieces) alone. The message of the book – retrograde now – is that a good marriage can cure everything. Inevitably it strayed into the realm of camp.
Much of the film is unintentionally hilarious and badly overacted with memorably silly scenes as when Neely, mired in alcoholism, drops to her knees in a back alley and screams: “Neely! Neely!” as if to frighten herself into getting her act back together. Or when she encounters Helen “Barracuda” Lawson in the powder-room and they indulge in an absurd catfight, at the climax of which the older woman’s wig is flushed down the toilet. The film, like the book, is, in a very real sense, trash. Fun but trash. Yet for all its faults the book has been reclaimed by feminists and gays. Wrote Amy Fine Collins in Vanity Fair in 2000: “If Jacqueline Susann was not precisely the “voice of the 60s, then she was its aching female heart.”
The movie has become a LGBT camp classic (so bad it’s amazing) and, oddly, a feminist tract. It’s about celebrity but also female bonding and friendship. And oddly prescient – 50 years after its creation it reflects even better today’s obsession with celebs and their rise and fall. What does Dolls tell us about “Prozac nation”, tabloid body-shaming and the rise and fall of Whitney or Britney? “Despite nearly 40 years of repeated attempts to kill it with kitsch, Valley of the Dolls remains a brave, bold, angry and, yes, definitely a feminist book. All that, and still about the most fun you can have without a prescription,” writes Julie Burchill of the book. “Fame, money, power, pill addictions and boobies: the themes in [Dolls] are just so totes now!” concurs Simon Doonan of Slate. “Everyone is a mess. It is, in other words, the perfect mirror for today’s fame/money/free shoes culture.”
Dolls was revived in movie theatres in 1969 after the sensational murder of one of its stars, Sharon Tate. That year a so-called sequel was being filmed and was released in 1970. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was even more feverishly lurid than its predecessor. Directed by movie tit man Russ Meyer (with an embarrassing script by arch film critic Roger Ebert) it seems to set out to become a cult movie. “The story is such a labyrinthine juggling act that resolving it took a quadruple murder, a narrative summary, a triple wedding and an epilogue,” wrote Ebert. Susann called the original film “shit” – what she thought of its exploitative sequel is unprintable. And although more shocking and salacious movies came out in the 70s, the two Dolls pictures retain a place in the gay and lesbian community which relishes the bitch fest and drag queen frocks, hairdos and cheesy emotions on display. Camp is, after all, the lie that tells the truth.
Dolls went on to have a long and fantabulous afterlife – from repeat midnight screenings to a TV biopic of Susann starring Bette Midler opposite Nathan Lane as the writer’s husband. Christian Louboutin produced a capsule-shaped clutch bag in homage to the movie. In 1995 Theatre-A-Go-Go!, a California theatre group presented a cut-price stage interpretation that proved the hit of the season and a documentary brought Dolls to a new generation. In 1997 the 30th-anniversary screening in San Francisco’s Castro Theatre attracted 1,500 zealots, some in Dolls drag, who chanted every line, à la The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
kd lang did a cover version of the plangent theme song, and BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour made Dolls its book of the week in 2005, causing raised eyebrows from its more sedate listeners. There’s long been talk of a remake with such names as Beyoncé, Madonna, Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway hinted at being interested.
For the past 50 years Dolls has never been out of print. The New York Times magazine said last year “it remains a touchstone of popular culture”. Susann was more succinct: “Yeah, I think I’ll be remembered… as the voice of the 60s. Andy Warhol, the Beatles and me!”