Under the influence: A review of Valley of the Dolls

Jacqueline Susann was a widely respected actress, singer, dancer – a woman about town. She had her run in NYC and Hollywood and recounts her lifestyle in the most resonate way: she writes a book. Valley of the Dolls was published in December of 1966 and was the biggest success of that year. To date, it has sold over 31 million copies making it a one of best selling novels in publishing history.

Valley of the Dolls Turns 50

The Valley of the Dolls film premiered in 1967 and was met with mixed reactions, but later has garnered praise from many viewers as a “campy piece of shit” and “the best, funniest, worst movie ever made.” It has a huge following in the gay community and drag queens have emulated the overtop 1960s beehives countless times. The story was also adapted for stage in the 1990s at the Theater A- Go-Go in West Hollywood featuring drag queen Jackie Beat as aging starlet Helen Lawson and pre-The Office Kate Flannery as Neely O’Hara.

I finally read the fabled 60s masterpiece in full. My first time around in my early twenties, it didn’t keep my attention. I guess it was hard to relate to the girls who were far more grown up than I was at their age (again, their mid twenties) landing career jobs in entertainment, getting married, divorced and popping pills is quite a roller coaster. I find it much more enjoyable now at 30 during our COVID sequestration, picturing the insanity of how a 1960s Hollywood and New York City operates. Like Mad Men, women had obscured (somewhat still do) pressures and expectations from society, though the ones who carry the show are powerful women. Valley of the Dolls was all about the women. The men in the novel and film merely seemed like accessories (or pests) to the myriad of routine problems that faced career women.

Spanning from 1945 all the way through 1962, the book reads like ages pass. Long accounts by date, like a diary, instead of chapters carry the reader through long episodic scenes. Each segment always holds a juicy tale about the girl in focus for that chapter.

One segment is dedicated to Anne, to Neely and to Jennifer. There is always something new happening in Neely O’Hara’s vagabond lifestyle and her talent grows. Anne Welles is a sophisticated virginal girl from small town New England. And talentless Jennifer has one thing going for: A solid body and the face of a goddess. The three of them eventually all find themselves on mutual ground with their careers and love lives. Naturally, they decide to live together. Some of the characters are absolutely unbearable at times. Miriam is a controlling sister/manager to nightclub singer, Tony Polar who takes an interest in Jennifer North. Gaudy Helen Lawson is nearing her swan song as a demanding Diva threatened by Neely. Lyon Burke is a handsome Englishman pursuing a writing career and takes an interest Anne, though plainly states, he is “not sure his love will be enough.” Heard that one.


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