During lockdown, Jennifer McShane has been revisiting some of her favourite novels adapted for the big screen. Once again, she says the book is what you must take in first
Valley of the Dolls, published in 1966, became one of the most popular books of all time. It’s over 50 and still hugely relevant – maybe now more than ever – to our times; the tale of three friends who embark on careers that bring them fame, money, and glory, but at the price of their self-destruction. A scenario that has realised itself for so many of our modern-day celebrities. Did author Jaqueline Susann foresee the impact her story would have in the decades to come? She, nor her critics, couldn’t possibly have.
We’ve got the unstable darling Neely O’Hara, the beautiful Jennifer North, and the self-confessed “goody goody” Anne Wells – one a model, one a singer, one a sex symbol and actress – all characters who are thinly veiled versions of Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Judy Garland. The term ‘dolls’ refers to the sleeping pills, depressants and stimulants each of the main characters become reliant on to get through life, both in times of success and failure.
Ahead of its time
Upon publication, it was deemed sleazy, gossip-column fodder by some but beneath the surface of its prose (the plot is the book’s biggest strength), it did much more than this; it tackled real issues such as drug addiction, gay rights and body dysmorphia with whispers of the feminism movement that would explode in the years after it was published.
It’s the heroines that are worth rooting for; for they are not shown as being the architects of their own misery for being ambitious.
Their mothers — traditional housewives who disapprove of their drive and believe that status comes only from making a successful marriage (very much expected to be the sole concern for women at that time) — are shown as joyless and bitter (Jennifer has nothing to offer a man accept her body and so forth). The principal men in the story are not heroes, instead presented as weak bullies.
Susann was the first female author to write a book based on events and characters in real life and fast forward to our modern times, you can see the impact her narrative had — one need only glimpse at a Jackie Collins novel to see that she made the Dolls structure the very premise of her own books and generations of cultural figures such as Gloria Steinem clearly took inspiration from her novel.
Valley of the Dolls on film lacks the same punch (though Sharon Tate is a scene-stealer) but the book remains pure escapism in the best sense of the word.
While we get through a pandemic, it’s a welcome tonic.
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Read more: Sharon Tate should be remembered for more than just her tragic death
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