Monday, 16 November 2009

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

Back to the beach and the sun lounger this week for the original ‘bonkbuster’, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.

Written on a hot-pink IBM Selectric Typewriter, Susann’s story of three young women and their misadventures in show business was dramatised in 1967 and is famous as one of the most unintentionally camp films of the decade. The adulterated screenplay and the dreadful acting manage to strip the story of all the grit of the original novel, which is a terrific read.

All three women suffer their fair share of woes: tragic Jennifer North commits suicide by overdosing on ‘dolls’ (the various uppers and downers that give the book its title), Anne Welles ends the book sinking into a barbiturate torpor while her philandering husband is fooling around with another woman, again, Neely O’Hara winds up destroyed by drink and drugs. Of the three, Neely is the only one with real talent; talent for singing and acting and dancing, but also for all out self destruction. Susann darkly hints at this right at the start. Neely’s the girl next door, a plucky kid who’s dragged herself up by her bootstraps:

Nothing bad could ever happen to someone like Neely.

By the time Neely has got to Hollywood, she needs uppers to wake up, to lose weight, and downers to sleep at night. And what the hell, they work faster with whisky:

She looked at the clock – midnight. The pills weren’t working. She needed some more Scotch to help them along... It was lucky she had learned booze helped the pills work... The dolls without booze were nothing. Well, she’d just have to go downstairs and get some more.

By the time that Neely is committed to a sanitarium, she’s bleary eyed, carrying around a bottle of Scotch and screaming curses at Hollywood.

Eventually she gets out, sober and clean of drugs, but within a year she’s back to a bottle of Scotch and two hits of Demerol a day.

She’ll make a comeback again – and again and again, as long as her body holds out. It’s like a civil war, with her emotions against her talent and physical strength. One side has to give. Something has to be destroyed.

Valley of the Dolls has recently been reappraised as being years ahead of its time. In that light, the real tragedy in this book is that forty years on in showbiz, nothing has changed at all.

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