Monday, August 13, 2012

Valley of the Dolls

Valley of the Dolls was a recent book club selection for us.

It was published in 1966 by Jacqueline Susann and revolves around three women characters, starting in 1945.  At first I really liked it because it had this real Mad Men quality, but it's a really bizarre, kind of anti-feminist book that's rather disconcerting.  For example, Anne, who I see as the main character, at the beginning has just left Lawrenceville, Massachusetts, where she foreswears the dreary Lawrenceville fate that awaits her - Marriage and a life of old-fashioned New England Unhappiness.  So, she moves to New York city where she wants nothing more than to live in Manhattan, and, oddly, get married and do nothing but fulfill the dreams of the man she loves.  Her friend Neely is a really talented singer and actress, who also would love nothing more than to land a (rich) husband and quit working.  Worse, perhaps, is Jennifer, a beautiful woman and successful actress, who nevertheless openly admits to what she perceives as her own extreme lack of talent, and desires nothing more than to (... you guessed it) before the rest of the world realizes how extremely untalented she really is.

Another rather awful thing about reading Valley of the Dolls is that it's really homophobic, and there are frequent references to "fags" and "faggots" and how gay men are "not really men at all".  It's a pretty sad reminder of how it was more socially acceptable to straight up hate on gays - but the weirdest thing of all is that apparently Susann herself was bisexual.  Self-hatred makes me so sad.  

Apparently (at least according to a rather eye-opening Wikipedia entry on the book, it's also a roman à clef, which means that the characters are based on actual people.  So, Neely is Judy Garland, Jennifer is Carole Landis (which whom Suzann reportedly had a relationship) and this other awful woman, Helen Lawson, is Ethel Merman.  I'm not sure who the enabling doormat Anne is...

Oh! And the pills! The pills!  "Dolls" it turns out, is slang for barbiturates.  I'm not sure if that was common slang or Suzann just made it up for this book.  So, (tiny spoiler) all the women end up addicted to various "dolls" - mostly Seconal (for which there is a fascinating wikipedia page).

The movie is BEYOND stupid, and, by some accounts, one of the worst movies ever made.  We were all sort of amazed by how much they cut out.  I can't imagine that if you watched the movie without reading the book that you would have ANY idea what was going on.  At least in the book you understand why these women are friends.  Also, it ends on a slightly up-beat note, where the book does not.   But, we watched the movie in my backyard, projected on a screen while we swigged sparkling wine and chucked handfuls of Hot Tamales into our mouths whilst howling with laughter, so it really couldn't have been more fun.

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