*This post contains mild spoilers for both the novel and film versions of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. I’ve tried to avoid major spoilers as much as possible!
Valley of the Dolls, written by Jacqueline Susann, was originally published by Bernard Geis Associates in 1966. An instant and somewhat scandalous hit, the novel was turned into a film almost immediately and released in 1967. It has gone on to sell more than 30 million copies.
The novel is very much based on Susann’s own experience working in the entertainment industry, as well as inspired by others who worked in the business. Characters are said to have been inspired by famed performers such as Ethel Merman, Betty Hutton, Judy Garland and Carole Landis.
The novel essentially follows three women –
Anne Welles: a young woman who moves from Lawrenceville, Massachusetts to New York City in the 1940s and finds work as secretary to a big-time entertainment lawyer. She harbors a lot of disdain for her hometown and the lifestyle there, and wants nothing more than to make a life for herself in the big city.
Neely O’Hara: a vaudeville star who lives in Anne’s building. The two become very good friends, and Anne helps Neely get a job in the chorus line, after which point Neely’s career takes off with leaps and bounds.
Jennifer North: a showgirl known more for her beauty and body than her talent. She has a very strained relationship with her mother, who is constantly calling her to beg for money. Jennifer befriends Anne and Neely while also taking up a relationship with troubled crooner Tony Polar.
The book begins with Anne moving to New York and follows the lives of these women and the people around them for the next twenty years.
Neely, after spending time on Broadway, eventually finds success in Hollywood but relies on alcohol and pills to deal with daily life. She uses “uppers” to keep her weight down to please the studio and “downers” to fall asleep. She earns a bad rep after missing many days and acting unprofessionally on set. In short, in spite of her box office success, Hollywood life is no walk in the park for Neely.
Jennifer also has a bad pill habit, popping “dolls” as sleep aids – a habit that already existed when she met Neely and Anne. She marries Tony Polar but discovers a secret about him that plays a factor in the deterioration of their relationship. She eventually moves to France to make “art films,” in which she frequently appears nude, because she’s desperate for the money and doesn’t see any true talent in herself.
Anne contends with a stalker-ish rich man who falls for her early in her time in New York. All the while, she pines for Lyon Burke – the “man candy” of the office who has a big reputation with the ladies. Anne is later discovered by a cosmetics company during her secretarial duties, becomes the face of the brand and appears on television but struggles with personal issues (especially in her love life) throughout her periods of success.
The 1967 film of the same name follows these same three characters, and the characters endure lives that are generally congruent with those in the book, aside from the fact that they’re now placed in the in 1960s rather than the 1940s. The film runs for two hours and three minutes. It was directed by Mark Robson, adapted by Helen Deutsch, Dorothy Kingsley and Harlan Ellison and released by 20th Century Fox. Barbara Parkins stars as Anne; Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara; Sharon Tate as Jennifer North.
The film was successful financially, as expected with such a popular novel, but was absolutely butchered by the critics. Even some fans of the film will only admit to loving it for its campy nature. However, it was nominated for a few awards:
- Oscars – Best music, best scoring, best adaptation
- Globes – Most promising newcomer (Sharon Tate)
- GRAMMYs – Original score
In terms of comparison to the novel, 1967’s Valley of the Dolls stays quite true to the themes, major events and characterizations of Jacqueline Susann’s work. But as is true for just about any adapted work, there were a number of changes made for various reasons.
As much as I enjoyed reading the book, I found the characters to be terribly unlikable. Luckily, the film allows for more sympathy for the characters. It keeps all of their struggles in tact while erasing some of their more obnoxious personality traits. Anne, for example, doesn’t show the intense hatred for Lawrenceville that she had in the book. She states that she simply wants new experiences before settling down there some day and having a marriage like that of her own parents. I had a hard time seeing why Anne hated Lawrenceville so much in the book; I’ve lived in my fair share of small towns and know how it can feel to get stir crazy in them, but she seemed to harbor a lot of truly bad feelings toward the town. With this aspect of her personality erased in the film, I found it much easier to relate to her.
To me, the film also benefited from the complete exclusion of one character: the creepy millionaire who is obsessed with Anne in the beginning of the book. He was, to me, the most obnoxious character in the entire book despite the fact that his part was relatively small. I can see what his purpose was in the novel, but I was definitely happy not to see him taunting Anne in the film!
One change that I didn’t particularly like was the change in how Neely, Anne and Jennifer met. In the film, Neely is already working in Helen’s show when Anne gets her job as a secretary. They aren’t friendly neighbors. They meet through work, and Anne doesn’t help her get the chorus line gig. This takes away a bit of Neely’s advantageous nature, which was something that I found interesting about her character in the book, and also takes away some of the complication of their friendship.
Jennifer is also introduced a bit earlier, and does not pose a threat to Anne with Lyon Burke as Anne thought she did in the book. I thought that Anne’s suspicion of Lyon and Jennifer’s “date” added and interesting dynamic to the early stages of their friendship and would have liked to see it play out on film.
Also diminished in the film was the friendship (if you can call it that) between Helen and Anne. Susan Hayward is perfectly cast in the role of aging stage star Helen (the best casting decision in the film, in my opinion, though her role is small), and while we do get to see a bit of interaction between Helen and Anne, it seemed far less significant than it was in Susann’s novel.
Sidetracking a bit to the topic of casting, there are only two big issues that I saw with the film in this respect: Tony Polar and Lyon Burke. The actor who portrays Tony is just plain terrible. He brings the cheese in every single scene, which makes it hard to take his character seriously, even in the dire situation of his illness. As for Lyon, the actor lacks all of the charisma and charm that Lyon is described as having in the book. His appeal is less believable in the film as a result. The ladies don’t fawn over him quite as much in the film as they do in the book, so it does make a bit of sense that the actor would be less magnetic, but it’s still clear that he’s supposed to be a lady’s man and I just can’t buy it with this actor in the role.
The book itself is quite long, so even though the film clocks in at a little over two hours, it doesn’t give each specific character quite as much attention as the book does. And even though the film does run quite long on its own, the pace never lets up. The viewer remains interested for the entire duration, whereas the book got a bit tedious near the end. There is definitely some corny cliff diving happening in this film, but the novel was a fun and slightly trashy read, so some sort of cinematic masterpiece shouldn’t be expected from the adaptation. The film, like the book, is over-the-top in an entertaining way and I did enjoy it slightly better than the novel.