Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Self-destructiveness, bitch-slapping, hints of lesbianism

"Gay people have to stay in touch with their roots. And those roots are old Hollywood movies and books like 'Valley of the Dolls' - whether they realise it or not."
- Glenn Belverio (Glennda Orgasm)

"Valley of the Dolls may seem extreme and extravagant, but it's actually a window into the modern Western soul."
- Camille Paglia

Ninety years ago today, that glorious pioneer of an entire genre of kitschy campy glossy novels Jacqueline Susann was born.

Her part in paving the way for the success of authors such as Jackie Collins and Danielle Steele may be sadly under-recognised, but Jacqueline found fame and fortune with her ground-breaking and shocking (at the time) saga of the decline and fall of a group of very bitchy society women, Valley of the Dolls.

Many critics, notably Gore Vidal, dismissed Jacqueline's style of writing - the ever-catty Vidal said "she doesn't write, she types" - and in a famous spat with Truman Capote he described her as "a truck driver in drag".

Yet Valley of the Dolls ("dolls" refers to the drugs that contribute so much to the characters' downfall) is officially one of the best-selling novels by a female author of all time, selling more than 30 million copies worldwide. It was made into a hugely successful film in 1967, starring Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, Patty Duke and Susan Hayward.

The character of Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) is said to be based upon Judy Garland. Judy herself was originally cast as the character Helen Lawson, but she was replaced by Susan Hayward. She even recorded one song, I'll Plant My Own Tree but it was Margaret Whiting's rendition (dubbing for Ms Hayward) not Judy's that was eventually used in the film.

Self-destructiveness, bitch-slapping, hints of lesbianism, deaths, cancer, addiction and abusive relationships are what make this book and film so fabulously camp, and an obvious precursor of the type of OTT soaps of which we are so fond today.

Yet many of the plotlines are assumed to be autobiographical. Jacqueline Susann was herself a failing Broadway actress when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and famously made a deal with God to give her ten more years to live and make a success of her career. (This scene is one of the most memorable in the 2000 film version of the life of Jacqueline Susann, Isn't She Great?, starring Bette Midler.) It is also hinted that Susann had many lesbian affairs, and her rocky love-life was filled with infidelities.

Jacqueline's other less famous novels include Dolores - the story of Dolores Cortez Ryan, the fashion-plate widow of an assassinated President of the United States (obviously inspired by Jackie Onassis), and other salacious novels such as The Love Machine and Every Night Josephine!. She died in 1973, more than a decade after her "deal with God".

"The Sixties will go down in history for three things - Andy Warhol, the Beatles, and Jacqueline Susann."
- Jacqueline Susann (20th August 1918 – 21st September 1974)

Valley of the Dolls on Amazon

Isn't She Great? on Amazon

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