The best, down-and-dirtiest show business romans à clef

Who am I?

A Southern California-based author and screenwriter whose adventures in and around the film business have led to hundreds of feature stories for such magazines as Vibe, Playboy, Entertainment Weekly, American Film, Smithsonian, and Movieline. My books include three dedicated to Disney animated classics and a volume on the art of American movie posters. The lovingly satirical book Bad Movies We Love, co-written with Edward Margulies, inspired a Turner Network movie marathon series. My next non-fiction book will be published in 2024.

I wrote...

Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!: Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, the Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time

By Stephen Rebello,

Book cover of Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!: Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, the Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time

What is my book about?

Written with “cinematic flair,” “absolute mastery,” and “drama, pathos, comedy, emotion, and ego worthy of a dozen miniseries,” Dolls! Dolls! Dolls! – Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls digs deep into the creation of the highly anticipated and hugely successful 1967 film that, despite the high aspirations and talent lavished upon it, became a widely-imitated cherished camp classic. Author-screenwriter-film historian Stephen Rebello has conducted archival research and new interviews to draw back the velvet curtain on the behind-the-scenes intrigue, feuds, and machinations that marked the film's production every step of the way. In doing so, he paints a richly-detailed and incisive portrait of fast-changing Hollywood in the late 1960s. 

The books I picked & why

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I Should Have Stayed Home

By Horace McCoy,

Book cover of I Should Have Stayed Home

Why this book?

Hardboiled specialist Horace McCoy made his mark as an unsparing chronicler of Depression-era despair with his 1935 masterpiece They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. His 1938 novel isn't nearly as good, but it feels so lived-in and sordid that it tells major truths about the dreamers, users, and big talents who populated '30s Hollywood. In it, Ralph and Mona, two modestly talented beautiful losers, hit Tinseltown hungering for stardom. But Ralph, 18 years before the doomed screenwriter hero of Sunset Boulevard, winds up providing stud service to a wealthy older woman and Mona finds her own private hell. The novel is a bleak meditation on exploitation, failure, and corruption in a town where, as one character observes, “Morality never crosses the city limits.”

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

By Henry Farrell,

Book cover of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Why this book?

It’s well worth digging up Henry Farrell’s grotesque, sadistic 1960 tale of two aging sisters – one a former kiddy vaudeville sensation, the other a movie star of the '30s and '40s -- living out their animosities and regrets in a faded Los Angeles mansion. It’s also fascinating to compare the novel to its crueler and less impactful 1962 film incarnation starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, let alone the miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan” about those two ferocious dueling divas as they made the movie. Maybe most fun of all is speculating how Farrell may have fictionalized details from the lives of such Hollywood Golden Age real-life acting siblings as Lillian and Dorothy Gish and Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine. Farrell's penchant for all-out melodrama still packs a punch.

The Carpetbaggers

By Harold Robbins,

Book cover of The Carpetbaggers

Why this book?

Our cultural moment practically demands that we cancel Harold Robbins. He’s been dragged as “the forgotten dirty old man of American letters,” a sexist purveyor of trashy, soapy potboilers. But in his time, 750 million readers in 32 languages proved he had nailed them dead to rights. The main characters in this sprawling, unabashedly vulgar 1961 novel are based on Silent Era western superstar Tom Mix, moviemaker/zillionaire Howard Hughes, and '30s platinum blonde movie siren Jean Harlow. That alone made the book and the 1964 movie version cultural phenoms. And today? Well, aren’t Robbins’ swaggering, rags-to-riches cocksman heroes, way-too-compliant beauties, and plots seething with passion, betrayal, vengeance also the stuff of modern classics like The GodfatherScarfaceMad Men, and Succession?

The Oscar

By Richard Sale,

Book cover of The Oscar

Why this book?

Novelist-screenwriter-director Richard Sale’s scabrous, compulsively readable 1963 novel is packed with malicious characters scrambling up Hollywood’s “glass mountain of success” only to tumble into what Jacqueline Susann would call four years later would call “the Valley of the Dolls.” Pretty much set in Movieland’s seven circles of hell, the novel charts the rise and fall of an ex-gigolo who becomes a major movie star leading man. Grabbing a "Best Actor" Oscar nomination, he becomes hellbent on knee-capping -- or flat-out destroying -- his competitors. An acid-laced smorgasbord of its era, it teems with transactional sex, unapologetic misogyny, homophobia, and groovy Swinging Sixties dialogue – all of it as despicably and wondrously monstrous as its 1966 movie version (scripted by Harlan Ellison!) is unintentionally side-splitting.

Valley of the Dolls

By Jacqueline Susann,

Book cover of Valley of the Dolls

Why this book?

Newbie novelist Jacqueline Susann created an iconic all-time bestseller with her tale of three young glamazons who vault to the show business heights, only to tumble into a pit of addictions, poor choices in men, and delightfully overripe dialogue. Susann made her sweeping, sexy soap opera shenanigans even more irresistible by patterning her characters on such 20th-century headline-makers as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Grace Kelly, Ethel Merman, and the Kennedys. Said publicity-savvy Susann, “They can keep calling it that ‘roman à clef'. It’ll only make my books sell.” They did. It did. Although the sanitized and critically bashed 1967 movie version toned down the à clef elements, it became a box-office smash that has gone on to become enshrined as a kitsch classic.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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The Film Industry Explore 23 books about the film industry
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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