Neely O'Hara (born Ethel Agnes O'Neill) is a fictional character in the novel Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. She was played by actress Patty Duke in the first movie version, and then by Lisa Hartman in the 1981 remake.
Neely is an actress and singer who first came to attention in vaudeville. She came from Pittsburgh, according to the movie. While working on Broadway, she worked in a musical with the legendary Helen Lawson. However Helen had her fired through jealousy and fear of being upstaged by the talented newcomer.
Neely's boyfriend was Mel Anderson and her best friends were chorus girl and fellow actress, Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) and Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) who worked as a secretary in a theatrical agency. A very talented singer, Neely developed a stellar career and a massive ego that would later prove to be her downfall.
Neely married Mel and moved to California, where she became a successful movie actress. However, she had began taking Seconal, the "dolls" of the title, in New York City, and her addiction worsened in Hollywood. Along the way, she began to alienate everyone to whom she was close.
She drove Mel out by beginning an affair with a supposedly gay man, a fashion designer named Ted Casablanca; and eventually divorced him. Not long after her divorce, she married Ted. Later on, however, Ted left Neely after she caught him swimming in their pool with another woman ("Carmen Carver" in the novel but unnamed in the movie). Her pills- and alcohol-fueled downward spiral surged on, and along with it, her selfish and conniving nature emerged more fully.
Neely went off to San Francisco, annoying her manager, Lyon Burke (Paul Burke). She also tried to break up his relationship with her friend Anne, which drove her to the dolls as well.
However, in the movie, Anne kicked the pill habit, threw out Lyon, and returned to her New England hometown, Lawrenceville, where she finally realized that she had belonged there—after a lifetime of wanting to break free of it forever.
After a lengthy stint at a sanitarium, Neely attempted a comeback; but by this time her ego had become worse than Helen Lawson's had ever been. In a ladies-room catfight, Neely exposed Helen's real age by snatching her wig off her head and attempting to flush it down the toilet.
Prior to her opening night in the fictitious play Tell Me, Darling, Neely had a vicious argument with Lyon about a girl named Allison whom she wanted fired because she was eclipsing Neely's "star." She insulted everyone—including Anne, which truly infuriated Lyon (Anne had warned him beforehand about Neely's deviousness). Neely declared arrogantly, "I'm not everyone! I don't have to live by stinking rules set down for ordinary people! I licked pills, booze and the funny farm! I don't need anybody or anything!!" Finally fed up, Lyon quit as her agent. This infuriated Neely even more; she called him "just an agent" and implied that she was better than he was because she was a star. Reeling from the vicious implied insult, Lyon replied angrily, "And you're just a Helen Lawson, and not even that! Because she is a professional." After he stormed out for the last time, Neely shrilled, "They love Helen Lawson, then they love Neely O'Hara!!"
After becoming drunk and strung out on dolls, Neely appeared in her second-act costume and the director ordered her out, replacing her with her understudy, with whom she almost got into a fight. She went to a bar across the street and continued her drinking and pill-popping. By the movie's end, she was all alone in the alley outside the theater, crying; totally alone, having driven out anyone she ever had hoped would care about her. She had finally hit rock bottom.
In the book, Neely was sent to another agency after Lyon fired her; she carried on with Lyon and destroyed her friendship with Anne. Also in the book, Neely had twin sons—Bud and Jud—with Ted, but in the movie she had no children.
In the book, Neely O'Hara's timeline differs very much from the movie version. The book begins in 1945 when Neely is 17 years old, and ends in 1965. The movie-version takes place in the 1960s. Also, in the book, Neely isn't fired from the Helen Lawson show. She replaces Terry King (the one fired in the book) on Anne's suggestion, and thus Neely's career begins. In the book Neely becomes a star of Hollywood movie musicals in the late 40's and 50's, while in the film-version she's more a pop, movie, and Broadway star.
Book sequel 2001
In 2001, author Rae Lawrence released her followup to Valley of the Dolls, called Jacqueline Susann's Shadow of the Dolls. In this sequel, liberties have again been taken with the characters' ages and the time setting. It begins in 1987, though it picks up the story just a few years after Susann's 1965 ending point, and ends in 2001.
Here we meet Neely O'Hara again, 33 years old in 1987, doing a one-woman show in Las Vegas and struggling to get back on top again. And she does. A couple of years later, she plays Helen Lawson (who is now dead) in a movie about Lawson's life, and Neely wins another Oscar. Her son Jud has changed his name to Dylan.
Neely once again reaches the top in Hollywood, marries Lyon Burke, and becomes Jennifer Burke's stepmother. She becomes addicted to Vicodin and ends up back in rehab. A year later, Neely leaves rehab, using Zoloft and plastic surgery to cope with her problems. In 2001, Neely is still alive, doing a Las Vegas show, and making the tabloids every month.
In Pop Culture
The character of Neely O'Hara has proceeded beyond the reputation of both the film and the novel. She is arguably among the more famous and more recognizable of all of Jacqueline Susann's characters. Having entered the vernacular her name has become a byword for an array of characteristics associated with Hollywood subculture in particular that of drug addiction and artistic temperament particular to that of ostentatious female performers.
The alternative music group Logan Five and the Runners released a song entitled "Neely O'Hara" off their 2009 album "Featurette". The song is told from the point of view of one of the character's ex-lovers.
- Turner, Bonita. "The New It Bag - The Mulberry Neely Tote". Nowdaily. Retrieved 2012-10-25.