Isn't She Great

The most notable aspect of Isn't She Great, Andrew Bergman's trashy biopic of Jacqueline Susann, the best-selling novelist of Valley of the Dolls, is its brief running time: 93 minutes. Bette Midler renders one of her broadest performances as the writer whose sole motivation, according to Paul Rudnick's shallow script, was to become famous–“to be somebody” as Susann says. Infused with a self-consciously campy theatrical sensibility, Universal release may please undiscriminating older patrons and gay men who remember the celeb, but rest of the audience is better off watching pix based on her pop novels (Valley of the Dolls, The Love Machine, Once Is Not Enough) than the clichd story of the woman who created them.

Midway through the picture there's a scene in which Susann (Midler) and her loyal manager and hubby Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane) attend the Hollywood premiere of Valley of the Dolls. “It's not a good movie,” says the upset scribe, to whom her hubby says, “Don't worry, it'll be a huge hit.” Universal need not worry: Isn't She Great is in no danger of becoming a hit. Veering from a broadly humorous farce to sheer banality, pic isn't even funny enough to qualify as guilty pleasure in the way that Valley of the Dolls, by now a minor cult item, is.

As he showed in his previous comedies (The Addams Family Values, Jeffrey, In & Out), Rudnick is a funny fellow but not a screenwriter overly concerned with plot machinations or characterizations. Though based by Michael Korda's 1995 New Yorker essay, Rudnick's schlocky yarn feels like an extended version of his monthly column in Premiere, published under the pseudonym of Libby Gelman-Waxner. Rudnick is adept at constructing entrees and one-liners, most of which go to Stockard Channing, who delivers them with great panache as Susann's bitchy, self-absorbed friend-actress. The rags to riches saga is presented as a story with a heart, but what's missing is more brain.

Susann began her career as an actress, but with no agent and not much talent she scrapped by with residuals from occasional radio jingles, TV commercials and game appearances. Nonetheless, undeterred by her failures, Susann continued to seek her place in the spotlight, believing–and soon demonstrating by her own career–that “talent isn't everything.”

Susann's fortune changed upon meeting manager and publicist Mansfield, a devoted man who knew he could fulfill her dreams. Yarn is framed by Mansfield's vapid, unnecessary voice over narration, as if what's shown onscreen isn't clear enough. Married at the time to Maury Manning (John Larroquette), she is shocked when he leaves her. But the divorce clears the way to a marriage with Mansfield who, according to script, threw himself selflessly into helping her become rich and famous.

With Susann's acting career going nowhere, Mansfiled hits upon a “crazy” idea, why not write a novel about what she knew well: the steamy lives of drug-addicted, sex-starved starlets. That Susann had never written a word before is perceived as a minor drawback, since she and Mansfiled convince themselves that the public is thirsty for lurid stories about aging stars, hopeful hookers, and pill-popping women winding up in the gutter. Despite initial rejections from the more respectable publishers, Susann lands a contract with Henry Marcus (John Cleese), who assigns his stuffy yuppie editor, Michael Hastings (David Hyde Pierce), to work on her manuscript. From this point one, story changes gears, centering on the sobering education that Hastings get from Susann to the point where he, like everybody else, becomes an admirer.

The filmmakers label their tale as “loosely based” on Susann's life, presenting her uncritically as a brave, bright, and loyal to her friends. They focus on Susann's ambition to succeed at all costs and on her determination never to allow her personal tragedies to become public. In actuality, Sausann's life was inflicted by disasters: She had an autistic child and was diagnosed with breast cancer, which no one knew about. There are brief, basically throwaway, scenes that acknowledge these catastrophes, particularly her precarious health which terminated her life at the age of 53.

Susann's real story could have been made into a more poignant and touching biopic. Among other things, Susann is credited with being the most successful novelist of her generation and for inventing a whole new way of marketing and selling books; she and Mansfield embarked on a coast to coast book tour, paying calls to the smallest regional bookstores.

What makes the movie insufferable is not only its familiar showbiz cliches, but also its excessive theatrical sensibility. The material is filtered through Rudnick's campy gay humor, which veers away from factual foundation–Susann was witty but not a funny personality and her marriage was more complex than depicted here. The theatrical sensibility is most awkwardly evident in the periodic trips that Susann and Mansfiled take to Central Park, where they talk to God, whining about their lot or reporting their success. These pauses, which almost call for musical numbers, suggest that the yarn is better suited for a Broadway production than a bigscreen presentation.

Lane is basically miscast, but mercifully underacts. Midler, who's too old to be Susann in the 60s (the writer was 35 when her first book got published), plays Susann big, as a charming monster-vulgarian, a modern version of Gypsy's aggressive mom and Fiddler on the Roof's yanta.

Bergman has never been a subtle comedy director, but here his broad, muddled staging accentuates the cliches. Barry Malkin's editing is snappy but ragged, making pic seem more meandering than it is, and Julie Weiss's tacky costumes are often more amusing than the character wearing them.