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I wish I’d brought a camera to the Isn’t She Great Saturday matinee at Hoyts Potomac Yard multiplex. I could have photographed the faces of the dozen or so other audience members, who departed looking as depressed as tourists exiting the Holocaust Museum. Then I could have filled this space with their morose mugshots, liberating myself from the Sisyphean task of attempting to communicate the soul-bruising awfulness of this leaden biopic about schlock novelist Jacqueline Susann.
Isn’t She Great’s credits are deceptively encouraging. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick, as nearly everyone knows by now, is Premiere’s uproarious yenta reviewer Libby Gelman-Waxner and the author of lively plays (Jeffrey) and film scripts including In & Out, a festival of zingy one-liners. Top-billed Bette Midler’s sassy charm has rescued several otherwise sluggish vehicles, and the members of the supporting cast—Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, David Hyde Pierce, and John Cleese—have generated more than their share of guffaws. Director Andrew Bergman has shown promise as a comic screenwriter (Soapdish, Honeymoon in Vegas), although he has proved less reliable as a filmmaker (It Could Happen to You, Striptease).
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How could these talents converge to create such a somniferous experience? A partial explanation is that they failed to figure out what, if anything, they wanted to say about Susann, whose life, despite all of her notoriety and material success, was a downer. Having flopped as an actress and a playwright, she was a burnout when she met her adoring third-rate theatrical-agent future husband, Irving Mansfield. At his urging, she penned several lurid, semi-literate sex-and-drugs showbiz romans a clef—and tirelessly promoted them to the top of the bestseller lists. (Her first fiction effort, Valley of the Dolls, sold more copies worldwide than any previous novel.) But these triumphs barely counterbalanced two personal tragedies: an autistic son and a decadelong losing battle with breast cancer.
Played seriously, by Susan Sarandon perhaps, Susann’s saga could have dramatized the hack novelist’s poignantly crass heroism in confronting the cruelties of fate. Treated as camp farce—Midler’s strong suit—Isn’t She Great might have been a rowdy comedy about triumphant bad taste in the tradition of John Waters. Viewed cynically, as cultural and economic history (a perspective hinted at by the movie’s ad tagline, “Talent isn’t everything”), Susann’s career might have served as a paradigm of capitalism’s expansion of markets (in this case, publishing) by producing increasingly shoddy goods.
Refusing to arrive at any point of view, Rudnick and Bergman present Susann’s life as a fawning pageant, shifting tones from scene to scene and swiping bits from other films to pad out the running time to feature length. The brainless, helium-voiced, peroxide-blond starlet who upstages Susann on a TV quiz show is a diluted reincarnation of Singin’ in the Rain’s immortal airhead Lina Lamont. The sequence depicting her visit with a prissy Ivy League-Brooks Brothers editor’s Connecticut family recycles a similar stacked-deck confrontation in Auntie Mame.
Apparently, we’re supposed to embrace Midler’s Susann as an irresistible life-affirming vulgarian, the Jewish showbiz counterpart of Mame Dennis. But the actress’s performance is so uncharacteristically wan and her appearance so dumpy, she seems to be the unhappy guest of honor at a surprise party that she would not have wittingly attended. Perhaps she was too embarrassed by the material to expend much of her signature sashaying energy on it. Surely she’s smart enough to have realized that no actress living or deceased could bring off Susann’s intermittent colloquies with a tree in Central Park that somehow symbolizes God. (Don’t ask me why.)
In the humiliatingly servile role of Mansfield, Lane is reduced to flapping his caterpillar eyebrows in an effort to convince us that his wife is indeed as terrific as the film’s title stipulates, even though we’re offered miniscule evidence to support that conclusion. (At one point, Aristotle Onassis is dragged in for supplemental cheerleading, asserting that he married the wrong Jackie.) Inheriting the archetypal Eve Arden role, Channing comes off best, though costume designer Julie Weiss sabotages one of her strongest scenes. The only trim member of a notably tubby ensemble, she’s poured into a skintight rose-and-white gown without the benefit of what my late relative known as Little Esther used to call a “foundation.” The resultant midriff bulge is sufficiently distracting to make us momentarily forget Midler’s corpulence. (Did she bribe the dresser to hide Channing’s girdle?) Fans of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers will weep to see their erstwhile idol, John Cleese, now bloated and witless, in the marginal role of Susann’s ’60s
Isn’t She Great raises more questions than it answers. Mansfield’s roster of show-biz fringe clients—we never actually see any of them—makes Broadway Danny Rose look like Mike Ovitz, but somehow, long before his missus hits the jackpot, he’s able to afford a luxurious duplex, catered meals, and a vast, albeit ghastly, wardrobe for his flamboyant spouse. Are we really supposed to believe that Susann’s patrician Manhattan editor has never heard of lox, or laugh at the ancient wheeze of him ordering an American cheese and mayo sandwich in a deli? What is the point of forcing us to witness the printing and binding of Susann’s first novel, and why are certain obligatory scenes so maddeningly protracted? One could go through puberty in the time that it takes Mansfield to cross a room and inform Susann of the phone call concerning the lab results of her cancer exam. And why does her doctor convey this life-threatening diagnosis by telephone to a second party?
The most self-destructively maladroit moment in this cringefest comes when Susann and Mansfield attend the premiere of Mark Robson’s 1967 screen version of Valley of the Dolls. Bergman includes a clip of the restroom scene in which an angry Patty Duke snatches off Susan Hayward’s wig. Then he cuts to Susann, distraught that Hollywood has ruined her masterpiece. The hideous irony is that the vintage movie snippet—from a picture assigned one of the rare BOMB ratings in Leonard Maltin’s generous Movie & Video Guide—is easily the high point in Isn’t She Great. CP