Peddling literary trash and sex to the American public is a time-honored, lucrative pursuit, and nobody did it better than Jacqueline Susann, author of history's Guinness-certified all-time best-seller, "Valley of the Dolls" -- and also the subject of the dubious new bio-movie, "Isn't She Great."
I've never been able to get through one of Susann's books, and I wish I could have bailed
out of all three of the movies based on them. But I understand her appeal. Susann was a specialist in sleazy, glamorous tabloid-style plots: Broadway and Hollywood superstars wallowing in sex, pills, booze, heartbreak and soap opera. Her novels are stinkers, but they're not boring stinkers. And, for a while, it looks as if "Isn't She Great" might be pretty good trashy fun too.
The filmmakers -- writer Paul Rudnick ("In and Out") and director Andrew Bergman ("The In-Laws") -- are comedy specialists. The cast is a flashy troupe of star comedians, headed by gaudy, bawdy Bette Midler as Susann and Broadway show-stopper Nathan Lane as her agent-husband Irving Mansfield. These people came to make us laugh (and cry) and the movie tries hard to turn its Jackie into a heart-breaking legend, a boisterous babe concealing a tragic heart, a lady who not only talks to God but gives him a piece of her mind; a mix of Auntie Mame, Lucy Ricardo, Bette Davis and, of course, Bette Midler.
But you've got to have a talent for trash -- or at least a dedication to it -- to make it work, and the people who made "Great" may be too smart to be amusingly dumb, too good to be entertainingly bad -- and too skittish to really dig out the best dirt and make a stinging film.
The movie is a stinker, but it's not an enjoyable stinker. It's a bog in which the actors keep sinking into cutesy-poo iniquity, frozen smiles on their faces and lewd cliches on their lips. I laughed harder at the 1975 movie of Susann's "Once is Not Enough" than I did all through "Great."
Beginning with its tawdry credits sequence and its title (puzzlingly missing an exclamation point or question mark) "Isn't She Great" is a flabbergasting waste of time and talent: not just of Midler and Lane's, but also of Stockard Channing as Jackie's wise-cracking chum Florence, David Hyde Pierce as her prim editor "Michael Hastings" (a.k.a. Michael Korda) and John Cleese as her dotty publisher "Bernard Marcus" (a.k.a. Bernard Geis). It takes real chutzpah to squander a cast like that -- not to mention a subject as interesting as Jackie herself -- but whatever "Great's" other flaws, it isn't bashful.
The movie is based on a 1995 New Yorker article by Korda, and, among other things, it's an offbeat love story about the lifelong romance of fame-at-any-price Jackie and her obliging agent-husband Mansfield (played by Nathan Lane with a painful smile, as if he knew something that we didn't). "Isn't She Great!" was Mansfield's constant real-life exclamation over his wife's antics; we first meet her as the ambitious, mouthy young actress who charms him. Then we watch, amazed, her marriage to Irving, her prayers to her favorite Central Park tree, her checkered '50s TV career as pitchwoman and game show panelist, and her tragedies: the discoveries that her son Guy is autistic and that she has breast cancer (a disease Susann suffered from for 17 years, before her death in 1974).
Fame is the goddess Jackie relentlessly pursues. And fame finally beckons when Irving, the saintliest movie agent since Woody Allen's "Broadway Danny Rose," suggests she write a novel. She churns out 1966's "Valley of the Dolls," a rowdy roman a clef about pill-popping, bed-hopping young actresses (based largely on Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Carole Landis and Jackie herself) that is still the biggest selling novel of all time.
The rest of the movie follows Jackie and Irving they gambol though the world of publishing and moviemaking, trading quips with the ribald Flo, winning the heart of uptight editor Hastings, and ignoring the bitter barbs of lesser-selling novelists like Truman Capote (or "Truman Capon" as Jackie calls him). Eventually, she climbs her own Mt. Everest, charming Aristotle Onassis so much that he confesses he may have married the wrong Jackie.
To say that much of this is a crock of garbage is putting it mildly; it's probably not even something the filmmakers would dispute. They insist they're making a comedy "inspired" by her life. But is this really a comedy? Astonishingly, Rudnick and Bergman don't even allow Jackie to bloom in all her trashy glory. They clean up her life, eliminating or downplaying stuff that seems a natural here, including her own pill-popping and her extramarital affairs with famous comedians like Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Lewis and Georgie Jessel (and some insist, with Merman and Landis).
Gone too, is the real-life Jackie`s famous "Hockey Club": the all-female gossip group whose gamy tales of show-biz hanky-panky supplied much of her stories. Gone is her first book, the 1963 poodle comedy "Every Night Josephine." And gone are some of the qualities -- addiction and revenge -- that make her interesting.
It's partly unfair to judge a movie by what isn't there, but "Isn't She Great" doesn't give us much in compensation for its omissions. Midler doesn't really suggest Jackie (this might have been a better role for Fran Drescher). Midler is smaller and bustier and nicer. And Lane doesn't convey the qualities Korda describes in his article, mainly Mansfield's imitation Damon Runyon "tough guy" manner (this from an actor famous for playing "Guys and Dolls' " Nathan Detroit!). The other actors don't convey much beyond sitcom energy, though, given Rudnick's script, you can hardly blame them.
"She's So Great's" biggest problem comes from the fact that, unlike Jackie herself, it doesn't trust trash. Despite the liberal use of four-letter dialogue, it's too cute, too cleaned-up, condescending and fawning. Since Susann's '60s-'70s heyday, her books (recently republished by Grove) are no longer the pop culture scandals they once were -- and Susann herself is sometimes touted as a trail-blazing feminist figure. That's a joke too, but not the kind "She's So Great" gives us. This whole movie is too reminiscent of a phony show-biz tribute where a Jessel or a Joe E. Lewis stands up, cracks a dirty joke and then says "There's a lot of love in this room." Not tonight, Josephine.
"Isn't She Great"
Directed by Andrew Bergman; written by Paul Rudnick, based on an article by Michael Korda; photographed by Karl Walter Lindenlaub; edited by Barry Malkin; production designed by Stuart Wurtzel; music by Burt Bacharach; produced by Mike Lobell. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: R (language, sensuality).
Jacqueline Susann ... Bette Midler
Irving Mansfield ... Nathan Lane
Florence Maybelle ... Stockard Channing
Michael Hastings ... David Hyde Pierce
Henry Marcus ... John Cleese
Maury Manning ... John Laroquette