BootLeg Betty

BetteBack January 27, 2000: BETWEEN THE COVERS | CLASH OF TONES LEAVES COMEDY ABOUT `DOLLS’ AUTHOR IN AN EMOTIONAL VALLEY

The Beacon News – Aurora (IL)
January 27, 2000

ISN'T SHE GREAT, David Hyde-Pierce, Nathan Lane, Bette Midler, 2000, business lunch
ISN’T SHE GREAT, David Hyde-Pierce, Nathan Lane, Bette Midler, 2000, business lunch

Jacqueline Susann apparently was the most self-obsessed person since Hitler, but in a sweet way. She hungered so badly for her 15 minutes of fame that she would kill for it (including butchering the English language). She bopped with the beautiful people in the endlessly schmoozing world of Broadway society.

Yet down inside, she was secretly dying of cancer and too proud to admit that her mentally defective child was not just “suffering from asthma.”

Yes, there is a great semi-sweet comedy to be made about the life of Jacqueline Susann.

Unfortunately, Isn’t She Great isn’t quite it, though it isn’t the worst choice you could make this week if you’re in the market for a few laughs and always wondered about the story behind the story of the mega-best seller Valley of the Dolls.

As that story begins, it’s the early ’60s. Jackie (played with full-throttle energy by BetteMidler, who paints Susann as pretty much another Divine Miss M) is a 45-year-old flop as an actress.

But that doesn’t discourage press agent/professional schmoozer Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane). The minute he sets eyes on Jackie, he knows he has met not just the love of his life, but his new purpose for living.

Irving gets down on his knee and offers to become her husband.

She seems not totally impressed.

“– and your agent,” he adds.

“Oh, don’t say that if you don’t mean it,” she gushes.

The best part of the movie is how this gentle, sweet guy is unreservedly willing to play a very low second fiddle because he loves this woman so much.

Midler‘s hit song The Wind Beneath My Wings could have been written about Irving though, ironically, Midler never sings it in this movie.

Clever Irving thinks the fame that stage and screen have so unfairly denied this divine creature might come yet if she writes a tell-all novel about all the boozing and bedding and dope-taking behind the scenes in show biz. A novel called Valley of the Dolls.

And, of course, it becomes the best-selling novel of modern times.

Unfortunately, it’s very tricky to hit just the right tone when you’re dealing with slapstick one moment and with cancer and autism the next.

And this movie’s director (Andrew Bergman, who did Honeymoon in Vegas) and writer Paul Rudnick (In and Out) seem to have become tone deaf.

They attack the topic from a clownish angle.

But we know these are real-life people we’re looking at up there, not fictional characters from a Neil Simon play.

They all talk and act just a little too Odd Couple-ish to believe.

That serves as a slight drag on the comedy.

It is absolutely fatal when the action slows down for what are supposed to be emotional anchor scenes.

Isn’t She Great could have risen from the level of routine comedy to unforgettable classic by proper handling of the scenes when Irving feels left out by Jackie’s popularity, when Jackie and Irving visit their disabled son, when Jackie chews out God for handing her a death sentence. But with no gut feeling that these are real people facing these crises, and no eloquence built into them by the dialogue, we simply leave these scenes cold.

A strong supporting cast includes Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce as a prissy old-school book editor.

John Cleese is the only publisher in New York hip enough to take on this supposedly untouchable book (though, as the movie itself makes clear, Harold Robbins was already a household name by then). And Stockard Channing, who looks more like the real Jacqueline Susann than pudgy, short Bette Midler does, gets some of the funniest lines as she plays Jackie’s booze-swilling best friend.

“If somebody give ME pearls like that, not only would I have sex with him, but I would ENJOY it!” the friend exclaims.

If this movie had given us some emotional pearls to go with its costume jewelry laughs, we would enjoy it more, too. Isn’t She Great * * 1/2 Starring: Bette Midler, Nathan Lane Director: Andrew Bergman Running time: 95 minutes Rated: R (language, talk about sex).

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