Like any decent, self-respecting American, all Jacqueline Susann wanted was to be a star. She became one by being in the right place at the right time with her sex-pills-and-debauchery novel “Valley of the Dolls” – the dolls of the title being drugs, not women. The more the book was dismissed as trash, the higher up the bestseller list it climbed and the longer it stayed there. It was a zeitgeist book. There’s always a place for trash novels, but this one came along at a time when high and low culture were changing places in America, and it reinforced a dynamic still going strong today. Susann was hardly the only one who assumed that the world is driven by sex, but her years of showbiz experience as a wannabe sniffing around the edges of success enabled her to put a believably lascivious context around the steamy, gossipy prose one observer likened to overhearing a ladies’ room conversation.
Although the idea of a Jacqueline Susann biopic is not the stuff of elevated pulse rates, pop-culture icon though she may have been, “Isn’t She Great” turns out to be a surprisingly warm and engaging entertainment – brassy, schmaltzy, funny. Stars Bette Midler and Nathan Lane are pros from way back who know exactly how to sell this affectionately retro material with its rambunctious Broadway showbiz flavor. It’s belted, not crooned, with Midler‘s Susann turning her spillover style into performing pay dirt. She does a savvy job of meshing her own trash-with-flash persona with Susann’s. Great trouper, this Midler-Susann. Crude, but lotsa heart, baby. That, plus a big chrome-plated show-must-go-on smile, and an irresistible unstopp ableness in the face of such potential setbacks as worldwide indifference, giving birth to an autistic child, and, eventually, the breast cancer that killed her.
“Isn’t She Great” is more of a fairy-tale account of Susann’s life than the recent TV biopic, but then Susann’s life was a self-made fairy tale, created and sustained by a will of steel. Two wills of steel, actually. Susann’s career was going nowhere until she hooked up with press agent Irving Mansfield, who was devoted to her, but, more important, whose skills complemented hers. She had the drive, but not the connections. He was a professional schmoozer who planted column items, was savvy to the ways of media exploitation when the latter involved mostly print, a little TV, and could be practiced on a small patch of Broadway turf bounded by Sardi’s on the south and Lindy’s or maybe the Carnegie Deli on the north.
The early stuff is tiresome. Scenes in which Susann speaks her mind to God (represented by a tree in Central Park) could profitably have been omitted. On the other hand, they underscore the essential innocence of the worldview that regarded Susann’s relocation of Sodom and Gomorrah to this or that Brentwood cabana as the ultimate decadence. She was plugged into America’s ongoing need to think of its stars’ lives as wall-to-wall orgies. Although Susann’s characters popped pills freely, neither she nor anybody in the film does, although little doubt is left about their comprehensive sexual experience. Midler shoulders heartbreak bravely and makes it impossible not to share Susann’s naked joy in living large, with big hair, big mouth, and enough billowing Pucci to keep her in costume changes every five minutes. When she isn’t rev el ing in the joys of conspicuous consumption, she’s having fun melting the prissiness of her uptight WASP editor (David Hyde Pierce).
Lane turns in a generously self-effacing performance as Irving Mansfield, her second-banana husband, with winning affection for the almost Runyonesque type Mansfield represented. He sulks when her prominence has irrevocably eclipsed his, a conflict handled in one convenient scene after he makes himself scarce at a Waldorf tribute at which she’s saluted by Steve Lawrence (looking unnaturally young, but only until you realize that he’s being portrayed by his son, David – Debbie Gravitte plays Eydie). You expect something of a campfest from Lane, especially given Mansfield’s and Susann’s lifestyle. Instead, there’s something muted, wistful, almost touching in his portrait of a man without a high opinion of himself, who consoles himself for his satellite existence, as so many women of the period did, by being something of a clothes horse.
Most of the funniest lines in Paul Rudnick’s lively, witty script go to Susann’s sidekick, who, as played by Stockard Channing, dispenses them with buckets of droll style. John Cleese injects a welcome note of zaniness as Susann’s publisher, a fictionalized Bernard Geis. Given a chance, the lusty and highly shagadelic “Isn’t She Great” – as uttered constantly by the ballyhoo-savvy Mansfield, it’s always an exclamation, never a question – will entertain you more than it has any business doing and certainly more than you expect.