BetteBack January 28, 2000: THE ART OF THE SALE | MIDLER AS SUSANN

Sun Publications (IL)
January 28, 2000


At a time when we’ve got celebrities coming out of our ears — whether they’re showing up at omnipresent awards ceremonies or on E’s latest “True Hollywood Story” — do we need a movie that glorifies the pursuit of fame for fame’s sake? You wouldn’t think so, but that movie has arrived.

Isn’t She Great,” based on the life of “Valley of the Dolls” author Jacqueline Susann, blows a big kiss to a woman who helped turn stardom into the new American dream.

Unlike Woody Allen’s “Celebrity,” Gus Van Sant‘s “To Die For” or a sunnier picture such as “The Truman Show,” “Isn’t She Great” has no room for satire. Indeed, when one character tells Susann that “talent isn’t everything,” there’s not a trace of irony in her voice.

As Susann, Better Midler brings sass and gusto to the role from the start. A struggling actress, singer and voice-over talent when we meet her, Susann gets her big break when manager and publicist Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane) professes his love for her — she doesn’t accept his wedding proposal until he promises to get her a role in a national TV commercial). A few other jobs begin to trickle in, but it isn’t until Mansfield suggests that Susann write about what she knows best — pill-popping, fame-hungry, sex-starved Hollywood wanabes — that her pseudocareer takes off, so much so that “Valley of the Dolls” reaches the No. 1 spot on the New York Times’ best-seller list.

As a biography, “Isn’t She Great” is a flimsy piece of work.

The movie’s awash in scenes of Susann demanding attention — “I need mass love,” she says at one point — and reveling in her ensuing success, but these moments float by with little more than Midler‘s brashness to give them any weight. According to the movie’s press material, the real Susann never spoke about her and Mansfield’s autistic son or about the breast cancer she suffered later in life, and “Isn’t She Great” largely takes the same approach; during one of the few times their son appears, Susann and Mansfield spend the whole time babbling about her book.

The film’s main concern seems to be the same as Susann’s — perpetuating her own myth.

For all of its comedic talent — including Stockard Channing, David Hyde Pierce and John Cleese — “Isn’t She Great” scores few laughs.

Director Andrew Bergman (“The Freshman,” “Honeymoon in Vegas”) and screenwriter Paul Rudnick (“In and Out”), have done sharp work before, but here they settle for cheap gags.

An extended sequence pits Pierce, as a buttoned-down book editor, against the flamboyant Susann and Mansfield.

The movie seems to think it’s hilarious to have a character say that Pierce, a professional prude best known for his work as Niles on TV’s “Frasier,” is “prissy” because he objects to the sex and vulgarity in Susann’s book).

As for the leads, Lane bounces like a yo-yo depending on the needs of the script.

At first Mansfield inexplicably dedicates his life to launching Susann’s career, but then, when the story could use a dramatic climax, he decides it’s time to put his own career first.

Midler fares a bit better, if only because the movie casts her character in a reverential glow.

Yet by the time Susann hits the big time and starts stomping around like a demanding diva, any charm her perseverance has earned her quickly wears off; she’s got the attitude of a star but none of the skills.

It’s always dubious to idolize historical figures on film — look at the eyebrows that were raised regarding the glossing of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s life in Denzel Washington’s latest movie — and Susann is a more dubious figure than most.

We can admire her persistence, but “Isn’t She Great,” as its title unabashedly implies, calls for something more.

The movie wants her to be some sort of inspiring hero for anyone who has wanted to be a star, and in this film’s way of thinking, that’s everyone.

By the end, when Susann finally succumbs to cancer, “Isn’t She Great” portrays her as a martyr for show biz.

“She made the front page, all three dailies, every network,” Mansfield says of the coverage that was given to Susann’s death, making it clear that he — and the movie — see these fleeting mentions in the media whirlwind as the measurement of her entire life.

Other films have chronicled real people in their pursuits for fame.

The documentary “American Movie” centers around a no-budget Wisconsin filmmaker who dreams about making a horror flick, just as Tim Burton’s great 1994 film, “Ed Wood,” lovingly pays tribute to a man often called the worst filmmaker of all time.

But the difference between those pictures and “Isn’t She Great” is that “American Movie” and “Ed Wood” capture the passion their subjects have for the art of cinema — even if that art lies beyond their talentless reach.

Susann seems to have had a passion only for herself; as such, watching her succeed isn’t half as inspiring as watching a hack such as Ed Wood fail.

ISN’T SHE GREAT * stsar Starring: Bette Midler, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, David Hyde Pierce, John Cleese Director: Andrew Bergman Running time: 95 minutes Rated: R

From left, David Hyde Pierce, Nathan Lane and Bette Midler star in “Isn’t She Great,” a sad celebration of celebrity culture.

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