Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
January 28, 2000 | Gire, Dann
Jacqueline Susann Bette Midler
Irving Mansfield Nathan Lane
Florence Maybelle Stockard Channing
Michael Hastings David Hyde Pierce
Henry Marcus John Cleese
This cold comic look at the life and death of trash romance novelist Jacqueline Susann has ear-gouging dialogue, rude conversations with God and – something that time will eventually prove me right about – the single biggest miscasting of the new millennium.
In “Isn’t She Great,” Bette Midler plays Susann as a scary combination of Momma Rose and Bette Davis’ Baby Jane. She delivers every line with Ethel Mermanesque bombast, and creates a character so egregiously histrionic that she would be judged too “over the top” even for TV sitcoms.
The rest of “Isn’t She Great” isn’t so great, either. It plays like A&E’s “Biography” as put together by disgruntled interns at “Saturday Night Live.”
Nathan Lane, in a valiant attempt to rise above this material, narrates “Isn’t She Great” as a personal remembrance by New York press agent Irving Mansfield. He tells how he fell in love with a struggling young actress named Jackie Susann.
“I want you as a woman!” Irving shouts to Jackie, “and as a client!” Irving eventually uses his marketing savvy to transform her into America’s best-selling author of the 1960s.
With her first book, “Valley of the Dolls,” Susann bursts upon the best-seller lists with her no-holds-barred account of drugs, sex, booze, scandals and power struggles in Hollywood.
She continues to churn out trashy romances, many of which become movies. She hits the celebrity circuit, even trading jokes with Johnny Carson.
But Susann’s life hardly ranks as a fairy-tale existence. Early on, she suffers from breast cancer and undergoes extensive radiation therapy. She and Irving become parents to an autistic son, Guy, who they keep in a full-time care center.
From the get-go, “Isn’t She Great” strives for the same one-two punch of comedy and tears that James Brooks’ excellent “As Good As It Gets” managed to pull off effortlessly in every scene.
It never happens here.
Director Andrew “The Freshman” Bergman, working from Paul “In & Out” Rudnick’s script, gives Midler so much free rein that whatever warmth and tragedy the story might have held gets pushed aside by shrill caricatures and sketch comedy.
When Irving goes shopping for a gift for his wife, Jackie’s best friend, actress Florence Maybelle (an Elizabeth Taylorized Stockard Channing), suggests he pick up an expensive black-and-white pearl necklace.
“If a man gave that to me,” she purrs with a “Married … With Children” sitcom delivery, “I’d not only have sex with him … I’d enjoy it!”
“Frasier” sitcom star David Hyde Pierce recycles his uptight pigeon-holed personality as Michael Hastings, a persnickety editor for Jackie’s publisher, Henry Marcus (a wasted use of Monty Pythonite John Cleese).
The fastidious Hastings drags Jackie and Irving over to his mother’s posh homestead to work quietly. There, the flamboyant Miss J. gets his elderly Aunt Abigail and Grandma Mimsy to fondly talk about their lesbian leanings.
“She never got the breaks,” Irving solemnly swears as he reflects on his late wife’s life, “so she made her own!”
Good for her, because “Isn’t She Great” doesn’t give us any.