BetteBack January 28, 2000: Great? Not by a Long Shot

The Washington Post
January 28, 2000 | Desson Howe


I SLOGGED my way through a blizzard to watch this?

Isn’t She Great,” a woefully ungreat biopic about trash-writing queen Jacqueline Susann, is definitely not worth braving any weather for.

Although Bette Midler, who plays “Valley of the Dolls” author Jackie-S, proves to be an amusing live wire at times, and although screenwriter Paul Rudnick (who co-wrote “AddamsFamily Values”) has a wicked talent for drag-queen-culture one-liners, this movie slumps endlessly through the Valley of the Dulls.

If it were the last videotape available in the only video store in the remotest corner of Alaska, I’d take one last slug of Jack Daniels and start walking directly into the howling snows.

And poor Nathan Lane. As Irving Mansfield, the publicity agent who falls in love with Susann and leads her all the way to pulp-fiction mega-fame, he has to spend almost all of this movie’s 95 minutes gazing adoringly in her direction. I bet his face ached after the third day of shooting.

For all the movie’s celebration of Susann’s tell-it-like-it-is bluster, it’s amazingly coy. The real relationship between her and Mansfield is a head-scratcher.

Are we to believe that Lane (hardly anyone’s idea of a heterosexual romantic lead) is madly in love with Midler? They don’t kiss or touch. I don’t remember a single physical moment between them. And when Mansfield fussily places a handkerchief on the sidewalk and goes down on bended knee before Susann, you wonder if he’s going to propose or sing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”

Well, he proposes and it’s the beginning of a beautiful marriage. But what kind of marriage is it? Director Andrew Bergman‘s movie seems to have no idea what it’s trying to tell us.

The plot follows the familiar gotta-make-it-at-any-cost scenario: Failed actress Susann is suffering through bit parts on stage and screen when Mansfield–enraptured with Her Susannness–begs to become her agent.

Why he adores her so much isn’t made clear either, unless he wants to be her. But his undying faith is a big part of her success. And it’s Mansfield’s chance sighting of a woman reading a Sidney Sheldon novel that makes him hit upon the idea of turning Jacqueline into a novelist.

After all, she knows the dark side of the theatrical life, the wannabes and has-beens and their sexual depravities and drug taking. She can write the kind of material that eventually informs her first triumph, “Valley of the Dolls.”

The movie, essentially, has four connecting strands:

Jacqueline can’t write her way out of a paper bag. In a sort of Jew-and-gentile odd coupling, the crassly dressed, grammar- challenged Susann bumps heads with her stuffy, priggish editor Michael Hastings. Hastings is played with one-dimensional shtick by David Hyde Pierce, whose role must be modeled on Michael Korda, who was Susann’s editor and whose article “Wasn’t She Great?” was the basis of this movie. This is a painful ordeal for them–and us.

Jacqueline is dying of cancer. Great little intrusion into a Hollywood ’40s-style romance, huh? But that’s par for the coarse. Will she die before she makes it? Apparently, this is Universal Pictures’ great strategy for bringing in movie audiences by the millions.

Jacqueline has a shameful secret. A child is born from the marriage, a blond-haired child that looks like it was born from another marriage, but never mind. The poor kid is mentally retarded. So they leave Guy in a home that will take care of him. Does the movie ever challenge the couple’s complete narcissism for dumping this child? No. But they do visit Guy. And there’s a special emotional high note, when Irving holds up his hand and the child– now a teenager–exchanges a high five with him. Touching, touching, touching.

Jacqueline checks in with The Tree of Light. Here’s my favorite part of all. Jacqueline is convinced that the shafts of light striating from a tree in Central Park amount to the soul of God. So whenever there’s a big issue that only God could answer–like, Why isn’t Jacqueline Susann famous yet?–she comes and chats with the tree.

So, pulp fame, a mentally challenged kid who can do high-fives, death from cancer and a tree that amounts to God’s Speaker Phone? What are you waiting for? Rent that snow-plow and blaze a trail to your neighborhood theater now. Because in about 13 days, that movie is gone, gone, gone. I hope.

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