BootLeg Betty

BetteBack January 28, 2000: Performances Save ‘Great’

The Cincinnati Post (Cincinnati, OH)
January 28, 2000

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Early on in ”Isn’t She Great,” the perpetually struggling Jacqueline Susann – apparently the most incurable showbiz wannabe since Lucy Ricardo – gets a pep talk from her best girlfriend.

Keep at it, the woman advises. Send out those headshots, go out for those auditions, and one day you’re bound to make it. After all, she points out, ”Talent isn’t everything.”

She’s right about that. Just look at ”Isn’t She Great.”

A long-delayed biography of the kitschy author of ”Valley of the Dolls,” ”Isn’t She Great” is bursting with talent, particularly of the bitchy kind. Bette Midler plays Susann, and Stockard Channing plays her best friend. Nathan Lane is Irv, Susann’s devoted press-agent husband, and David Hyde Pierce is a prissy, disapproving book editor. If the cast were any campier, the theaters would have to provide patrons with marabou mules.

That might be a good idea, actually, because at times ”Isn’t She Great” resembles nothing so much as a drag act. The ever-more-divine Miss M. poses in her Pucci pantsuits; Ms. Channing flings sarcastic one-liners like a roadshow refugee from ”Mame.”

Some of this is very funny – how could it not be, given these people and a script by Paul Rudnick (”In & Out”)? – but a lot of it feels as tired as a Tallulah Bankhead impression.

Perhaps that’s because all this material – the Irv-and-Jackie love story, the endless publicity tours, the brave cancer battles – was already mined for ”Scandalous Me,” a 1998 TV movie that starred Michelle Lee. Still, even without that template, many of these lines are awfully familiar. Sometimes you can say Rudnick’s punch lines even before his characters do.

”You don’t think it’s too vulgar, too over the top?” asks Ms. Susann, sweeping into the room in a jungle print.

”No,” her advisers assure.

”Then maybe I should change.” answers.

Pa-DUM-bum.

Even with the predictable rimshots and occasionally timeworn dialogue, every performer here shines. Ms. Midler is delightfully brassy as Ms. Susann. Lane is as close to adorable as a pudgy middle-aged guy can get. And no film that gives John Cleese even a small part can be all bad.

Still, ”Isn’t She Great” often seems as confused and scattershot as the career of its director, Andrew Bergman, who once made ”The Freshman” and last made ”Striptease.” Just when you think it’s a comedy, the film inserts mawkish scenes of the couple’s autistic son, or Ms. Susann talking to God. (”It’s me, Jackie.”) Just when you think it’s a drama, it lurches into its drag act.

And just when you thought this was a biography – well, don’t. Universal seems to be carving out a strange fudging-the-facts niche for itself (its last two movie bios were ”The Hurricane” and ”Man on the Moon”);and, once again, this picture features a great performance surrounded by some highly fictionalized trappings. (To begin with, Ms. Susann had a publisher and another published book long before she even began ”Valley.”)

But even worse – and this is criminal in a bio of a trash maven like Ms. Susann – the movie ignores all the juiciest gossip. Want to finally see the real-life basis for the starlets in ”Valley,” or the nasty hero of ”The Love Machine”? Sorry, kiddo. Eager for the real dirt on Ms. Susann’s close ”friendship” with Ethel Merman? Forget it, sweetie.

It’s enough to make you cry in your banana daiquiri. Don’t they know how to sell a hot little story like this anymore? Honestly, you can bet Jackie Susann would have known how to do it. And dear devoted Irv would have been right next to her at every theater, giving away those souvenir marabou mules.

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