BetteBack January 30, 2000: Susann’s success a great filmgoing treat

The Boston Herald
January 30, 2000 | Schaefer, Stephen

ISN'T SHE GREAT, Bette Midler, 2000, (c)MCA
ISN’T SHE GREAT, Bette Midler, 2000, (c)MCA

It’s easy to be dismissive of the writing of Jacqueline Susann. Easy and, well, probably called for.

But the “Valley of the Dolls” author’s impact on the entertainment industry is not so easily dismissed. In some ways, she changed the way entertainment product – from books to films – is sold to the public.

Isn’t She Great,” a new film featuring Bette Midler as Susann, initially presents her as glamorous but unfulfilled. As the film begins, she is a woman undaunted by her life of continual failure – as a playwright, actress, quiz-show panelist and product demonstrator. She remains determined, despite the odds, to become famous.

This comic fable, which co-stars Nathan Lane as Susann’s husband and publicist Irving Mansfield, skimps on many of the harsh facts of Susann’s life, but it is on target with regards to her achingly real, fully focused need to be a star.

And she became one, with the publication in 1967 of the irresistibly lurid “Valley of the Dolls.” The book spawned a hit Hollywood film, an ’80s miniseries remake, a ’90s off-Broadway hit starring a drag performer, and it is reportedly to be remade yet again for TV.

By the time she died of breast cancer in 1974, Susann had helped pave the way for not just the blockbuster novel – printing a million copies, supported by a nationwide advertising blitz coordinated with key TV and print appearances – but the blockbuster movie era ushered in by the mass-release of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.”

Hollywood couldn’t help but admire the way Susann was transformed into a “name” author, the name becoming even more important than the individual book title. She was critic-proof the way Danielle Steel or Tom Clancy are today. Like Martha Stewart, Susann, had she lived, likely would have expanded the “brand” to include a lot more than books.

Susann’s first book, a humorous non-fiction account of life with her black poodle called “Every Night Josephine,” became a bestseller entirely due to her personal push. With Mansfield in tow, the duo drove around the country to bookstores, making notes on the names, birthdays, anniversaries of the sales people that would serve her well three years later with “Valley of the Dolls.”

“Susann did stuff no self-respecting author would do at the time,” said Nathan Lane, citing a scene in the movie where she brings coffee and doughnuts to Teamsters who are loading her books at a store. “This was unheard of, people showing up bringing coffee to Teamsters! And it made a difference.

“Publishers would tremble when Jackie and Irving would call,” Lane continued. “They knew they’d be making a lot of demands. But they changed the way books were sold. They made her into this celebrity author, which hadn’t been done before. “There was something admirable about them, how determined and focused they were.”

Susann and Mansfield knew that it was “buzz” and not reviews that sold a book. They were among the first to realize that TV and the talk shows were instrumental in creating “buzz” in that pre-Internet era. They designed their covers specifically so that they would appear clearly on TV.

Nothing she did had a greater impact than “Valley of the Dolls.” Based on what Susann saw and, more important, heard over the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at showbiz parties, “Valley of the Dolls” told of the trials and tribulations of a trio of comely young women hoping, like Susann herself, to find happiness by becoming famous.

Susann took the tragic story of Judy Garland, a talented young singer who became addicted to amphetamines and sleeping pills – called “dolls” in Susann terminology – and renamed her Neely O’Hara. She took the tragedy of Carole Landis, a 1940s sex symbol who committed suicide, and Marilyn Monroe, who was also thought to have killed herself, and fashioned Jennifer, a blond actress who has a mastectomy and commits suicide with her beloved “dolls.”

The book’s most talked-about scene became the 1968 film version’s definitive moment, shown in all its campy glory in “Isn’t She Great”: legendary Broadway singing star Helen Lawson meets pill-popping Neely in a ladies room and after they tussle, Neely rips Helen’s wig off (to reveal an all-white head of hair) and flushes it down the toilet. Lawson, dignity intact, wraps her head in her shawl and grandly makes her exit.

“How accurate is Jackie Susann’s take on show business?” Lane wondered aloud. “Obviously it’s a part of it. Somewhere, someone is tearing off a wig and popping a pill. How else can you survive this insanity? She’s captured something.

“Obviously, her experience as an actress – and I use the term loosely – informed her writing. Helen is based on Ethel Merman.”

Amanda Peet, who plays Susann’s assistant on her book tours in the movie, told Lane her reaction to reading “Valley of the Dolls”: “It’s like you’re overhearing gossip in the ladies room.”

Susann grew up star-struck. Like Midler‘s movie suggests, she tried many careers and failed miserably in all of them before becoming a best-selling novelist in the ’60s. Her legacy may not be her oeuvre of four books but the way she brought the hard sell and the personal touch into book publishing – and transformed the industry in the process.

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