She Great (2000)
Was I Born?
(written by Oscar Hammerstein II/Jerome
This 30 second clip was cut from the
This was Bette singing as Jacqueline
Susann, who could not sing! So I imagine this was difficult for
Bette to do.
Supposedly there were many takes of this song, but alas none made
them to the screen or even to the ending credits. Thanks to my
Canadian friend, Paul A. for sending this to me. His college vocal
teacher is this piano player!
Comedy biopic starring
Bette Midler as bestselling novelist Jacqueline Susann.
With Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing.
Stars: Bette Midler, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, John Cleese,
David Hyde Pierce
Director: Andrew Bergman
there anything worse than a comedy with no laughs? You bet there is a comedy with
no laughs and a screeching, self-absorbed lead character that has an autistic
kid and dies of cancer. Actually, that description makes it sound kind of interesting.
Itís not. Itís "Isnít She Great" the horrible story of actress-turned-best-selling-novelist
(played here by Bette Midler, That Old Feeling), a self-proclaimed star
of stage and screen found her career sagging as low as Midlerís bust in the mid
Ď60s. The film shows her tossed off of a game show called Whatís My Job?
for ridiculing a dimwitted co-panelist. The business has already chewed her up
and spit her out, and the past-her-prime starlet gets by on residual checks. Her
publicist Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane, Mouse Hunt) proposes to her, marries
her and, through one of the stranger screen scenes I can remember, sees a woman
enjoying a book in Central Park, which gives him the idea to prod Susann into
writing a novel about the real Hollywood. The dirtier, the better.
book, of course, is The Valley of the Dolls, which went on to become the
best-selling novel of its time. Susann went on to write two other stories, The
Love Machine and Once is Not Enough (the latter should have been the
title of the last Bond film), but the film doesnít mention either. Instead, it
concentrates on Susann and Mansfield trying to find a publisher and an audience
for her tawdry wares. They practically invented the idea of a promotional book
tour, hocking the novel from the trunk of their car as they barnstormed every
local bookstore from Pismal Beach to Walla Walla, Washington.
Susann is more than a groundbreaking sales entrepreneur. Her character is perhaps
one of the most annoying of all-time and I canít recall a less sympathetic lead
in the annals of Tinseltown. She makes Tom Ripley seem like goddamn Rocky Balboa,
and if Susann were a figure skater, she would have hired someone to whack Nancy
Kerrigan in the knee. She was a fame addict and actually had the audacity to demand
that God make her more popular. Truman Capote (portrayed eerily well by Sam Street)
claimed that Susann looked like "a truck driver in drag." He later issued
an apology to truck drivers. Midler is perfect casting, and so is the limp-wristed
Lane. Even Greatís press kit calls their relationship "unconventional."
some tragedy, too. Susann and Mansfield have the autistic kid (this is what happens
when a queen and a horse-faced diva try to populate the earth). And she gets breast
cancer, just as God relented to her constant yammering about her need for "mass
love." While the inclusion of these misfortunes attempt to soften Susannís
brash character, they just donít. The script could have used some punch-ups, like
the rumors that Susann was a bisexual (and bedded, among others, Ethel Merman,
Coco Chanel and, I think, Mr. Ed). Incredibly, Susann was also invited to the
party at Roman Polanskiís house the night that Chuck Mansonís kids wiped out Sharon
Tate, et al. (Tate appeared in the theatrical version of Dolls, but Susann missed
it because of her chemo treatments.) Either of these developments would have made
the film a little more interesting. And itís not like there wasnít enough time,
with Great clocking in under an hour-and-a-half.
was directed by Andrew Bergman (Striptease) and the sorry script was based on
Michael KordaísNew Yorker magazine article "Wasnít She Great" (Korda
was a Simon and Schuster editor on Susannísecond novel) and adapted by In &
Outís Paul Rudnick (a.k.a. Libby Gelman-Waxner). Midler is awful, Lane seems content
to hide behind her wide hips, and David Hyde Pierce (Frasier) offers further proof
that he and Neil Patrick Harris are actually the same person.
Susann was probably a bit ahead of her time, Great is a bad comedy that refuses
to end. The best part was watching the book binded in the factory. The second-best
part? When it was over. The creators of the film insist that Great is only "loosely
based" on Susannís life, which is comforting. I feel safer thinking that
a person this horrible didnít exist in the world
a word, no. This candy-colored, tart-tongued riff on the life and career of defiantly
trashy novelist Jacqueline Susann (Bette Midler) contains several profanely amusing
moments, but they don't add up to much. Based on a New Yorker magazine piece by
Michael Korda, one of Susann's editors, the film actually feels constrained by
the need to stay somewhere in the vicinity of the facts of her life; it might
have been better off as pure fiction about a Jacqueline Susann-like novelist.
The milestones are there: Susann's career as a second-string actress; her marriage
to Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane), her manager and tireless booster; the writing
of Valley of the Dolls, the much-rejected novel that went on to become a spectacular
bestseller; the birth of Susann's autistic son; the battle with breast cancer,
which eventually killed her. And the movie's refreshing conceit is that once Susann
achieves the fame she craves, she's as happy as a pig in mud. Susann's books may
wallow in the degrading downside of celebrity, but she works like a galley slave
to make sure the limelight never dims. Midler's performance is flamboyant, but
one-dimensional, and the movie is desperately shallow; Susann's life (well-chronicled
in the cable movie Scandalous Me) was far darker and more bizarre than you'd ever
know. In an ideal world, ISN'T SHE GREAT would have been a theater piece, a series
of blackout sketches performed by Pucci-clad drag queens with sky-high hair. It's
filled with bitchy exchanges, camp fashion and colorful supporting characters,
including Susann's best friend, a thoroughly self-absorbed actress (the brilliantly
funny Stockard Channing); with-it publisher Henry Marcus (John Cleese, in an orange
Nehru jacket); and stuffy editor Michael Hastings (David Hyde-Pierce), who's nearly
paralyzed with horror when he realizes that not only is Valley of the Dolls going
to be published, but he's going to have to work on it. ó Maitland McDonagh
Rozen, People Magazine
Isn't She Great, a comic biopic about novelist Jacqueline Susann, would have worked
better as a musical.
The title already makes it sound like one, and we know that Midler, who plays
Susann, can sing (so can Lane, whois cast as her adoring husband, publicist Irving
Mansfield). Great depicts Susann, the author of such trashy, sex-filled epics
as Valley of the Dolls and Once Is Not Enough, as a lovable monster who would
stop at nothing to get what she wanted, which was worldwide fame. "I crave,"
she admits, "mass love." Successful musicals are filled with similar
oxygen-hogging creatures: Think of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! and Professor Harold
Hill in The Music Man. Susann, or at least the version of her seen here, fits
easily into their braying, needy ranks.
Great is not a musical. It is simply a bad movie made by good people. Despite
the combined talents of stars Midler and Lane, director Andrew Bergman (The Freshman
and Honeymoon in Vegas) and screenwriter Paul Rudnick (In & Out), all skilled
hands at making viewers laugh, Great is as misconceived as a beach vacation during
trouble lies in the movie's schizophrenic attitude toward its subject, which alternates
between scorn and overripe bathos. Thus, viewers get scene after scene depicting
Susann as the ultimate vulgarian, a brassy babe who declares to admirers, "If
they tell you that you're some loud, crude, pushy little nothing in a too-tight
dress and too much makeup, you tell 'em, 'Just look at Jackie Susann.'" But
in between these scenes, Great wants audiences to feel Susann's pain--literally.
She is seen visiting her institutionalized autistic son Guy and being treated
for the breast cancer that would eventually kill her at age 53 in 1974.
plays Susann as a cross between Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond and Roseanne.
It is a scary combination. Lane has little to do other than gaze at his wife worshipfully.
This leaves Channing, as a flamboyant actress who is Susann's best friend, to
steal every scene, which she does with style. (R) Bottom Line: Once is more than
MITCHELL, New York Times
a Jacqueline Susann novel is like watching a drunk disarm a bomb, an experience
that makes you flinch and generates a freakish kind of excitement. The kind of
lurid pulp that we now take for granted -- with titles that sound like soft-core
porn movies from the pay-per-view channels -- was a genre that Susann took to
a new, sweaty level with books like "Valley of the Dolls" and "The
Love Machine." Humid novels about wide-eyed girl victims sucked into the
world of sex, drugs, sex, celebrities and (gasp) sex while being romanced by heart-of-stone
guys had been written before. But never in the way that Susann did, with the contradictory
elements of pleasure in mining that mother lode of cubic zirconium and an
undercurrent of sheer rage.
bile probably built up from experience. By the time she had become a novelist
-- banging out copy on frosty pink paper with a matching Olympia typewriter --
Susann had had more careers (actress, model, etc.) than most people have socks.
The new interest in Susann must be one of the things that drove the producers
of "Isn't She Great" to turn Michael Korda's encounter with her, which
he recounted in a New Yorker article, into a bio-pic.
the line that best sums up the Jackie (Bette Midler) of the picture is trilled
by her friend Florence (Stockard Channing): "Talent isn't everything."
That sobriquet could apply to the movie as well. It's not that there's no talent
among the collaborators. It's just that no one gets much of a chance to show it.
one is more suited to playing a tease of a diva than Ms. Midler, who can wring
more comedy out of operatic self-absorption than anyone else. And Nathan Lane,
who plays Irving Mansfield, Jackie's husband, promoter and biggest fan, is a spark
plug: His voice shows up before he does. (That's why he's so good at animation
voice-overs.) No one in his right mind expects much sexual chemistry between these
two, but the ambition of Susann and Mansfield -- they were like separate species
of predator circling each other -- provides a chemistry all its own. Yet in this
adaptation of the material, Susann's life is flattened, made campy and cute. Sly
hostility seems to be a facet of the writer Paul Rudnick's talent. But Rudnick
director Andrew Bergman ("The In-Laws," "Honeymoon
in Vegas") have so defanged "Isn't She Great" that it's like watching
a sketch from the old "Carol Burnett Show" that has mildewed.
his memoir, "Another Life," Korda, an anthropologist in Susann's Land
of the Drama Queen, was a smoothie from a show business family and smart enough,
as her editor, to keep his hand out of her cage, or habitat, or wherever it is
that such creatures dwell. And she seemed content to catch her reflection in Korda's
gleaming blazer buttons. It was Mansfield, one of those producers without portfolio,
who caught the brunt of Susann's rages. (Korda summarized Mansfield's role by
noting that most of his life "consisted of hanging around with his hands
in his pockets telling people, 'Jackie will be down in five minutes."') But
like most pilot fish, Mansfield saw an appetite worth trailing.
Ms. Midler doesn't have the No. 2 pencil trimness of Susann, who turned up on
1960s talk shows as often as commercials for Fresca, girlish willfulness is a
quality both share. Ms. Midler's presence -- soft curves masking pantherish comic
reflexes -- is as old-fashioned as Susann's rough-hewn prose. "Isn't She
Great" turns Susann and Mansfield into a couple of sweeties; they even wander
into Central Park so she can have breezy chats with God.
cliche is left unturned, complete with the conversion of the Korda figure (renamed
Michael Hastings and played by David Hyde Pierce) into a stock, repressed WASP,
a man who orders an American cheese sandwich with mayo. Pierce, who's on the verge
of becoming a professional yuppie, was better in a small role as an editor in
"Wolf" than here, where his Niles Crane character is stripped of two
of its dimensions.
are a few funny bits, like a scene of a woman moving her lips as she reads a Harold
Robbins novel. The reteaming of Burt Bacharch and Hal David, who wrote the buttercream-rich
theme songs that accompanied the film versions of several Susann novels, is a
nod to Susann's campy standing. And John Cleese, an emblem of a '60s over-aged
swinger as drawn by Jules Feiffer, is all comic confidence as Jackie's publisher.
(He wears enough fabulously patterned suits to suggest that the Artist Formerly
Known as Prince should check his closets to see if anything's missing.)
also offers some oddly staged '60s references, like appearances by Jim Morrison
(James Villemaire), Truman Capote (Sam Street) and even a "Forrest Gump"
insertion of Susann/Midler into a clip from an old "Tonight" show with
Johnny Carson. (Perhaps a miscalculation on a grand scale, since Ms. Midler's
serenading of Carson on the penultimate "Tonight" is now legend.)
"Isn't She Great" has a mandate to make Jackie Susann nice, because
she's suffered. (Susann did suffer but had the good taste not to exploit it.)
Too bad: Ms. Midler was born to play the Susann that Korda met. She hasplayed
this role before. Even Nathan Lane has played it, in "The Birdcage."
If you're looking for laughs, give "Valley of the Dolls" another read
The most commendable aspect of "Isn't She
Great," Andrew Bergman's trashy biopic of bestselling novelist
Jacqueline Susann, is its brief running time. Bette Midler delivers one of her
broadest performances as the writer whose sole motivation, according to Paul Rudnick's
shallow script, was to become famous -- "to be somebody," as Susann
says. Infused with a self-consciously campy sensibility, Universal release may
please undiscriminating moviegoevers who remember the celeb, with particular appeal
to gay men, but rest of the audience is better off watching pics based on her
pop novels ("Valley of the Dolls," "The Love Machine," "Once
Is Not Enough") than this cliched story of the woman who created them.
Midway through the picture there's a scene in which Susann (Midler) and her
loyal manager and hubby, Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane), attend the Hollywood
premiere of "Valley of the Dolls." "It's not a good movie,"
says the upset scribe, to which her hubby says, "Don't worry, it'll be a
huge hit." But "Isn't She Great" is in no danger of becoming a
hit. Veering from broad farce to sheer banality, pic isn't even unintentionally
funny enough to qualify as guilty pleasure a la "Valley of the Dolls,"
now a minor cult item.
As he showed in his previous comedies ("The
Addams Family Values," "Jeffrey," "In & Out"), Rudnick
is a funny fellow but not a screenwriter overly concerned with plot machinations
or characterization. Though based on Michael Korda's 1995 New Yorker essay, Rudnick's
schlocky yarn feels like an extended version of his monthly column in Premiere,
published under the pseudonym of Libby Gelman-Waxner. Rudnick is adept at one-liners,
most of which go to Stockard Channing, who delivers them with great panache as
Susann's bitchy, self-absorbed actress friend. The rags-to-riches saga is presented
as a story with a heart, but what's missing is more brain.
her career as an actress, but with no agent and not much talent she scraped by
with residuals from occasional radio jingles, TV commercials and gameshow appearances.
Undeterred by her failures, Susann continued to seek her place in the spotlight,
believing -- and soon demonstrating -- that "talent isn't everything."
Yarn is framed by Mansfield's vapid, unnecessary voiceover narration,
as if what's shown onscreen isn't clear enough. Susann's fortune changed upon
meeting the manager-publicist, a devoted man who knew he could fulfill her dreams.
Married when they meet, Susan is shocked when her husband, Maury Manning (John
Larroquette), leaves her. But the divorce clears the way to marriage with Mansfield
who, according to the script, threw himself selflessly into helping her become
rich and famous.
With Susann's acting career going nowhere, Mansfield
hits upon a "crazy" idea: Why not write a novel about what she knows
well, the steamy lives of drug-addicted, sex-starved starlets. That Susann had
never before written a word is perceived as a minor obstacle, and she and Mansfield
convince themselves that the public is thirsty for lurid stories about aging stars,
hopeful hookers and pill-popping women who wind up in the gutter. Despite rejections
from the more reputable publishers, Susann lands a contract with Henry Marcus
(John Cleese), who assigns her manuscript to stuffy editor Michael Hastings (David
Hyde Pierce). Hereon the story changes gears, centering on the sobering education
that Hastings gets from Susann, to the point where he, like everybody else, becomes
filmmakers label their tale as "loosely based" on Susann's life, presenting
her uncritically as brave, bright and loyal to her friends. They focus on Susann's
ambition to succeed at all costs and on her determination never to allow her personal
tragedies to become public. In actuality, Susann's life was marked by disaster:
She had an autistic child and was diagnosed with breast cancer. There are brief,
throwaway scenes that acknowledge these catastrophes, particularly her precarious
health, which ended her life at the age of 53.
Aspects of Susann's life
and career go unaddressed here. Among other things, she is credited with being
the most successful novelist of her generation and for inventing a whole new way
of marketing and selling books; she and Mansfield embarked on a coast-to-coast
book tour, paying calls to the smallest regional bookstores.
the movie insufferable is not only its showbiz cliches, but its excessive theatrical
sensibility. The material is filtered through Rudnick's campy gay humor, which
veers away from fact -- Susann was witty but not a "funny" personality,
and her marriage was more complex than depicted here. The theatrical tone is most
awkward in the periodic trips that Susann and Mansfield take to Central Park,
where they talk to God, whining about their lot or reporting their success. These
pauses, which almost call out for musical numbers, suggest that the yarn is better
suited to Broadway than the bigscreen.
Lane is basically miscast, but
mercifully, he underacts. Midler, who's too old to be Susann in the '60s (the
writer was 35 when her first book got published), plays Susann big, as a charming
vulgarian, a modern version of "Gypsy's" aggressive mom and "Fiddler
on the Roof's" Yente.
Bergman has never been a subtle comedy director,
but here his broad, muddled staging accentuates the cliches. Barry Malkin's editing
is fast-paced but ragged, making pic seem more meandering than it is, and Julie
Weiss' tacky costumes are often more amusing than the characters wearing them.