Films, TV, and Theatre

 
   

Isn't She Great (2000)

Why Was I Born?
(written by Oscar Hammerstein II/Jerome Kern)

This 30 second clip was cut from the movie.
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


Planet Sick-Boy, www.sickboy.com

Is 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 Jacqueline Susann.

Susann (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.

The 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.

But 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."

Thereís 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.

Great 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.

While 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


TV Guide

In 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


Leah Rozen, People Magazine

Maybe 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.

Unfortunately, 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 jellyfish season.

The 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.

Midler 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 enough


ELVIS MITCHELL, New York Times

Reading 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.

That 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.

Probably 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.

No 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 and the
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.

In 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.

Although 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.

No 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.

There 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.)

"Great" 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.)

But "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 instead.


Emanuel Levy, Variety

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.

Susann began 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 an admirer.

The 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.

What makes 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.


Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter

A war between style and substance breaks out in the very first minutes of "Isn't She Great," and style wins at every turn.

Only the style of this particular film rarely suits its substance, which turns "Isn't She Great" into a weird hybrid -- the celebrity biopic as musical, only without music.

What today's audiences are going to make of this gloss on the life of best-selling trash novelist Jacqueline Susann is hard to tell. "Valley of the Dolls" was a long time ago, so the film will have to rely largely on middle-age moviegoers and Bette Midler fans. That may not be enough in theatrical release, but the movie could be a lively performer in downstream markets.

The film derives from a 1995 New Yorker magazine piece by book editor and memoirist Michael Korda. In "Wasn't She Great," Korda told the unconventional love story of Susann, an ambitious Jewish girl who just wanted to be famous, and Irving Mansfield, the manager and publicist who adored her, married her and made her dream come true before she died of cancer at an early age.

Writer Paul Rudnick's take on this tale, ably abetted by the smart filmmaking team of director Andrew Bergman and producer Mike Lobell, views Susann as one of those wildly eccentric, larger-than-life great dames of musical theater, having more in common with Dolly Levi or Auntie Mame than Danielle Steel. When she walks into Lindy's, you half expect the waiters to break into a chorus of "Isn't She Great!"

And with Midler playing Jackie and Broadway star Nathan Lane playing Irving and Burt Bacharach aboard as composer, why not? Yet except for Midler teaming with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme (played by their son, David Lawrence, and Debbie Gravitte), the two singers warble nary a note.

In a movie Bergman admits is only "loosely based" on Susann's life, Jackie is transformed into a crass, spotlight-loving funny girl in danger of drifting from show business wannabe into never-was before Irving rescues her and turns her into a best-selling writer. In the Mansfields' opulent Manhattan apartment, actors and editors dash in and out with comic fury, joke lines hit with staccato intensity -- "Irving, can I write about orgasms?" -- and the only deep, dark secrets in their lives are Jackie's cancer and their autistic son.

Jettisoned from this sanitized account are Jackie's drug binges, her innumerable affairs with the famous and infamous, her strange relationship with her father and the true horror of the institution that housed her son. Even some of its "facts" get misstated. Truman Capote did indeed say of a rival author, "That isn't writing. That's typing." Only he said it of Jack Kerouac, not Jackie Susann.

The film does touch briefly on Susann's marketing genius, her willingness to hit the road and hustle "Valley of the Dolls" with the personal touch at even the smallest bookseller. (The book did sell 19 million copies.) But as with her cute conversations with God, held periodically at a well-lit tree in Central Park, her hustle is seen only in the context of lovably eccentricity.

Central to "Isn't She Great" is the love story between Jackie and Irving. Yet the film never quite gets around to a love scene. The closest Rudnick and Bergman come is a negotiation, again in Central Park, in which Jackie sweet talks Irving into becoming her agent.

Indeed Midler and Lane rarely stand close to one another. Did they suspect their own show business personas would not mesh in this particular story?

One thing the movie does not lack is energy. Stockard Channing, looking like she dropped in from a valley of the dolls holiday, is ever supportive and wisecracking -- as best girl pals always are. John Cleese and David Hyde Pierce make an amusing comic duo as the buoyant publisher and prissy editor who come to adore their gutsy authoress.

Amanda Peet, as an early supporter of Jackie's at the publishing house, is highly animated though without a distinct role to play. Even Jackie's poodle brightly jumps into people's arms on cue.

On the technical side, designer Stuart Wurtzel and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub go for Day-Glo colors and high key lighting to emphasize the cheery side of the Jackie-Irving love tale.

There's no denying "Isn't She Great" is trashy fun (and could have been much trashier if the filmmakers have been so inclined). But, ultimately, the viewer can't help feeling that Jacqueline Susann is largely irrelevant to her own celebrity biopic.


Sky Movies

Best-selling author Jacqueline Susann was a larger-than-life personality - so who better to play her than Bette Midler? Both Bette and Jackie, though, deserve something better than this rather rushed and sometimes under-rehearsed biopic which relies on some nice Jewish humour for what goodwill it can engender. Failed as an actress and wanting only to be famous, Jackie writes a sleazy novel of Hollywood which becomes a worldwide best-seller. In all other ways, though, life gives her a raw deal, with persistent breast cancer, an acutely autistic son and even the temporary loss of her devoted husband and agent (Nathan Lane), whose defection doesn't quite make sense as presented here. Not so great.