A terrific movie could be made about the life of pulp novelist Jacqueline Susann. Isn’t She Great isn’t it.
Director Andrew Bergman (Honeymoon in Vegas, Striptease) and screenwriter Paul Rudnick (In & Out) have neutered a wildcat, turning Susann’s lively, raunchy, bittersweet and just plain messy life into bland pabulum. For a woman whose taboo-shattering novels (Valley of the Dolls, The Love Machine, Once is Not Enough) defined guilty pleasure, this comes as the ultimate insult.
Based on "Wasn’t She Great," a 1995 New Yorker profile written by her former editor, Michael Korda, this film does capture an important aspect of Susann’s persona: her ferocious, relentless drive to be famous. Screenwriter Rudnick, a playwright and humorist who never met a quip he didn’t like, has Jackie (Bette Midler, one larger-than-life diva embodying another) majestically intone, "I need mass love." As if the eternal devotion of her husband, Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane as adoring lapdog), weren’t enough.
After marginal success as a model and actress, Susann still hadn’t found universal adoration. She began a writing career in her 40s with a quirky collection of stories told from the perspective of her beloved poodle, Josephine. Then came Valley of the Dolls, the trash novel as pop-culture phenomenon. It made Jackie notorious, but the combined efforts of the tenacious, telegenic Susann and her publicist husband (who came up with new ways to market her book and endear her to the masses) made her a star.
Isn’t She Great treats all this like a bad retread of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie, a reductive and dismissive take on an extremely complex relationship, one full of power plays, betrayals and secrets kept out of the public eye (their only child was severely autistic and Susann was diagnosed with breast cancer just when her long-desired success was becoming a reality).
In a funny and telling moment, this power couple watches the 1967 film adaptation of Valley of the Dolls. "I hate this movie," Jackie bluntly tells Irving.
But at least that movie went on to become a so-bad-it’s-good camp classic. Isn’t She Great doesn’t even manage that dubious achievement. Instead, it makes Jacqueline Susann something she never was during her tumultuous life: dull.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].