Here’s a story that Lifetime seems to have missed: the tale of a boozing, pill-popping, chain-smoking, philandering, self-absorbed eccentric who fed her pet poodle caviar at lavish Hollywood parties, institutionalized her autistic son and stormed through life as if the world owed her. Oh yeah, she also wrote a novel in 1966 that impacted the publishing industry called “Valley of the Dolls.” How do you make a decent biopic in the 1990s about such a vexing nut case? In the case of USA’s “Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story,” the answer is simple: You don’t.
And therein lay the primary reason not to miss “Scandalous Me.” It is so singularly dreadful that its sheer repugnance crosses the line to earn plaudits as a masterwork of campy, vampy art. This is “Mommie Dearest” minus the conscience. The filmmakers encounter the same pitfalls as they might on a biography of, say, Richard Simmons. In the wrong hands, telling Jackie Susann’s life story is an invitation for ham-fisted exploitation.
Helmer Bruce McDonald cajoles Michele Lee to portray this brassy and surely self-destructive icon as the human equivalent of a malfunctioning food processor. She slices, she dices, she purees and always with the choppy blades whirring noisily. Lee chews so much scenery that it’s a wonder she didn’t pack on weight during filming.
Mind you, Lee appears to be having the time of her “Absolutely Fabulous”-inspired life while setting Michele Gallery’s platitude-spewing teleplay in motion, spitting out lines like, “Can you imagine? Me and God on the same bestseller list!” None of the storied genius that Susann exhibited in promoting herself along with her books is much in evidence. It seems to promote the “I’ve fallen and I can’t shut up!” school of media manipulation.
Adapted from the Barbara Seaman biography “Lovely Me: The Life of Jacqueline Susann,” film proves wildly bodacious from the get-go, opening (to the strains of Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady”) with Susann strutting poolside with her beloved pooch Josephine and bedecked in red short-shorts and do-me pumps. Approached by a comely female fan, she purrs, “Come back to New York, I can sell you by the pound.”
Then it’s time for a little contrived confusion guaranteed to lose the audience, possibly for good. There’s Lee, as Susann, primping in the vanity mirror beside the little-girl incarnation of herself. The two seem somehow to be communicating. The significance of the moment is fuzzy, as is pretty much everything in “Scandalous Me.”
For instance, Susann wanted to become an actress to impress her detached father but seems otherwise to de-value family. She evidently loathed phoniness but essentially escaped into a world of her own creation while riding the stability of her long-suffering publicist husband Irving Mansfield (a pained-looking Peter Riegert) to fame and fortune. Susann was essentially about keeping up appearances that would allow her to indulge her growing taste for New York high society and, later, for pharmaceutical narcotics.
The one element that comes across here as heartfelt –Susann’s pained relationship with her institutionalized autistic son — gets lost in a movie that broadly captures all of the famed author’s flaws but none of her essence. It’s so shallow that it misses the irony of featuring music from the “Valley of the Dolls” film score despite Susann’s well-documented contempt for the production.
Susann died of breast cancer in 1974 at age 56. But she’s ageless in “Scandalous Me.” In fact, Lee doesn’t age here at all, looking the same at 30 that she did at 55. Then again, cartoon characters never seem to get old, do they? Tech credits are otherwise fine.