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.