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Bette Midler's new movie isn't the pure comedy that its ads depict

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Bette Midler
Takashi Seida

The commercials for ”Isn’t She Great” — the biopic of dirty-book hall-of-famer Jacqueline Susann, who penned the trailblazingly trashy ”Valley of the Dolls” — make it seem like a raucous comedy, with Bette Midler and Nathan Lane (who plays Susann’s devoted publicist/husband Irving Mansfield) cranking it up to full ham. But what Universal isn’t letting you know is that even though the film has its laughs, it frequently takes whiplash turns into drama, delving into Susann’s fight against breast cancer (she died in 1974 at the age of 56) and her struggles with the autistic son she kept a secret.

Director Andrew Bergman (”It Could Happen to You”) knew that the studio would have preferred he ignore Susann’s tragedies when making his comedy, but he and screenwriter Paul Rudnick (”In & Out”) decided that they needed the lows. ”I know dramatically it’s hard,” says Bergman. ”Because you make the audience laugh, and [then there’s a serious moment, and viewers] say, ‘Wait a minute, I thought this was a comedy!’ I admit that’s problematic. If I was just going for the laughs, I would have junked the stuff [about her only son, an unresponsive boy she sent away to a special school for the autistic], and I’m sure the studio would have been very, very happy. But then the movie becomes thinner and thinner, and then what’s it about? It’s just a funny A&E special.”

However, there were certain parts of Susann’s life that the filmmakers decided were better left for an ”E! True Hollywood Story,” like her reputed affairs with such borscht belt comics as George Jessel and Eddie Cantor. ”I didn’t want to go there,” says Bergman. ”She’s not the most sympathetic character to begin with, and the studio was hocking me to tone it down even more than we did. So to have her cheating on Irving was not good.” Still, Rudnick admits that Susann’s choice of lovers did have its up side. ”I loved that her type was baggy-pants-ed, Jewish comics,” he says. ”It’s great that that’s SOMEbody’s type.”

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