We gave it an F
Offhand, it would be hard to think of a title more naked in its desperation than Isn’t She Great. The movie in question is a pastel-hearted dramatic comedy about the life of trash-novel diva Jacqueline Susann, whose deliriously vulgar backroom-Hollywood page-turners, like Valley of the Dolls and Once Is Not Enough, made her one of the best-selling authors of the ’60s and ’70s. Obviously, the intent behind the title, which (like the movie) was spun off from a 1995 New Yorker article, is defiance, not desperation. (Behold the brave lack of question mark!) Still, you have to wonder. Isn’t She Great sounds like the sort of limelight-happy phrase that might have been devised by an 8-year-old girl enacting the meteoric saga of her life in front of the bedroom mirror.
Written by Paul Rudnick, with scarcely a trace of the naughty high-bitch wit he brought to Jeffrey and the Addams Family films (though with an overdose of the motivational incoherence that marked his script for In & Out), Isn’t She Great is as bumbling and mindless, as naively misconceived, as that clapping-through-tears moniker. Bette Midler, as Susann, flounces from one room to the next clad in outfits that look like they’ve been grabbed off the lower-bourgeois rack of the swinging ’60s — frilly pink dresses, a skintight leopard-spotted pantsuit, and so forth. The clothes, unfortunately, are all there is to the character. Midler, who appears to be playing a beaming mannequin, inhabits an airbrushed and weirdly underpopulated landscape that looks like an ancient sitcom taking itself way too seriously. The movie isn’t a biopic, exactly — it’s That Girl gone fabulous.
Susann, who starts out as an actress, announces, with Napoleonic will, her desire to be famous, and she meets up with a fawning manager-publicist, Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane), who devotes his life to making that dream come true. But what does she have that no one else does? From what we can see, Susann is a minor Broadway and TV-commercial performer of no discernible talent, beauty, or connections. When she decides to write an epic salacious novel based on her mountain of “inside knowledge” about the dirty secrets of the entertainment industry, it’s a bizarre and baffling turn of events, because we’ve never seen her experience — or even talk about — a single party or closed-door showbiz encounter.
Jacqueline Susann was nothing if not a maestro of sleaze, but there isn’t a whisper of good dish in Isn’t She Great. In the course of putting the finishing touches on Valley of the Dolls, Susann shocks her persnickety WASP editor (David Hyde Pierce) right out of his stuffed shirt with her lusty, overheated phrasemaking (she describes Manhattan in the summer as “an angry, concrete animal”). But who cares about offending this prig? The movie leaves out the true juice of Susann’s vulgarity; it reduces Midler the great bawd to a toothless Catskills comic. There are references to Susann’s autistic son and her ongoing bout with breast cancer, but as tragic as these true-life circumstances are, you get the feeling that Rudnick and the director, Andrew Bergman (Striptease), thought that all they had to do was glance at them once in a while to create instant drama. Isn’t She Great is an oxymoron: camp that’s been drained of mockery. The movie would like to salute Jacqueline Susann’s novels as cathartic trash, but the film itself is so junky it never earns the right. F
Isn’t She Great STARRING Bette Midler Nathan Lane UNIVERSAL RATED R 95 MINUTES