She Great directed
by Andrew Bergman
just got back from Isn’t She Great and, boy, are my legs tired!
Or how about: A funny thing happened on the way to reviewing Isn’t She
Great. I laughed about it even though I groaned while watching it.
In X’s 1981 song "Adult
Books" Susann rated her own lyric stanza: "Adult books/I don’t
understand/Jackie Susann/She meant it that way." X expressed the usually
hidden dismay of young people influenced by the lies of show business and fiction.
Many of us first read Valley of the Dolls under the cover of New York
Times bestseller-list legitimacy while enjoying it mainly for the sex-and-drugs
"good parts." Susann’s book conjoined literature with show business,
distorting adult relations and crises into unenlightening mass entertainment.
X’s John Doe and Exene, more honest than the hypesters who created the
recently reissued Valley hoopla, lamented their own foolish sexual presumptions
as behavior learned from nonconscientious pop examples like dirty literature
and camp movies. Unprepared for adult complication, they half-blamed Jackie
Susann for familiarizing easy titillation and even cheaper sentimentality. X’s
confessional perspective gets us somewhere (because it measures how little stroke
fiction actually teaches us). Isn’t She Great is stupidly content
with turning the adult confusion and misery behind Susann’s romance fiction
into shrill, vapid comedy.
This movie’s arch approach
isn’t as forthright as X’s, it’s smirky. The makers of Isn’t
She Great settle for ironic distancing from marital pain and career frustration
in Susann and her publicist husband Irving Mansfield’s partnership, as
if showing her gawking at celebrities or pecking away at a pink typewriter were
enough to signify their desires and ethics. (Lane gets one of the film’s
several good quips, referring to Jackie’s fevered pink pages as "like
Madame Bovary, but dirty." The line is funny because Lane’s
deadpan reading drags literature to the level of vaudeville. However, in this
process of turning camp misperception into "truth" the film also trashes
a real person’s life. Its bizarreness disguises what might ordinarily be
seen as manic or pathetic.
Catastrophes like Isn’t
She Great (the preening title has no question mark) make you know
pop music culture can never be as decadent as Hollywood. The filmmakers force
tragedy to compete with vanity as Jackie gives birth to an autistic child, suffers
breast cancer yet dresses as if for Mardi Gras, marches into restaurants and
barges onto genteel WASP estates emboldened, as if hearing her own theme song.
Isn’t She Great actually features Burt Bacharach-Dionne Warwick
numbers (harkening to the Bacharach-Dory Previn compositions on the Valley
of the Dolls soundtrack) that tip off this film’s lunacy. Against a
credit sequence of lousy, inauthentic paperback book graphics, Warwick warbles,
"I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way" (a
far worse, twisted-camp redo of Previn’s "Gonna get off/Gotta get/Have
to get/On where I’m bound" lyrics). In a later number, Warwick sings
Susann’s ambition in a song whose title seriously proffers the concept
"Mass Love." Throughout Isn’t She Great, characters express
their egomania in terms associated with marketing savvy. Maybe the ever-pushy
Jackie was a forerunner in that kind of shamelessness, yet the movie accepts
it as rational, if not visionary.
Blame the overrated Paul
Rudnick. You can’t be surprised that a crap film results from a guy who
writes Premiere’s Libby Gelman-Waxner column (a rationalization
for the trivialization of movies). The fact that so many people have enjoyed
and validated Rudnick’s diminution of an art form proves much of what’s
wrong in contemporary film culture. In Isn’t She Great (as in his
Addams Family scripts and the worthless In & Out) Rudnick
exploits camp satire without ever revealing guarded, wounded feelings. He’s
not an artist, he’s a clown. Yes, there’s some funny stuff in this
flick, but none of it attains poignance. (Imagine a Charles Ludlum farce that
intermittently turns into a Lifetime Channel movie of the week.) Rudnick sustains
his runway posturing even when compassion–or honesty–is required.
A recent made-for-tv movie on Susann’s life starring Michelle Lee (closer
to the mark than Midler) was as bad as this, yet there was a startling moment
near its humorless end. Lee’s Susann suddenly saw her supplicating
husband (Peter Riegert) and, with shock, understood him: "You love me!"
she puzzled. It turned the fame-crazed bitch into a troubled human being. The
best Rudnick can devise for Midler is a revue-sketch caricature.
In the New York Observer
Rex Reed, a friend of Jackie, howled, "This movie turns [Susann and Mansfield]
into a Damon Runyon version of Oil Can Harry and Tugboat Annie."
To tell the truth, that sounds pretty interesting to me, but Isn’t She
Great’s Rudnickisms aren’t even that coherent. A half-baked notion
about American ethnic candor influenced the bewildering decision to present
this story as a cartoon. Rudnick has taken an article by literary gadfly Michael
Korda and turned it into a roman a clef complete with Steve Lawrence and Eydie
Gorme impersonators, a Sharon Tate-clone assistant and one puzzling sequence
showing Jackie mesmerized by a James Brown performance on The Ed Sullivan
Show (it takes Jackie to predict his success!). This barrage of pop attitudes
is more stupefying than any six average bad movies. In the middle of it all
ethnic parody is tossed in along with gay sarcasm. Rudnick creates a Jewish
showbiz comedy of errors that prizes vulgarity as the undying essence of pop.
That, supposedly, is the reality Jackie brought to showbiz insincerity and the
WASP literary world. A key dishonest moment portrays Susann’s publisher
(John Cleese) as a 60s poser with an eye for modern art. Her pink manuscript
adorns his office along with an original Warhol and Rothko. What’s wrong
with this picture?
Rudnick and company are
trying to say that Susann, representing a gay, feminist and Jewish candor, shocked
the mid-60s reading public, but they’re wrong. Grace Metalious’ Peyton
Place (published 10 years before Valley of the Dolls) was Susann’s
pop-lit model and its immodesty represented a greater cultural shift. Valley
simply anticipated still-dangerous celebrity-mongering. It wasn’t a triumph
of Jewish/gay subcult honesty (no matter how many marketers make that claim
in hindsight) but of biz exploitation. Yet the filmmakers don’t even have
in-group loyalty, they’re just eager to participate in idolatry. Surely
that explains their turning Jackie Susann into both a deli maven and drag-queen
harridan. Rudnick thinks it’s adulatory. But his perception of character
is also inconsistent. When a "young" Jackie appears on a tv game show,
she targets a big-breasted blonde bimbo for ridicule. This goes against Susann’s
fascination with showbiz lowlifes and her female sympathy (an unignorable feature
of Valley of the Dolls). Instead, it’s indicative of the film’s
misogynist humor. Rudnick’s low comedy mixes Jewish ethnic burlesque with
the distortions of camp. Andrew Bergman (who directed the interesting Brando
pastiche The Freshman) might have thought he was doing Amadeus
but got hoodwinked into a half-assed Auntie Mame. Both his sitcom camera
setups and meaningless camera movements look like the work of a man who just
gave in. He’s shooting script pages, not making a film.
How did Bette Midler get
involved in Bergman and Rudnick’s inhumanity? Happy vulgarian is a style
Midler does nonpareil. Adding flesh to Rudnick’s conception of Susann’s
mad drive and willfulness, Midler brings a zany glow we accept as her own. But
substituting dingbat boorishness for Susann’s literary and merchandising
hard work (that pink typewriter again) tells us less about Susann than about
the filmmakers’ calculation of modern moviegoer values. Isn’t She
Great extends celebrity-worship (of both Susann and Midler) to its basis
in mockery. This conception smudges the kind of personal transference of identity
that 50s author Patrick Dennis idealized in Little Me with the camp icon
Belle Poitrine. Here, that closeted gay projection morphs into a truly bizarre
conceit ("Mass Love") not even Midler can surmount. As the antics
become more dramatic and maudlin, Midler’s pluckiness–her first full-fledged
drag-queen act for the big screen–looks less like the Divine Miss M than
a lugubrious version of Divine. And that’s a real drag.
The always adroit Stockard
Channing is stuck doing a Vera Charles second-fiddle gig and Lane, despite his
mastery of camp timing, is put in the impossible position of portraying Susann’s
long-suffering husband as the film’s reality-check narrator. They court
in Central Park, where Susann threatens suicide in the duck pond, and later
they address God (sometimes cursing) before one of the park’s trees. At
one point Mansfield wards off a flirtatious woman by holding up his hand and
indicating his wedding band. Somehow, we’re supposed to be in on this joke
that passes off Lane’s limp-wristed specialty for husbandly devotion. Its
real meaning is secretive (like the sham marriage in American Beauty).
Representing the Susann-Mansfield marriage as this crazy artifice acknowledges
the film’s prospective gay audience, but it’s actually an insult.
Lane’s lady-in-waiting role is no different from Roddy McDowall’s
loyal butlering to Barbra Streisand in Funny Lady.
Isn’t She Great
combines camp confusion and contemporary media hype. Remember those ridiculous
reviews that launched the 1997 reprint of Valley of the Dolls? Boomer
journalists with no sense of pop-lit history but ready to sell portrayed it
as a major cultural event. Libby Gelman Rudnick (who is no better) and Bergman
(who should know better) swallow the hype and proceed cravenly. They’ve
left out Susann’s showbiz cynicism (mostly about her own failed acting
career) to make her one with the circus she meant to expose. Isn’t She
Great is Exhibit A in the demonstration of reality completely distorted