Desperately Seeking Susann

Misguided Isn't She Great plumbs the valley of the dull

The subject matter is surely the stuff of which can't-miss movies are made: Jacqueline Susann, author of the best seller Valley of the Dolls and other jerk-off (pardon, "maddeningly sexy," to quote Helen Gurley Brown) classic lit. There was nothing at all pedestrian about the woman who was regaled in her day as a protofeminist and reviled as a smut peddler. Susann's name became synonymous with decadence and debauchery; X paid her homage in the 1981 song "Adult Books." Hers was a life built upon the notion that it was always better to screw than to get screwed. That she did it through a smoky, doped-up haze while hopping in and out of bed with the likes of Eddie Cantor and, so the story goes, Ethel Merman makes her top-drawer material -- Valley of the Dolls' pitiable wanna-be Anne, stripped of the novel's artifice.

Susann was a woman whose admiration for her handsome father grew when, as a child, she walked in on him shtupping a woman not her mother. Rather than become outraged or even jealous, she was impressed by Dad's sexual acumen -- almost drawn to him as his mistresses had been. No wonder she'd eventually make a career out of Seconal-and-blowjob literature: Sex had been foremost on her mind since she was a little girl in Philadelphia.

Were Susann alive -- she died in 1974 after a decadelong struggle with breast cancer -- it's likely she wouldn't recognize the Jacqueline Susann who appears in Isn't She Great. Susann -- a woman so vain, fragile and insecure that she didn't let the world know of her autistic child or her cancer -- would be appalled by the woman who bears her name in the film, Bette Midler. They look nothing alike: Susann was, well into her 30s, a striking woman. Midler, as Susann, looks like my Jewish grandmother; she's about as sexy as week-old lox and herring. And Susann was a notorious chain-smoker, so much so that she resembled a dragon exhaling a thousand cartons of Winstons all at once. Midler's Susann doesn't take a drag -- though she often resembles a man in drag (to borrow from Truman Capote).

And Isn't She Great is an utter drag, a tepid and sterilized telling of Susann's life that bears absolutely no resemblance to the truth. Not that biopics don't fudge obscenely, often condensing a dozen real-life people into a single amalgam and obliterating time lines in order to pack in all the good stuff. But Isn't She Great offers nothing but lies, none more flagrant than presenting Valley of the Dolls as Susann's first novel. Every Night, Josephine!, a best seller about her poodle, was in fact Susann's debut, published in 1963, three years before Valley. That director Andrew Bergman (The Freshman, Striptease) and writer Paul Rudnick would exclude that precious, hysterical fact is beyond comprehension.

Were the film at all entertaining -- and it's not, even as disposable camp (like the screen version of Valley) -- perhaps its myriad deceptions would be tolerable. But it's such an unforgivably insipid telling of Susann's life story that Isn't She Great accomplishes the impossible: It emasculates its subject, rendering Susann as an insufferable, whiny, pretentious, talentless, unlikable bore who continuously begs God (who, apparently, resides in a Central Park tree) to make her famous. The USA Network's treatment of Susann's life, starring Michele Lee, looks like the stuff of documentary by comparison.

The movie is set in that sort of generic past where 1939 looks like 1953 looks like 1974 (sort of like Happy Days). It opens with Susann on a stage, acting as wooden as a park bench in a Broadway production titled Death Takes a Powder. It's the most honest moment in the film: Susann was a notoriously bad actress, as footage broadcast on a recent A&E Biography revealed. Indeed, hers was a life of frustration until she met press agent Irving Mansfield (here, played by the cherubic, grating Nathan Lane), who promised her love if she would allow him to make her a star. The casting of Lane is another gross miscalculation: In real life, Mansfield was a thin, balding man often described by friends as a fast-talking, gruff-voiced hustler who acted as though he had just stepped out of Guys and Dolls. Lane portrays him like a guy who plays with dolls.

Isn't She Great offers a Cliff's Notes rendition of Susann's pre-Valley life: horrible TV jobs, the occasional commercial or radio spot, the birth of her autistic son Guy, the detection of breast cancer, her insistence that God owes her one after so much pain and failure. It then spends the final 45 minutes (or what feels like the final 45 days) detailing her rise to fame once Valley is published -- here, by the fictional Henry Marcus, played by John Cleese, who sports the latest from the Austin Powers line of psychedelic Nehrus. (Valley was actually published by Bernard Geis and distributed through Random House, for those keeping score.) To add insult to injury, the film even suggests it was Mansfield who pushed Susann toward a writing career, as though she herself was incapable of such motivation.

Rudnick based his screenplay, such as it is, on a New Yorker article by Susann's former editor at Simon & Schuster, Michael Korda. Here, Korda has been renamed Michael Hastings and placed in the tiny hands of David Hyde Pierce, who plays Hastings as nothing but a carbon copy of Frasier's Niles Crane. He's a prissy fussbudget who abhors Valley -- which Korda didn't edit, since he became her editor for her third book, The Love Machine -- and sips tea with a pinkie dangling in the breeze. Perhaps Rudnick, who wrote In & Out, intended the portrayals of Mansfield and Hastings/Korda as some sort of in-joke, a backhanded bitch slap; they're two of the gayest straight characters in the history of filmdom.

But the casting of Midler is even more inappropriate, like serving ham during Passover. Midler, who hasn't shone onscreen since Divine Madness, is a larger-than-life persona rendered as a hysterical stick figure. Her emotions range from saccharine to maudlin; it's hard to tell whether she's laughing or crying. Midler essentially plays herself, discarding Susann's trademark slathered-on makeup and gravel-growl voice altogether -- and she even gets to sing standing atop a table, though Susann supposedly couldn't carry a tune. (According to Korda, she possessed "a flat, harsh, totally tuneless baritone.") Too bad the role didn't go to Stockard Channing, wasted here as a failed actress and, apparently, Susann's sole friend.

The best that can be said of Isn't She Great is that it allows Midler to do what she does best, which is play to the back row of the theater. But the whole film has a distinctly on-the-cheap, small-screen feel about it, as though it's a refugee from somewhere between 1978 and 1983, its sheen long since reduced to a gray membrane that covers every single frame. The first sound you hear is that of Dionne Warwick croaking -- that's all her voice is now, a shadow of a shadow of a shadow -- what surely must be a Burt Bacharach leftover from the Arthur soundtrack. And it only gets worse.

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