ISN'T SHE GREAT
"Great" is unlikely the word to come to the mind of audiences in regards to author Jacqueline Susann after seeing her depiction in the loose comic biography Isn't She Great. More likely are the words "boorish," "brash," "annoying," and "untalented," which effectively sums up where writer Paul Rudnick and director Andrew Bergman have gone wrong.
"Untalented" is the key word out of those four. Isn't She Great is less a biography than an episodic chronicle of the struggling film and stage actress' (Bette Midler) obsessive pursuit of stardom, which finally comes in 1966 when she pens the notoriously salacious drug-addicted-and-sex-mad-starlets-in-Hollywood epic Valley of the Dolls. I suppose Susann's tale of success is supposed to be a tribute to the unwavering belief in one's dreams, and in reality it may very well be. Yet as presented in Isn't She Great, it's the story of someone with no discernible talent achieving a wholly undeserved success on sheer schmooze power. And while her catty one-liners (predictably delivered with gusto by Midler, who can do this character in her sleep) are good for a chuckle here and there, all the attitude doesn't necessarily make her more likable.
What is designed to add some layer of likability is Susann's domestic life, but it's botched in the execution. She and her husband and manager, Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane) have an autistic son, but she has hardly any scenes to establish a convincing love for the child (Mansfield has more screen time with him). Most of all, it's the romance between Susann and Mansfield that's supposed to be the emotional hook. However, while I believed that he loved her (Lane's gentle performance help), I always got the sense that she didn't love him so much as the help he did her career. This could not be more clear in a climactic scene where Susann and Mansfield, having reached a crisis point, reconcile when she asks him to be her agent. The scene is played for laughs, but it hammers home the point that it's his career aid and not his love that holds the most importance to her.
Isn't She Great is never less than interesting. If anything, the one-liners from Midler and Stockard Channing (a bundle of meow as Susann's actress friend Florence Maybelle) amuse, as does David Hyde Pierce's warmed-over Niles Crane act as Susann's uptight editor Michael Hastings; and the gaudy costume and production design serve as sweet eye candy. But bare minimum amusement cannot pass muster for a film that dares to ask the question Isn't She Great. Perhaps the real Jacqueline Susann was, but one would be hard-pressed to pay the film incarnation the same compliment.
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