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Isn't She Great**

This film vanished almost without a trace quickly following its initial release earlier this year, and no one would need to search for reasons why. There are so many things wrong with Isn't She Great? that it would be hard to know just where to start enumerating them. The film, directed by Andrew Bergman, is a rather softened account of the career of Jacqueline Susann (Bette Midler), whose action starts in the 1950's when she meets  the publicist Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane) whom she subsequently marries, and which follows her eventual rise to fame after the publication of her sensationalistic novel Valley of the Dolls. Quite a few years back, Isadora (1968), the biopic of the life of Isadora Duncan directed by Karel Reisz, never was quite able to make up its mind whether its heroine was a great artist or just a crazy with a streak of genius, and this remains a far more unresolved question with the main character in this movie. 

Was Jacqueline Susann ever worth taking seriously as a writer or was she never more than an artistic barbarian who had the luck to blunder into the literary marketplace at a moment when the nation's reading tastes were going into a marked decline? Unfortunately, Isn't She Great? never gets very far in supplying an answer. On the one hand, it depicts her antagonists--especially the testily epicene Truman Capote--as little more than snobs suffering from an attack of sour grapes who are incapable of appreciating a novelist that appeals to the masses. But, on the other hand, the passages from Valley of the Dolls quoted in the film are indubitably shlock, and shlock that has dated just as badly as the 1960's psychedelic attire sported by her publisher, Henry Marcus (John Cleese). It is inaccurate and unfair to call someone who never tried writing a bad writer. Susann was no artist but a cultural phenomenon of the period.

As a look at the recent historical past, Isn't She Great? does not sin mightily--at least, not on the scale of Oliver Stone's abominable The Doors. Nevertheless, the film errs in passing off Susann as some kind of pioneer in purveying hots to the reading pub(li)c. The history of that kind of profitable pseudo-porn goes back at least to Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber, which came out in the 1940's and was followed about a decade later by Grace Metalious' huge bestseller Peyton Place. The movie shows Susann fearlessly storming the offices of prudish editors who act as if they had never heard of sex in print, but she rode to success on a tidal wave of dreck that had been building for years by the time she arrived on the scene. Even her cachet, the use of thinly veiled gossip about celebrities, already had been exploited by Harold Robbins in his saga about the debauched lives of the rich and famous, The Carpetbaggers.

Basically, Isn't She Great? treats its material as comedy, but when it has to deal with such issues as Susann's autistic child and the cancer which ultimately caused her death, the tone wobbles badly. These are plot ingredients that only the blackest of comedies would take on, and Isn't She Great? instead tacks its sails for the lachrymose winds of sentimentality when it approaches these hazardous dramatic shoals. Unlike the ill-fated Andrea Gail, the film manages to avoid capsizing altogether but it lists badly before it makes its way back into port. Nor are the abrupt shifts in course helped by a raggle-taggle script by Paul Rudnick, many of whose episodes seem desperately devised just to keep propelling the movie forward. 

About halfway through its length, Isn't She Great? introduces an excessively prissy young Ivy League editor, Michael Hastings (David Hyde Pierce), who has been assigned by the prospective publisher to turn Valley of the Dolls into a publishable novel. In and of itself, this is a funny enough idea, but the movie flogs it for all it's worth, particularly when Hastings must resort to sequestering his intransigent authoress at a family estate in Connecticut. The longer Isn't She Great? tries to extract the last yuck from this situation, the more the situation resembles padding--and the padding gets thinner by the minute. While attempting to polish up her uncouth style, the editor balks at a phrase comparing the city of New York in summer to a furious concrete animal. Although this sequence supplies an excellent pretext for a tirade in which Susann defends her idiosyncratic approach to writing, what kind of editor could fail to understand a figurative expression whose meaning would have been transparent to a ten year old child?

Anyone would have to have a masochistic addiction to show biz high camp to want to sit through a movie like Isn't She Great?--and I plead guilty to the charge. In spite of all the bad reports I had heard about it I ran out to rent Isn't She Great? last week as soon as it appeared on DVD. Not only was the film not as bad as I had feared it might be, but it is more than partially redeemed by Bette Midler's bravura performance as Jacqueline Susann. Midler is not the kind of actress who could easily fit into every role, but she makes this part wholly her own. Playing a character whom Truman Capote wickedly stigmatized as "a truck driver in drag" is a high-wire act, with the constant risk of falling into the abyss of malicious caricature, but Midler never loses her equipoise for an instant. 

Nathan Lane is quite good as Irving--with his hang-dog dead pan look he resembles a refugee out of a Mack Sennett two-reeler--and Stockard Channing, as Jacqueline's old friend Florence Maybelle, has a great moment when she describes how she was kicked off the Ozzie and Harriet television show after lustfully drooling over David Nelson, but both of them are just foils for the star. The movie is simply Bette Midler's vehicle, and I don't see why furnishing a vehicle for such a gifted performer shouldn't be  a movie's raison d'Ítre. (John Cusack could learn a thing or two about carrying a movie from her.) My regret is that the vehicle itself is so seedy--watching Midler, Lane, and Channing trying to turn this sow's ear into a silk purse is like watching a musical virtuoso expend his or her talents on performing an inferior concerto by a mediocre romantic composer accompanied by a third-rate orchestra. It is not at all Jacqueline Susann who is not worthy to be the subject of a movie; in this case, it is the movie which is not worthy of her. 

About the DVD itself, there is little to say. This is a bare-bones production with little to boast of. However, I do congratulate Universal for having given viewers the option of choosing between the letterbox and pan-and-scan versions right at the beginning, before the movie gets underway, rather than forcing them to dig around in the root menu.