movie film review | chris tookey

Isnít She Great

© 2000 - Universal Pictures, Inc. - all rights reserved
  Isnít She Great Review
Tookey's Rating
8 /10
Average Rating
4.77 /10
Jacqueline Susann: Bette Midler , Irving Mansfield: Nathan Lane , Florence Maybelle: Stockard Channing
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Directed by: Andrew Bergman
Written by: Paul Rudnick †based on an article by Michael Korda

Released: 1999
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 94

A humorous biography of Jacqueline Susann, who achieved notoriety and enormous wealth as the author of Valley of the Dolls, a soft-porn blockbuster of the Sixties about pill-popping actresses in Hollywood.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Isn't She Great celebrates Susann as a trashy optimist, and Bette Midler (pictured left) plays her with the same bravura dynamism that she brought to the musical film of Gypsy. It's a marvellously vituperative satire on Hollywood's own prevailing values and bad taste. Depressingly, few of the American critics or members of the public seemed to get the joke.

The ironic aspect of Susann's ambition is that she desires not to write a work of literature, but to be famous. "I need mass love," she announces. But for much of the film she has to make do with the doglike devotion of her husband/agent, Irving Mansfield, superbly played by Nathan Lane (pictured right), without a hint of condescension to the fact that he is playing one of the scummier examples of pondlife.

When Irving ploughs through to the end of her first, near-illiterate manuscript, the failed actress Susann is a twittering mass of insecurities, not so much an authoress as an actress playing an authoress: "You think it's likeÖ a book that could win an Oscar?" she asks. And he, like a true agent, beams at her and nods: "Itís like Gone With The Wind. Only filthy!"

There is a wonderfully funny supporting performance from Stockard Channing as the egotistical, hard-drinking actress who is Susann's best friend and encourages her to write. "Fame can happen to you!" she assures her, based on her own knowledge of Hollywood. "Talent isn't everything!"

And she has a great line when helping Susann's husband select a necklace for his wife: "If a man bought me those pearls, not only would I have sex with him - I'd enjoy it!"

David Hyde Pierce,best known as Frasier's brother, is enjoyably starchy and disapproving as Susann's reluctant editor. "It's salacious, perverted, soft-core porn!" he splutters at his publisher boss (John Cleese). "Can we put that on the cover?" comes the reply.

The film works best as a sequence of uproarious comedy sketches, shot in the Sixties style by Andrew Bergman (who made Honeymoon in Vegas and co-wrote Blazing Saddles). But Paul Rudnick's sharp, cynical script - he wrote the enjoyable comedy In and Out, starring Kevin Kline - also hints at why Susann and her husband pursued fame and wealth so relentlessly.

There is something pathetic, bordering on the tragic, when you see the same incorrigible optimism they brought to marketing her books applied to their depressingly autistic son and the breast cancer which eventually killed her in her fifties.

Rather like another brilliant flop, Ed Wood, the film celebrates the "can do" mentality against all the odds, and portrays the crass, sleazy side of American entertainment with real affection.

This is an unashamed yet tongue-in-cheek glorification of lewdness, self-publicity, materialism, marketing and lots of other things that it is politically incorrect to like. It is not fashionable to admire people like Susann and her husband, least of all in critical circles.

Jacqueline Susann's writing may have been trashy and her influence on popular culture far from beneficial; but she was refreshingly truthful about many things that hitherto couldn't be said in books. Valley of the Dolls was the Bridget Jones' Diary of its day, capturing a mood about women of its decade, and this film shows her bravery in forging ahead when everything was seemingly against her.

Isn't She Great is boldly determined to look on the bright side of her life. As her husband says at the end. "She never got the breaks, so she made her own. You gotta love that". Well, I did. A funny and perversely inspiring movie, insufficiently appreciated.

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