Bette Midler got her first starring role in the movies in 1979, playing the lead in The Rose, a thinly disguised biopic about Janis Joplin. It wasn’t much of a picture; but no one seemed to have told that to Midler, who dealt with the role by ripping heedlessly into her dialogue, vocal cords and bathhouse-diva image. Despite the brassy overstatement of Midler’s stage persona, her talent at that time tended to flow through the self-concealing channels of mannerism. On this recording, she would sound like the lead singer in an early sixties girl group; on that, like all three of the Andrews Sisters. And so, in The Rose, she reminded you a lot of Joplin, without stooping to impersonation.
With her latest film, Isn’t She Great?, Midler again stars in a biopic about a pop-culture figure of the sixties–this one a lacquer-haired dominatrix who stood atop the bestseller lists, grinding her spike heels into the face of literature and ordering it to bark her name: Jacqueline Susann. What a big country America must be, to have contained her and Joplin within a single decade! In Susann’s novels, showbiz people with well-appointed facades, of the sort that Joplin never thought to erect, struggle to conceal a liking for drugs, booze and sex that Joplin was pleased to flaunt. Vegas versus Woodstock, sleaze versus raunch, middle-class acquisitiveness versus street-corner profligacy (while Joplin joked in song about wanting a Mercedes-Benz, Susann spent her life trading up to the priciest model): Had Bette Midler embodied both figures on film, then we might say that she, too, contains multitudes.
But in Isn’t She Great?, Midler does not appear as the historical Jacqueline Susann or even as the stage confection known as “Bette Midler.” I mean it as a compliment when I say that in this cheerful and affectionate comedy, Midler doesn’t seem like a woman at all; her character is more like a showbiz-besotted drag queen from the Jewish Bronx.
As written by Paul Rudnick and directed by Andrew Bergman, Isn’t She Great? is primarily a pastel-colored reminiscence about Susann’s marriage. Of course, the marriage encompassed the career; but the film touches only lightly upon that career’s true achievement, which was to have helped transform American publishing into a minor subsidiary of show business, and American literature into an industrial byproduct. (The film is based on a New Yorker article by Michael Korda, who as a book editor played his own role in these developments–though surely he, and Susann, should bear no more responsibility for the debacle than does Gavrilo Princip for World War I.) With plenty of showbiz savvy of their own, Rudnick and Bergman do not burden the audience with this part of the story, or with a visitation from the Susann who was, in life, so unsympathetically pinched and brittle. Instead, they allow a chubby, warmhearted man named Irving (Nathan Lane) to tell of his devotion to the equally glamour-impaired Susann: his longtime companion who died after a lingering illness, leaving behind happy memories of fabulousness achieved through hard work.
“I fell in love with Jacqueline Susann the first time I saw her,” Irving begins in voiceover, as we, too, get our initial glimpse of the film’s heroine: Jackie in a maid’s outfit and bad French accent, performing (very briefly) in a Broadway murder mystery titled Death Takes a Powder. With Midler-like mannerism, though far less talent, this Jackie can also become a British jungle explorer (when acting in a radio drama) or camp it up as a fifties housewife (when doing product demonstrations in a supermarket). What she can’t do, now that she’s well past 30, is keep up a pretense of show-biz success. In the one moment in the film that’s heavy going–I warn you of it, since it comes early and might lead to discouragement–a loudly dispirited Jackie trudges into the Central Park lake to mount one of cinema’s splashier suicide threats. Fortunately for her and the movie, Irving Mansfield is a press agent. He wades right in with her, to offer his love and a business card, as moonlight sparkles off the much-displaced water.