The Original Valley Girl
Food and smut come together most memorably in two bustling scenes, where Jackie and Irving attempt to entertain the pale Connecticut gentleman, Michael (David Hyde Pierce), who has been assigned to edit the manuscript of Valley of the Dolls. While Michael plays the prissy foil, repeatedly using the word "work," Jackie and Irving mount a multicourse banquet that begins with lox in their Central Park West apartment and concludes with big portions of roast beef and veal at Lindy's. So what is this sad little man's problem? Can't he find anything he'd like to eat? And if he doesn't like the food, why can't he at least cheer up when Jackie models the outfits she could wear on her publicity tour, or when she mugs her way through the expressions she might use for the jacket photo? Hasn't she told Michael jokes, punctuated by that cute fish-face she makes, with the lips pinched together and the eyes popped? And didn't her best friend, Flo (Stockard Channing), practically sit in his lap at breakfast? Such interesting stories she was telling, about getting fired from a walk-on role on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Did Michael want some of the gin Flo was knocking back? But he could have had that, too! Give, give, give! That's all Jackie and Irving want to do, besides make Jackie world-famous--and yet this Michael keeps behaving as if something is wrong!
Most of the time, Isn't She Great? carries the audience along on such tides of exuberance, and on the sure foreknowledge that Valley of the Dolls will fulfill all of Jackie's hopes. But the viewer's sympathies also arise from the ebbs: scenes in which Jackie and Irving cope with their son's severe autism, or with Jackie's long-running treatment for breast cancer. I'm not surprised that Midler and Lane tone down their performances so well for these moments, or that Rudnick's screenplay should lift the actors past the stickier parts with wisecracks that are actually funny. What's more interesting, in a film with a gay sensibility made two decades into the era of AIDS, is the way Isn't She Great? respects Jackie's determination to lie about her illness. "Sick people are losers," she explains vehemently at one point--and who wants to buy a loser's book? So, as many others have done, she protects her professional life with a false front.
In many ways Isn't She Great? is a modest film: two main characters, only a handful of sets (principally Central Park, Lindy's and the Mansfield-Susann apartment) and a running time that won't challenge most bladders. Its tone is pleasantly modest, too. And so this film is all the more welcome, coming out a month after the release of such awards-hungry monsters as The Hurricane and Snow Falling on Cedars. In a sense, those self-important movies conform to the spirit of the real Jacqueline Susann, with her relentless drive to be the biggest thing in show business (and have the numbers to prove it). By contrast, Isn't She Great? pretends to celebrate artlessness in its choice of Susann as heroine; but with its ease of execution and not-too-overstated sentiment, it comes far closer to being a work of popular art than were any of her books, or most of the films that the big studios thought we should take seriously.
Valley of the Dolls, by the way, recently ranked 446 on the Amazon.com sales list (compared, for example, with War and Peace, which comes in at 7,078). I wouldn't blame Paul Rudnick.