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.
Two scenes later, his amiably drooping eyes and plump cheeks drawn into their most pinchable folds, Irving is ready to ask for Jackie’s hand. His proposal: “I want to make you so…famous.” For Irving and Jackie, life is show business and show business is desire. When desire is badly frustrated, these two secular Jews go to their temple–a tree in Central Park–and negotiate with God for a better deal. (All right, these scenes pass heavily, too.) At all other times, Jackie and Irving put their faith in their appetites, which seem as innocent as Valley of the Dolls is dirty-minded.
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.