Isn't She Great Isn't So Great; Simpatico is Simpatico

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    Isn't She Great directed by Andrew Bergman I just got back from Isn't She Great and, boy, are my legs tired! Or how about: A funny thing happened on the way to reviewing Isn't She Great. I laughed about it even though I groaned while watching it. In X's 1981 song "Adult Books" Susann rated her own lyric stanza: "Adult books/I don't understand/Jackie Susann/She meant it that way." X expressed the usually hidden dismay of young people influenced by the lies of show business and fiction. Many of us first read Valley of the Dolls under the cover of New York Times bestseller-list legitimacy while enjoying it mainly for the sex-and-drugs "good parts." Susann's book conjoined literature with show business, distorting adult relations and crises into unenlightening mass entertainment. X's John Doe and Exene, more honest than the hypesters who created the recently reissued Valley hoopla, lamented their own foolish sexual presumptions as behavior learned from nonconscientious pop examples like dirty literature and camp movies. Unprepared for adult complication, they half-blamed Jackie Susann for familiarizing easy titillation and even cheaper sentimentality. X's confessional perspective gets us somewhere (because it measures how little stroke fiction actually teaches us). Isn't She Great is stupidly content with turning the adult confusion and misery behind Susann's romance fiction into shrill, vapid comedy.

    This movie's arch approach isn't as forthright as X's, it's smirky. The makers of Isn't She Great settle for ironic distancing from marital pain and career frustration in Susann and her publicist husband Irving Mansfield's partnership, as if showing her gawking at celebrities or pecking away at a pink typewriter were enough to signify their desires and ethics. (Lane gets one of the film's several good quips, referring to Jackie's fevered pink pages as "like Madame Bovary, but dirty." The line is funny because Lane's deadpan reading drags literature to the level of vaudeville. However, in this process of turning camp misperception into "truth" the film also trashes a real person's life. Its bizarreness disguises what might ordinarily be seen as manic or pathetic.

    Catastrophes like Isn't She Great (the preening title has no question mark) make you know pop music culture can never be as decadent as Hollywood. The filmmakers force tragedy to compete with vanity as Jackie gives birth to an autistic child, suffers breast cancer yet dresses as if for Mardi Gras, marches into restaurants and barges onto genteel WASP estates emboldened, as if hearing her own theme song. Isn't She Great actually features Burt Bacharach-Dionne Warwick numbers (harkening to the Bacharach-Dory Previn compositions on the Valley of the Dolls soundtrack) that tip off this film's lunacy. Against a credit sequence of lousy, inauthentic paperback book graphics, Warwick warbles, "I don't know where I'm going but I'm on my way" (a far worse, twisted-camp redo of Previn's "Gonna get off/Gotta get/Have to get/On where I'm bound" lyrics). In a later number, Warwick sings Susann's ambition in a song whose title seriously proffers the concept "Mass Love." Throughout Isn't She Great, characters express their egomania in terms associated with marketing savvy. Maybe the ever-pushy Jackie was a forerunner in that kind of shamelessness, yet the movie accepts it as rational, if not visionary.

    Blame the overrated Paul Rudnick. You can't be surprised that a crap film results from a guy who writes Premiere's Libby Gelman-Waxner column (a rationalization for the trivialization of movies). The fact that so many people have enjoyed and validated Rudnick's diminution of an art form proves much of what's wrong in contemporary film culture. In Isn't She Great (as in his Addams Family scripts and the worthless In & Out) Rudnick exploits camp satire without ever revealing guarded, wounded feelings. He's not an artist, he's a clown. Yes, there's some funny stuff in this flick, but none of it attains poignance. (Imagine a Charles Ludlum farce that intermittently turns into a Lifetime Channel movie of the week.) Rudnick sustains his runway posturing even when compassion?or honesty?is required. A recent made-for-tv movie on Susann's life starring Michelle Lee (closer to the mark than Midler) was as bad as this, yet there was a startling moment near its humorless end. Lee's Susann suddenly saw her supplicating husband (Peter Riegert) and, with shock, understood him: "You love me!" she puzzled. It turned the fame-crazed bitch into a troubled human being. The best Rudnick can devise for Midler is a revue-sketch caricature.

    In the New York Observer Rex Reed, a friend of Jackie, howled, "This movie turns [Susann and Mansfield] into a Damon Runyon version of Oil Can Harry and Tugboat Annie." To tell the truth, that sounds pretty interesting to me, but Isn't She Great's Rudnickisms aren't even that coherent. A half-baked notion about American ethnic candor influenced the bewildering decision to present this story as a cartoon. Rudnick has taken an article by literary gadfly Michael Korda and turned it into a roman a clef complete with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme impersonators, a Sharon Tate-clone assistant and one puzzling sequence showing Jackie mesmerized by a James Brown performance on The Ed Sullivan Show (it takes Jackie to predict his success!). This barrage of pop attitudes is more stupefying than any six average bad movies. In the middle of it all ethnic parody is tossed in along with gay sarcasm. Rudnick creates a Jewish showbiz comedy of errors that prizes vulgarity as the undying essence of pop. That, supposedly, is the reality Jackie brought to showbiz insincerity and the WASP literary world. A key dishonest moment portrays Susann's publisher (John Cleese) as a 60s poser with an eye for modern art. Her pink manuscript adorns his office along with an original Warhol and Rothko. What's wrong with this picture?

    Rudnick and company are trying to say that Susann, representing a gay, feminist and Jewish candor, shocked the mid-60s reading public, but they're wrong. Grace Metalious' Peyton Place (published 10 years before Valley of the Dolls) was Susann's pop-lit model and its immodesty represented a greater cultural shift. Valley simply anticipated still-dangerous celebrity-mongering. It wasn't a triumph of Jewish/gay subcult honesty (no matter how many marketers make that claim in hindsight) but of biz exploitation. Yet the filmmakers don't even have in-group loyalty, they're just eager to participate in idolatry. Surely that explains their turning Jackie Susann into both a deli maven and drag-queen harridan. Rudnick thinks it's adulatory. But his perception of character is also inconsistent. When a "young" Jackie appears on a tv game show, she targets a big-breasted blonde bimbo for ridicule. This goes against Susann's fascination with showbiz lowlifes and her female sympathy (an unignorable feature of Valley of the Dolls). Instead, it's indicative of the film's misogynist humor. Rudnick's low comedy mixes Jewish ethnic burlesque with the distortions of camp. Andrew Bergman (who directed the interesting Brando pastiche The Freshman) might have thought he was doing Amadeus but got hoodwinked into a half-assed Auntie Mame. Both his sitcom camera setups and meaningless camera movements look like the work of a man who just gave in. He's shooting script pages, not making a film.

    How did Bette Midler get involved in Bergman and Rudnick's inhumanity? Happy vulgarian is a style Midler does nonpareil. Adding flesh to Rudnick's conception of Susann's mad drive and willfulness, Midler brings a zany glow we accept as her own. But substituting dingbat boorishness for Susann's literary and merchandising hard work (that pink typewriter again) tells us less about Susann than about the filmmakers' calculation of modern moviegoer values. Isn't She Great extends celebrity-worship (of both Susann and Midler) to its basis in mockery. This conception smudges the kind of personal transference of identity that 50s author Patrick Dennis idealized in Little Me with the camp icon Belle Poitrine. Here, that closeted gay projection morphs into a truly bizarre conceit ("Mass Love") not even Midler can surmount. As the antics become more dramatic and maudlin, Midler's pluckiness?her first full-fledged drag-queen act for the big screen?looks less like the Divine Miss M than a lugubrious version of Divine. And that's a real drag.

    The always adroit Stockard Channing is stuck doing a Vera Charles second-fiddle gig and Lane, despite his mastery of camp timing, is put in the impossible position of portraying Susann's long-suffering husband as the film's reality-check narrator. They court in Central Park, where Susann threatens suicide in the duck pond, and later they address God (sometimes cursing) before one of the park's trees. At one point Mansfield wards off a flirtatious woman by holding up his hand and indicating his wedding band. Somehow, we're supposed to be in on this joke that passes off Lane's limp-wristed specialty for husbandly devotion. Its real meaning is secretive (like the sham marriage in American Beauty). Representing the Susann-Mansfield marriage as this crazy artifice acknowledges the film's prospective gay audience, but it's actually an insult. Lane's lady-in-waiting role is no different from Roddy McDowall's loyal butlering to Barbra Streisand in Funny Lady.

    Isn't She Great combines camp confusion and contemporary media hype. Remember those ridiculous reviews that launched the 1997 reprint of Valley of the Dolls? Boomer journalists with no sense of pop-lit history but ready to sell portrayed it as a major cultural event. Libby Gelman Rudnick (who is no better) and Bergman (who should know better) swallow the hype and proceed cravenly. They've left out Susann's showbiz cynicism (mostly about her own failed acting career) to make her one with the circus she meant to expose. Isn't She Great is Exhibit A in the demonstration of reality completely distorted by celebritydom.