The Queen of Trash
Like it or not, Jacqueline Susann changed publishing forever in the mid 1960s with Valley of the Dolls, her high-strung, gossipy, “filthy” novel about the boozing, pill-popping, bed-hopping habits of Hollywood babes. The novel was a sensation, and it marked the end of the promulgation of literature as the industry’s raison d’etre, and the beginning of books as critic-proof mass entertainment. I’ll join you in bemoaning the results of her success, but Isn’t She Great, the story of her rise to fame and fortune, is as intentionally kitschy and campy and fun as her novels unintentionally read today.
Susann’s life story is as melodramatic as her novels. She was an out-of-work Broadway and radio actress in the 1950s when she met press agent Irving Mansfield, who would become her husband and manager. He guided her from minor acting job to minor acting job — slavishly devoted to her, his only dream was to help her achieve her dream of being famous — until he hit on the idea of turning her into a novelist. That venture was an uphill battle made all the more difficult by Jackie’s poor health and the misfortune surrounding their son.
The only way to tell this kind of story and not turn it into a sappy Lifetime movie is the way they did it. Smart and witty screenwriter Paul Rudnick (In and Out) — adapting a New Yorker magazine article by Michael Korda — turned out a cheerfully catty, bouncy script, which Andrew Bergman directs with screwball-comedy charm. But the real saving graces here are Bette Midler and Nathan Lane (Stuart Little, Mouse Hunt) as Jackie and Irving. Like live-action cartoons, both of them are loud, gaudy, and outrageously over the top.
These characters could so easily be intensely unlikable. Jackie is as self-centered and selfish as they come, merrily telling Irving and her best friend Florence Maybelle (Stockard Channing: Practical Magic) that their affections are not enough for her: “I need mass love!” she cries. Yet we already sympathize with her, because we saw her weep to Irving earlier that she’s a failure as an actress because she’s not blond, blue-eyed, and skinny (and how refreshing it is to see two plump leads in a Hollywood movie!). Midler makes Jackie saucily uncompromising — even when she’s told that “talent isn’t everything,” she’s still sure she has something to offer the world. Anyone who has felt that she or he was destined for bigger things will certainly feel for her when she wonders if it’s “so much to ask” to be famous and live forever. It’s a joke and it’s meant to make us laugh, but like all great comedy there’s truth underneath it.
And Lane’s Irving is such a wonderfully single-minded character. His adoration of Jackie gives the film its name: “Isn’t she great,” he opines, exhilarated by the mere sight of his wife, to just about everyone he meets, and it’s never a question. His enthusiasm is Jackie’s life preserver when she dips into despair, and he’s the one who pushes Jackie to, as they tell writers, write what she knows, even if that’s only “tits, ass, and the truth” about the nasty underbelly of show biz. And when he tells her that the finished manuscript of Valley of the Dolls is “like Gone with the Wind, only filthy,” he says it with such relish that you could scoop some off and slather it on a hot dog.
Midler and Lane are terrific together, and they’ve got a supporting cast that helps them keep the tone just light enough. John Cleese (The Out-of-Towners, George of the Jungle) — looking like an escapee from Yellow Submarine, in his psychedelic-patterned velvet nehru jackets — is Henry Marcus, head of the hip publishing company that takes a chance on Valley of the Dolls when more respectable houses turn up their noses. The delightful David Hyde Pierce seems to be making a career of playing prissy WASPs, but he does do that character extremely well, and his comic timing couldn’t be more precise as Michael Hastings, the editor assigned to turn the Dolls manuscript into something publishable — he ends up getting as much of an education about Jackie’s world as she gets about his. Everyone onscreen is having a ball, and even tiny roles get filled with big names — like John Laroquette as Jackie’s ex-boyfriend — obviously wanting in on the action, or smaller names eager to send themselves up: Christopher MacDonald parodies his role as the host of the TV game show 21 in Quiz Show in a similar, but funnier, appearance here.
Funny and sweet — and even funny and sweet in the face of tragedy — Isn’t She Great answers its own question: Yes, she is.