A movie based on the life of best-selling novelist Jacqueline Susann could veer in any number of different directions. She was neurotically ambitious and emotionally needy; her books, while enormously successful in the popular marketplace, are truly dreadful potboilers; and she had more than her share of heartbreak in life with an autistic son and a long siege of breast cancer.
In Isn’t She Great, acknowledged to be a fictionalized biography, screenwriter Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values, The First Wives Club, In and Out) and director Andrew Bergman (Honeymoon in Vegas) have kept things light: the comedy is gentle, the characters are treated sympathetically, but without whitewashing, and the sentimentality, while evident, is kept to a reasonably dry minimum.
The story is told in voice-over by Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane), a press agent who was was Susann’s husband and biggest booster. Mansfield saw magic in Susann (Bette Midler) where nobody else did; she was a failed actress, consumed with insecurity ("I’m nothing! I’m nobody!"), yet burning with ambition to be famous at the same time. There are early failures (a spoof of an appearance on the old television show, "What’s My Line?"); idiosyncrasies (Susann goes to Central Park to talk – or make demands or negotiate – with God); the Mansfield/Susann courtship, and the birth of their autistic son. Susann’s closest friend, actress Florence Maybelle, is played with customary relish and comedic edge by Stockard Channing.
When Mansfield finally gives Susann the idea of writing a book, things move into higher comic gear. The old lesson of writing what you know about leads Susann to the acknowledgment that all she knows about is "fucking, pills, aging stars and cheap whores." And so was The Valley of the Dolls born, her novel which became, at the time, the best-selling novel of all time. Midler’s editor is played by David Hyde Pierce, type cast as the establishment wasp. The contrast between the vulgar brashness of the Jewish/Broadway corned beef-on-rye milieu and the white-bread and mayonnaise, dry upper crust of Connecticut offers yet more setups for comedy. The secret to its success is that it is all done without meanness – and the universal interest in the sleazy, sexy subject matter of Susann’s badly written books becomes an amusing equalizer.
Midler captures the vulgarity, the humor, and the neediness of Susann and creates a genuinely sympathetic character. Lane supports her with amusement, warmth, and dignity. And once again, John Cleese’s great comic talents are underutilized; playing Susann’s publisher, he’s given just a few minutes on screen and little to do, much the same waste as in his appearance in the most recent James Bond The World is Not Enough.
There are plenty of funny lines to keep the audience laughing ("I don’t trust psychiatrists. They nap.") and lots of outrageous outfits for Midler to wear. The heart of the picture takes place in the 1960s, so Bert Bacharach’s tinkly score is appropriate and it is nice to hear Dionne Warwick singing instead of peddling psychic readings.