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Jackie's Peaks and Valleys

'Isn't She Great,' a basically sympathetic film portrayal of Jacqueline usann, glosses over the ugliness in the novelist's life.

January 27, 2000|RICHARD COVINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not too many comedies are based on the lives of people who can come across as obnoxious, boorish and unappealing because not too many people will pay to see them. One subject who at least partly fits this description is the late Jacqueline Susann, celebrated and reviled author of heavy-breathing immorality tales that turned the stuffy publishing business on its ear some 30 years ago.

The problem with chronicling the life of Susann--pill addict, cancer victim, mother of an autistic son and gossipy author who in reality could be aggressively overbearing and uncouth, insecure and frequently unpleasant to be around--was coming up with a script and an actor who could convey the brashness and somehow manage to keep the character sympathetic, and funny.

The makers of "Isn't She Great" think they found just the actor in Bette Midler, who has made a career of being aggressively overbearing and uncouth--and above all, very funny.

In the hands of Midler, Nathan Lane, David Hyde Pierce, John Cleese, Stockard Channing and director Andrew Bergman, the hard-bitten, foul-mouthed and ultimately courageous Susann of "Isn't She Great," which opens Friday, has become sweeter and funnier than she ever dreamed of being in real life.

A visit to the set during filming in Montreal in the summer of 1998 proved instructive. Cultures collide in a scene in which Hyde Pierce's fictional character, buttoned-down editor Michael Hastings, calls on Susann and her doting husband, Irving Mansfield, played by Nathan Lane, in their palatial apartment overlooking Central Park.

"Mike!" blurts out Lane as publicist and producer Mansfield. "Come in, take a load off. Jackie, it's Mike!"

A hallucination of powder-blue feather marabou and navy blue dressing gown, dangling pink velvet eyeshades, Midler's Jackie bursts out of the bedroom.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" she bellows. "It's [expletive] dawn!"

Hastings gingerly picks his way forward. "Miss Susann? I'm Michael Hastings, your editor. We have to get to work. I have a great many comprehensive notes."

"Notes?" asks Jackie, bristling. "Whaddaya mean, notes?"

"Miss Susann, your manuscript is presently nigh onto incoherent," Hastings replies.

"And that's bad?" she asks ingenuously. "Yes!" he answers, exploding in exasperation.

"Well, Mr. Picky! Buster, you just hold on," retorts Jackie, stalking out to change into another of many gloriously psychedelic Pucci concoctions, ready to do battle with the supercilious Connecticut Yankee publisher in Queen Jackie's court.

"Isn't she great?" chuckles Irving. "She's so excited. Thrilled. She's never been edited before."

Cut.

Between shots, Hyde Pierce says of his character, "It's essentially like I've gone to Mars. I have never met people like this. The book that she's trying to publish is a complete mess, and they're talking about what kind of limousines they should be getting and what the cover of the book jacket is going to look like."

Part wise-cracking comedy of manners, part rags-to-riches romance, Paul Rudnick's script captures what Midler calls "the Ed Sullivan of it all, the Stork Club, El Morocco and Delmonico's, that Broadway life" that Jackie and Irving lived for. They invented themselves as characters in a Runyonesque universe, holding court in Lindy's delicatessen and other show biz haunts.

With the media now bristling with tell-all confessionals that Jackie's novels helped pioneer, something of a Susann renaissance is in the works. Her books--"Valley of the Dolls," "The Love Machine" and "Once Is Not Enough," all No. 1 bestsellers in the '60s and '70s--are back in print. In addition to the Universal feature with Midler and Lane, Fox has in development a remake of "Valley of the Dolls" with Betty Thomas attached to produce and direct, and USA Network has already aired (in December 1998) a small-screen biopic about Susann starring Michele Lee.

Susann couldn't sing, she couldn't act, she couldn't dance, and she tried them all. Many would argue she couldn't construct a plot if her life depended on it and, in a way, it did. But, boy, could she schmooze.

Up at dawn to bring coffee and doughnuts to the Teamsters, Jackie made sure the truck drivers got her books to the bookstores on time. Armed with a Rolodex listing bookseller names, birthdays, the names of their children and pets, she and Irving toured the country, greeting salespeople like old friends, shamelessly enlisting a loyal following to flog her scandalous, hugely popular potboilers.

Rewriting the American Novel

According to Michael Korda, Susann's post-"Valley of the Dolls" editor at Simon & Schuster, she reinvented that mainstay of the publishing business, the romance novel, making room for both "tears and oral sex," drug-addicted beauties and Hollywood heels and paving the way for the likes of Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz.

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