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COVER STORY

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

"She reinvented the way books were sold, the marketing and packaging, which may or may not be good for the literary establishment, but it was a reality of the changing times," explains Mike Lobell, the film's producer.

A beauty-contest winner from Philadelphia, Jackie hit New York at age 18, hungry for fame. She was so self-absorbed that when the Japanese had the effrontery to bomb Pearl Harbor during an ill-timed audition, she flew into a rage, incensed that no one was paying any attention to her husky, off-key baritone. She tried modeling, acting, writing plays, appearing in radio and television commercials, forming a singing group--proving a rousing failure in everything.

A Public Persona, a Very Private Life

Ultimately she found her gimmick. Her books sold in unprecedented numbers, film tie-ins were box-office successes and she became a household name.

With characteristic gall, she claimed that the '60s would be remembered for three landmarks: Andy Warhol, the Beatles and Jackie Susann. Yet by the '80s, the books were out of print and the self-declared icon was remembered vaguely for her big hair, big lips and heavy, raccoon-eye makeup.

Had Susann been only a tough-talking, Machiavellian creature of celebrity, she would have proved as one-dimensional as the pill-popping heroines in her novels.

She was not. Beneath her carefully constructed illusion of the glamorous high life were two tragedies she kept deeply private. Part of the reason she drove herself so hard to achieve fame was to pay for institutionalizing the Mansfields' autistic son, Guy, whose existence she and Irving hid from all but their closest friends. To overcome her depression over Guy, Irving suggested she write a book. Eventually she produced "Every Night, Josephine!" a dog's-eye view of life with Jackie. In yet another blow, however, on the eve of the book's publication in 1963, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, at the time nearly always a fatal disease. She had mastectomies, underwent radiation therapy that forced her to wear a series of trademark wigs, and became addicted to sedatives, the cause of her slow-motion speech. Not until after her ultimate death from the disease in 1974 at age 56 did the public learn of her cancer and the existence of the couple's autistic son (who remains institutionalized at an undisclosed facility).

"Her attitude was: 'Who's gonna buy a sexy book from someone who has cancer?' and I think she was right," director Bergman explains.

While her novels peeled away glamorous facades to reveal her characters' hidden miseries, she felt the same candor about her own suffering was out of the question.

"In an age where people make whole careers about going public about their private lives, it's ironic that someone so bold, flashy, upfront and in-your-face as Jackie was really completely private," says Channing, who plays Susann's best friend. "Jackie and her crowd had a kind of nobility because they kept up a front. They put on the makeup, the hair, they went out into the world and had fun and entertained other people and didn't moan and groan. There was something fabulous about that."

Based largely on Korda's alternately painful and hilarious account of working with Jackie, published in August 1995 in the New Yorker magazine, the film also draws on background from Irving's own sanitized biography and Barbara Seaman's less than flattering portrait of the Mansfields in "Lovely Me."

While Rudnick's script sticks closely to anecdotes in the Korda article and from other sources, it is far from purist biography. The film version tones down some of the couple's grasping nastiness and the more sordid details of their life together, skipping Susann's numerous affairs, principally with Borscht Belt comics and, more scandalously, with Ethel Merman.

"Rudnick captures what made their marriage work and concentrates on the most charming aspects of Irving and Jackie, who I think could be a handful in reality and a little less than charming," says Lane.

Although still brassy enough to fill Carnegie Hall, Midler's Jackie is a far more sympathetic character.

"In reality, Jackie was a tough, foul-mouthed woman and totally controlling," says Bergman. "Bette is a far more bravura kind of personality than Jackie was and has much more humor than she did."

"People said things about her that if they had said them about me, I would've just died," says Midler. "She must've had a hide like an elephant."

It's nearly midnight on the set in Montreal, but the Mansfields are still waiting for breakfast. A punchy Midler and Channing sing Kurt Weill songs between takes to keep themselves alert.

A Sort of Ballet, Performed Double-Time

When filming resumes, Channing's Flo, a tipsy, blissfully self-centered actress, charges into the room for the seventh time, trailing a fur stole over her pink sequined dress, her hair staying as defiantly erect as the Chrysler Building in a towering bouffant.

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