Ugh. This cutesy account of the fantastic, fame-mad Jacqueline Susann is a squandered opportunity for mixing tragedy, blind ambition, sex, and celebrity into an overheated yet still moving masterpiece about a polarizing figure from American literary pop culture.
How do I know the potential of this story? Because Michele Lee (the grounded and long-suffering Karen from Knots Landing) brought it to fruition with her 1998 TV-movie version about Susann, which delved far deeper into her experience with an autistic son, depicted her battle with cancer with an unexpected sensitivity, and really fucking delivered when it came to Susann’s bizarre infatutation with Ethel Merman, a ripe slice of biography that the bland Bette Midler vehicle ignores altogether. Lee is a seasoned soap star who knows where to hit pathos hard and when to strike high melodrama with an iron fist. I don’t care if the biopic was made for low-status cable television; it did its subject proud.
Isn’t She Great, on the other hand, plays right to the suburbs and to a presumably staid crowd of gay men still awaiting the set design of Mad Men. Susann’s life is presented as frothy fun: “Just look at that outfit!” seems the mantra of director Andrew Bergman, who co-wrote Soapdish a few years earlier and attempts to continue to mine that film’s vein of humor through a condescending perspective on its principal characters.
There’s a stilted and forced outrageousness at work here, not unlike Bette Midler’s two-note performance, alternately over the top and unforgivably schmaltzy, delivered in roughly the same vein that she has been mired in since the mid-eighties, an inexplicable decline after her magnetic 1980 debut in The Rose.
Midler approaches Susann like a cartoon character, as if a wink were lying in wait even in the saddest of scenes. She doesn’t commit, ever. Nathan Lane shares the same weakness as a performer, and while he fits in well with the smirky sensibility of the film, he’s miscast and only magnifies the film’s tonal problem. When it’s time to cry, and this story really has a real possibility of tearjerking, the overwhelming smarminess has already distanced us far too greatly from its subject. The film makes no investment in Susann. How can I?
NB: I’d suggest an alternate cast and director for a remake, but I’d rather spend my time trying to track down Michele Lee’s TV-movie. I’m on it!