There's a line in the fourth Star Trek movie -- one of the good even-numbered ones, the story where everybody goes back to 1985 to save the whales (it seemed entertaining at the time...) - where Kirk, attempting to explain his recent affinity for swearing, explains to Spock, " People wouldn't listen to you unless you used profanity every other word. You find it in all the literature of the period - Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann..." To which Spock replies, with uncharacteristic naivete, "Ah. The Greats."
The life of Jacqeline Susann, who with Valley of the Dolls in 1966 became the bestselling novelist of her day by writing glitzy trash that had the unintended effect of liberalizing the publishing business for more serious authors to follow, could make a good movie. Maybe somebody will make it someday. Until then, Isn't She Great serves as an example of what can happen when you put what seem like choice ingredients together without consulting a recipe.
It's got Bette Midler, who certainly has ample brass, playing Susann, a fifth-rate actress who wanted to be world-famous; Nathan Lane as Irving Mansfield, her doting husband/manager, who believed the way she could get there was to write what she knew; national treasure Stockard Channing as Susann's best friend Florence; John Cleese as her publisher; and David Hyde Pierce as the editor assigned to make her work sellable. On the production side, it was directed by Andrew Bergman, who shot Honeymoon in Vegas and The Freshman, and written by Paul Rudnick, who worked on the scripts for In & Out and both Addams Family outings. Sadly, their combined effort is about as appetizing as peanut-butter vinaigrette.
In retrospect, Bergman has been going downhill since he tripped up Carl Hiaasen's fun novel Striptease as a Demi Moore vehicle. This is much worse. With the exception of Pierce, who's funny here even though he's simply doing a take on his fastidious shtick from "Frasier," everybody wanders around as if the director never came out of his trailer. Gestures are exaggerated and punchlines are missed, while the serious scenes (Susann had an autistic son, and battled breast cancer for a decade before her death in 1974) have all the gravity of cheerleader camp. Even Channing, one of the best actresses of her generation, looks lost. As for the screenplay, now I wonder if there isn't another Paul Rudnick, one who went to prison for mail fraud and banged this one out for cigarette money.
All of which is a shame, because the look and sound of Isn't She Great are really neat-o mod cool. Burt Bacharach composed the soundtrack, which features vocals by Dionne Warwick, and award-winning costume designer Julie Weiss got the unfettered period styles better than did either Austin Powers film (in one scene John Cleese sports a gold lamé Nehru outfit that's almost worth catching when this comes out on video).
Oh, well. Perhaps they could interest Robin Williams in playing Harold Robbins. D+