The pulp life of outrageous writer Jacqueline Sellena seems like a good idea for a comedy. As seamy and seedy as her pulp novels, her life story could have been a guiltily comic gem, particularly with a strong cast attached. However, appearances would certainly be deceiving in this case, as Isn’t She Great isn’t great, and isn’t even good.
As the film starts, Susann (Bette Midler) is a nobody…a loud, irritating nobody. And she’s the worst type of loud, irritating nobody at that: one that wants to be famous. Perplexingly, she attracts the affections of Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane), a prospective suitor who also happens to be a publicist. What a match.
After many, many failed attempts at success, Irving comes up with a brilliant idea: Jackie can write a book! Of course, she can’t write, and all she knows are the tawdry secrets of a bunch of wannabe drug-addicted actresses. How she knows this is somewhat a mystery, as her only connection with the entertainment lifestyle seems to be her ditzy friend Florence (Stockard Channing). But, in any case, she puts her knowledge to work and drafts a sleazy epic, Valley of the Dolls.
Of course, such a book is unlike anything else that has been published by the early 1960s, and no publisher is willing to touch the manuscript with a ten foot pole. That is until she runs across the hip Henry Marcus (John Cleese), who sees the glimmer of gold within those pages. But can the book survive the cuts of prim and proper editor Michael Hastings (David Hyder Pierce)?
Well, since this movie is the life story of Jacqueline Susann, the answer shouldn’t really come as a surprise. But what does is how uncompellingly bland this entire movie is. There is a lot of talent at work here, and yet you wouldn’t be able to tell it by this negligible film.
Bette Midler at least seems to be having a great time, despite the fact that no one else in the film (or the audience, for that matter) is. She gets to overact wildly, dress in umpteen bizarro sixties fashions, and even have a few awkward moments of “touching” drama (when some of the tragic facts of Susann’s life leak into this otherwise pristine, but lifeless, comedy). It’s a sad fact that from her first appearance, she inspires such utter contempt that every single moment on screen is a dismal horror.
Even the usually reliable Nathan Lane and David Hyde Pierce fail to earn any laughs. In fact, the film’s only momentary grins come from John Cleese, whose small role here is a welcome relief from the comedic desert that is Isn’t She Great.