More arch than satiric, Isn’t She Great is a brazenly lightweight, genially amusing portrait of Jacqueline Susann, author of the ’60s shlockbuster and quintessential dishathon Valley of the Dolls, and her adoring husband-cum-publicist Irving Mansfield. The movie aspires to be both stylish and coarse, camp and vulgar—which is pretty much how Bette Midler plays it.
Directed by Andrew Bergman from Paul Rudnick’s screenplay, Isn’t She Great is a slumming biopic in the Ed Wood mode—although the filmmakers don’t have the same reverence for the super-successful Susann that Tim Burton had for his subject’s transcendent failure. Basically, Bergman and Rudnick tell the same joke over and over: The author of the best-selling novel ever written was a loudmouth yenta who brilliantly parlayed her own neediness into a real-life star vehicle. Talent, schmalent. This was a woman capable of flogging her book to the nurse administering her chemotherapy.
Susann would doubtless have preferred to be impersonated by a glamorous fellow-writer like Joan Collins—indeed, as Jackie’s best girlfriend, Stockard Channing is surely closer to Susann’s tough-broad personality. Midler, a tiny terror of saucy oomph, clowns her way through the movie, basking in the approval of Nathan Lane’s Irving (“Isn’t she great!”). A matching pair of middle-aged garden gnomes planted in the Sweet Smell of Success universe of Broadway flacks, Jackie and Irving are caricatured caricatures. Theirs is a sensibility that exists beyond taste.
Whether announcing Jackie’s pregnancy to the cheesecake-chomping multitudes at Lindy’s or cackling at the plantation-style facade of an haute Connecticut mansion, the couple are foot soldiers in the immigrant Jewish assault on established American civility. Indeed, Jackie is something of a Hebrew prophetess who, no less than Martin Buber or Tevye the Dairyman, enjoys an I/Thou relationship with God. Once Irving has placed the call, so to speak, she addresses her creator from a knoll in the midst of Central Park. (Irving to a curious passerby, “Excuse us, we’re in a meeting.”) Showbiz rules: Even before Jackie has completed her opus, these visionaries have the whole glitzkrieg sales plan in their heads—commando book tours, surprise personal appearances (“If you love the Old Testament, you’ll love The Valley of the Dolls“), TV tie-ins to culminate in Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
Isn’t She Great is based on the memoir Michael Korda published five years ago in The New Yorker to jump-start the current Susann revival. Korda, who edited her second novel, The Love Machine, isn’t a character here—nor, sad to report, is Ethel Merman, with whom, so it has been reported, Jackie enjoyed a lesbian love affair. Instead, the filmmakers have recruited David Hyde Pierce, the self-important snob who serves as younger sibling foil for TV’s blustering Frasier, to play visitor from the Valley of the Dull. Raising the movie’s sitcom level, the Pierce character stands in for the uptight WASP literary establishment—confounded by Susann, who refuses to discuss her manuscript until he changes into Irving’s eye-searing plaid sports jacket.
Back in the day, this might have been truly entertaining. The movie’s leads and generic Burt Bacharach score notwithstanding, it’s a musical without music. The closest thing to a production number is the lavish party that consecrates Jackie’s rise to the top of the bestseller list. As the author is serenaded by Steve and Edie, her inner Midler cuts loose, singing along, swanning around with her own hand mike as poor Irving wanders off. Isn’t She Great is not without elements of pathos—Jackie’s cancer, the autistic child whose existence she and Irving conceal from the world—but it’s too cool for heartbreak. Nor does it quite elevate its heroine to the full culture studies divadom she’s recently obtained.
A failed actress, sometime TV pitchwoman, and occasional Broadway groupie, Susann was clever enough to grasp Cosmo‘s “Sex and the Single Girl” zeitgeist and dogged enough to deconstruct Harold Robbins’s The Carpetbaggers, creating juicy romans à clef that, as Korda put it, offered “romance with tears and oral sex.” Although some fans have compared her to bad-girl performance artists like Karen Finley, Bergman and Rudnick are disinclined to make such grandiose claims. Isn’t She Great merely proposes Jackie Susann as the Gertrude Stein of Central Park South, the woman who invented postmodern celebrity-worship—the self-promoter who incorporated literature into showbiz rather than vice versa.
Still, the movie is not without its pungent blasphemies. Bergman and Rudnick do allow their Jackie to browbeat God as though she were Harry Cohn and he a particularly maladroit publicist. “Fuck you!” she begins, and winds up screaming: “You owe me . . . big time! Get on the phone now! Make me famous!”
A less trangressive ’60s celebrity, Horst Fantazzini established an image as Italy’s “gentleman bank robber,” a self-identified anarchist pulling his jobs with a toy gun, taking only as much money as he needed, and sending flowers to a teller who fainted mid-heist. Outlaw!, directed by Enzo Monteleone from Fantazzini’s memoirs, is set on a single day during the summer of 1973 when the bandit ineptly attempted to escape the prison where he had been incarcerated for five years.
Because Fantazzini took two guards hostage, Outlaw! has been compared to Dog Day Afternoon. But unlike Sidney Lumet’s docudrama, Outlaw! is less a celebration of social banditry than a good-natured bureaucratic comedy. It’s well-made but slight, precisely staged and populated by gregarious stock characters—the self-absorbed warden (brought back from a beachside vacation), the officious police commander, the taciturn sniper, the lovable sad-sack hostages, and the befuddled Fantazzini himself.
Fantazzini quotes Brecht when he tells his hostages that it’s “more of a crime to found a bank than rob one,” but cries when his father berates him on the phone, calling him an idiot and not an anarchist. That’s as emotional as the movie gets, although, goosed by a manic Balkan brass score, it’s still sufficiently taut to work as a hostage procedural.
Dorsky’s films, shown silent at 18 frames per second, are straightforward presentations of images gathered in the course of his daily life. A somewhat anachronistic figure who shoots on obsolete 16mm reversal stock with a spring-wound Bolex and supports himself as a professional editor, he is not only a superbly intuitive montage-artist but a great photographer. The gorgeous images in Triste (1976-94), which is showing at both the Whitney and Walter Reade, are framed by amber emulsion patterns and ultimately become intimations of decay and disintegration.
Triste is a flow of rhyming shapes—occasionally jolting the viewer with a close-up of a cigarette butt or garishly orange rotisserie chicken. Variations, made in part from Triste‘s outtakes, focuses most consistently on the quality of light—as it defines a face, dapples a surface, slices (and is sliced by) a field of grass, or is liquefied by water. The mood is one of subdued ecstasy. The film suggests a universal photosynthesis in which humans are surrounded by and permeated with radiance.
For me, the most extraordinary of Dorsky’s films is Alaya (which, like Variations, is showing only at the Walter Reade). Here, Dorsky restricts his subject to sand—close-ups of dunes shifting in the wind, intricately cascading desert patterns, Brownian motion in greenish shadows. Throughout, the filmmaker plays with scale. In some shots, the grains of sand are magnified to the size of jewellike pebbles; in others, the film grain is identical with the sand. This is a movie with a cast of billions—a meditation on the infinite that oscillates amazingly between plenitude and emptiness.