Rewriting Jackie Susann … Another Episode of Twentysomething

Rewriting Jackie Susann

It’s too early to predict the worst movie of the year 2000, but it’s safe to bet things won’t get any dumber or trashier than Isn’t She Great . This blatantly vulgar and completely fictional travesty on the lives of novelist Jacqueline Susann and her husband, Irving Mansfield, is a disaster from start to finish. Bette Midler is about as much like Jackie as Dr. Ruth Westheimer, while Nathan Lane resembles Irving about as much as Sean (Puffy) Combs does. Too bad they’re not around to see the stupidity and dishonesty with which they’ve been ridiculed. They loved publicity, but the guaranteed lawsuit that would have resulted from this garish junk film would have provided more laughs and headlines than the movie will ever get on its own.

In a shrill, tacky, one-note, bump-and-grind performance, Ms. Midler plays Susann as a birdbrain so desperate to be a success in show business she would sleep with anyone to get a job. When Irving first discovers her, she’s just been dumped by a seedy comic named Maury, who is supposed to be Morey Amsterdam. In reality, Jackie did have brief affairs with both Eddie Cantor and Joe E. Lewis, but that was years after she married Irving. Amsterdam was just an employer on an early television comedy show on which she played a comic foil. In the movie, her first date with Irving ends with Jackie throwing herself into the duck pond in Central Park, a comic situation that is as fabricated as it is unfunny. The birth of a severely autistic son, the most tragic event in their lives, and Jackie’s long battle with cancer are skirted over like subplots that didn’t work out on The Guiding Light . The first book on her road to publishing success, Every Night Josephine , an affectionate tribute to her French poodle, is never mentioned in the film at all; instead, all credit for her rise to overnight stardom goes to Valley of the Dolls , a book that took years to complete.

A prissy, anally retentive editor who drags her off to a snobbish Connecticut retreat to edit the manuscript (David Hyde Pierce, from Frasier ) is a complete invention. All of Jackie’s friends have been distilled and reduced to one drunken, sluttish, wisecracking actress named Florence Maybelle, played by the beautiful, talented and criminally wasted Stockard Channing like an ossified Vera Charles to Ms. Midler’s Auntie Mame. Jackie was a promotion freak, but she never drove all over America in her own car, delivering books to convents filled with blushing, titillated and salacious nuns. (“If you liked the New Testament, you’ll love Valley of the Dolls !” she shrieks.)

On and on it goes, piling up one lie after another in incidents that never happened. When Mr. Lane finishes reading the first draft of Valley of the Dolls , which seems to have been typed in one day, he yells “It’s like Madame Bovary ! Only dirtier!” To which Jackie snarls, “Name a real book!” Hey, I knew them both. They were literary hustlers, but they were never morons. This movie would have you believe Valley of the Dolls was purchased, over the objections of everyone at the publishing house, only on the advice of the overnight cleaning woman, because “she knows trash.” In your dreams. When a dejected Irving feels left out by Jackie’s stardom and threatens to divorce her, she convinces him to stay by guaranteeing him 12 1/2 percent of her earnings. In your hat. As a team, the Mansfields were a colorful pair who actually revolutionized the way best sellers are marketed. They were inseparable partners in life and work, and no two people ever had more fun jockeying for position in the get-famous business. This movie turns them into a Damon Runyon version of Oil Can Harry and Tugboat Annie .

Jackie’s life and career contained enough camp elements to make it easy to satirize. But to do that, you need a script that is funny. She also made enough of an impact on the popular culture of her time to form the basis of a fascinating character study. But to do that, you need a script that has something to say. Paul Rudnick has provided neither. He tosses a few biographical facts into a Cuisinart and out pops a gag or two, but the facts are all wrong, the time frames so mixed up that chronology is rendered incoherent (the famous Truman Capote attack calling Jackie “a truck driver in drag” on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson came years later than it is depicted in the movie), and nowhere does the film capture one iota of her drive, courage, pain, intelligence or enormous capacity for loyalty and friendship.

Ms. Midler is too good to play a caricature of a heartless bimbo. No telling how good she might be if she was allowed to play the truth. But the truth is the last thing on director Andrew Bergman’s feeble mind. These are people flailing about who don’t have a clue what they are doing. Even on the level of a glossy but mindless sitcom, the movie is a rancid failure. Isn’t She Great is to the real saga of Susann what a toy soldier at F.A.O. Schwarz is to the invasion of Normandy. They should call it Isn’t It Awful .

Another Episode of Twentysomething

Down to You is a lame, misguided romantic comedy about the pitfalls of first love between a gentle college sophomore named Al (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and a freshman art student named Imogen (Julia Stiles). Contrived characters invade every attempt to find happiness on campus as Al’s father, a famous chef on a television cooking show (Henry Winkler), comes up with a mad idea for a series on which he invades a different American home each week, holds the occupants at gunpoint and cooks a fabulous meal for a captive audience. Imogen is afraid of marriage. Al is afraid of rejection. She gets a false-alarm pregnancy scare. His roommate gets his nipple pierced.

Somehow they manage to waft through graduation while writer-director Kris Isaccson uses camera tricks and plays around with narrative (Al and Imogen address the audience, narrate their fears from different points of view and even encounter a multitude of characters from their past at various ages). It’s all camouflage for the fact that nothing much is going on here. After they break up, Al enrolls in a culinary school but flunks fish filleting, while Imogen moves to San Francisco to design dust jackets for a book publisher. Too square, faithful and lovesick to get over the girl of his dreams, Al attempts a “romantic exorcism” by swallowing a bottle of Imogen’s shampoo.

It all ends as snugly as a series finale on Twentysomething . Mr. Prinze’s crooked grin and boyish good looks exude enough floppy, crude charisma to deserve better roles, better scripts and better films. Julia Stiles is a poor man’s Renée Zellweger. Down to You is a yawn.

White Men Can’t Box, Either

After the power and impact of The Hurricane , it’s dismal to suffer through a boxing picture as dopey and dimwitted as Play It to the Bone , postponed from a year-end 1999 release for blatantly obvious reasons. Nothing of interest here–just quirky characters, unconvincing situations and dialogue that consists of little more than sparring practice between kidney punches.

Has-been pugilists played by Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas long for one last chance to redeem their disgraced careers when they hear the warm-up event for a Mike Tyson fight in Vegas is up for grabs after one contestant dies in a car crash and the other one freaks out on drugs. Most mugs would hop a plane. But this is a road movie, so they con a ride in a green Oldsmobile steered by their former girlfriend (Lolita Davidovich). She invents periscopes. I’m not making this up.

After what seems like an eternity during which Mr. Harrelson’s character, a tattooed Jesus freak, scribbles religious graffiti on toilet walls, and Mr. Banderas’ character, who once spent a year as a homosexual but got “cured,” says all the gag lines in Spanish, we finally get to the big match where Kevin Costner, Tony Curtis, Wesley Snipes and others too embarrassing to mention make cameo appearances at ringside while the two stars pulverize each other with fake ketchup. By this time, I was too bored to care who won.

The fight is as phony as the chuck wagon sing-along at Knott’s Berry Farm, and the film has no payoff, anyway. Trashily written and numbingly directed by Ron Shelton, who has better luck with baseball, Play It to the Bone has plenty of drugs, nudity and sex, but not enough to keep you awake.