Isn't She Great

USA/Germany/UK 1999

Reviewed by Charles Taylor


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Manhattan, the late 50s. Jacqueline Susann is a determined but untalented actress trying to make it in New York. Irving Mansfield sees her on stage and is immediately smitten. He proposes to become her agent and her husband; Jackie accepts both offers. Despite Irving's belief in her talents, she still struggles as an actress. Deciding that his wife will have a better future as a writer, Irving persuades Jackie to write a novel based on the scandalous show-business stories she's heard over the years. The result, Valley of the Dolls, becomes a smash despite the derision of the literary world.

Meanwhile Jackie gives birth to a severely autistic son and is diagnosed with breast cancer. She prays for more time to prove that the success of Valley wasn't a fluke and lives just long enough to see her next two books follow it to the top of the best-seller list.


How many movies deal with happy marriages? Clumsy in execution but very sharp in its understanding of its subject, Isn't She Great uses the lifestory of trash novelist par excellence Jacqueline Susann as material for a comedy of happily devoted married life. The title itself was the oft-repeated phrase of Susann's adoring husband and manager Irving Mansfield. Director Andrew Bergman (Honeymoon in Vegas) and screenwriter Paul Rudnick rely on Bette Midler to convey the self-promoting brassiness that made Susann's persona as big a hit as her books. But the heart of their movie lies in the contented rapture that emanates from the eyes of Nathan Lane's Irving whenever he gazes at his wife.

Isn't She Great starts badly. As Jackie shuttles from commercials to game-show panels trying to make her mark, Bergman's staging is both broad and imprecise. But as soon as Jackie starts writing Valley of the Dolls the movie's canniness smoothes out all the unevenness.

Valley of the Dolls, Susann's novel inspired by the scandals she'd heard about true-life celebrities, was a massive hit when first published and Rudnick views the public's appetite for the book and the literati's contempt for it as a classic battle between the vulgar vitality of pop culture and the stifling propriety of approved culture. The latter is represented by David Hyde Pierce (from television's Frasier and one of the most gifted farceurs around) as the preppy editor Hastings assigned to whip Jackie's manuscript into shape. The winner in this rivalry is never in doubt. From the moment this Wasp finds himself lunching with these two garrulous New York Jews, he doesn't stand a chance. Rudnick and Bergman do a nifty job of foreshadowing just how strongly the public will capitulate to Susann when Hyde Pierce's character takes Jackie and Irving to his family's Connecticut house. ("Ya got slaves?" Jackie asks when she takes a gander at the sprawling country home.) In no time at all, the editor's prim Yankee grandmother and businessman father have fallen for Jackie and devoured her manuscript. The film-makers bring the friendship between the author and her editor to a satisfying close with one lovely detail: when he visits the dying Jackie, Hastings has abandoned his Brooks Brothers suits for suitably modern attire.

Roundly panned when it opened in America, Isn't She Great is nonetheless raucously funny and good-natured. Indeed, there's something ironic about the dismissive treatment the film received from 'serious' critics on its US release: vividly embodied by Midler, Susann epitomises the brash pop energy that attracts us to the movies in the first place. And like the lush melodramas of George Cukor and Douglas Sirk, sniffed at by critics on their first release, now given serious consideration, her novels get their emotional resonance from focusing on the disappointments in the lives of women in the pre-feminist era.

Rudnick's script avoids juicier titbits like Jackie's reputed bisexuality. He's dead on, though, about the mixture of narcissism and generosity that fuelled her self-promotion. (Her determination to hide the facts of her son's autism and her cancer are the exact opposite of the way celebrity tragedy is now used as PR capital.) Midler's performance is an astute combination of warmth and monstrousness. But it's Lane who nearly makes off with the film. From voicing the cat in Stuart Little to his baggy-pants brio in Love's Labour's Lost, Lane has one of the movies' most dependable and delightful comic presences. He's never been as touching as he is here. Even instructing a bus full of schoolchildren to ask for Valley of the Dolls for Christmas ("It's better than milk!") everything he does is in service of Jackie. Lane does more with his eyebrows than most actors do with their entire faces. They arch together to express sudden scepticism, or, in blissful adoration, form a steeple over his lovestruck expression. Lane's Irving is a man buoyed by love, and the actor's roly-poly frame takes on a swain's lightness. Isn't She Great is as much Irving's fairy tale as Jackie's. He's the putz who became a prince.


Andrew Bergman
Mike Lobell
Paul Rudnick
Based on the article Wasn't She Great by Michael Korda
Director of Photography
Karl Walter Lindenlaub
Barry Malkin
Production Designer
Stuart Wurtzel
Burt Bacharach
©Universal Studios
Production Companies
Universal Pictures and Mutual Film Company present a Lobell/Bergman production
Produced in association with Tele-München, BBC/Marubeni/Toho-Towa
Executive Producers
Ted Kurdyla
Gary Levinsohn
Mark Gordon
Associate Producer
Cathy Schulman
Production Supervisor
Judy Richter
Production Co-ordinators
Marie Quesnel
NY Unit:
Lois Otto
Production Manager
Micheline Garant
Unit Production Managers
John A. Machione
Ted Kurdyla
Unit Managers
Stéphane Fréchette
Esther Lacaille
NY Unit:
Troy Thomas
Location Managers
Catherine Dawe
Ken Korrall
NY Unit:
Dana Robin
Post-production Supervisor
JoAnn M. Laub
2nd Unit Director
Ted Kurdyla
Assistant Directors
Glen Trotiner
Dean Garvin
Pierre Brassard
Michelle Benoît
Matt Jemus
NY Unit:
Andy Muller
John A. Machione
Script Supervisor
Mary Gambardella
Kathleen Chopin
John Lyons
Elite Productions
Rosina Bucci
2nd Unit Directors of Photography
Karl Walter Lindenlaub
Geoff Erb
Louis Deernsted
Camera Operators
Colin Anderson
NY Unit:
Dave Knox
Steadicam Operator
Colin Anderson
Digital Visual Effects
Balsmeyer & Everett, Inc
Visual Effects Supervisor
Randall Balsmeyer
Special Effects
Steve Kirshoff
Graphic Artist
Isabelle Coté
Art Directors
Raymond Dupuis
NY Unit:
Ray Kluga
Key Set Decorator
Frances Calder
Set Decorators
Susan Macquarrie
Amy Burt
NY Unit:
George DeTitta Jr
Costume Designer
Julie Weiss
Wardrobe Supervisors
Melissa Adzima-Stanton
Tom Stokes
Wardrobe Mistress
Lyse Pomerleau
Laurent Sevigny
Key Make-up Artist
Linda DeVetta
Make-up Artists
Michele Paris Cantanzarite
Annick Chartier
NY Unit, Additional:
Steve Lawrence
Key Hair Designs
Alan D'Angerio
Hair Stylists
Francesca Paris
Réjean Forget
NY Unit, Additional:
Verne Caruso
Nathan Busch
Titles Design/Production
Balsmeyer & Everett, Inc
The Effects House
Cineric Inc
Jim Walker
Earle Dumler
Alto Sax:
Tom Scott
Dan Higgins
Tenor Sax:
Gary Foster
Gary Grant
Concert Master:
Bruce Dukov
Dean Parks
Rick Riccio
Tommy Morgan
Rick Giovinazzo
Music Supervisor
Gary Jones
Music Editor
Todd Kasow
Scoring Mixer
Tim Boyle
"I'm on MyWay" - Dionne Warwick; "Open Your Heart" - Vanessa Williams; "Hush" - Deep Purple; Johnny's Theme" - Doc Severinsen & His Orchestra; "Roller Coaster" - Henri Rene; Franz Schubert's "String Trio in B Flat, D 581 Rondo (Allegretto) - Grumiaux Trio; "Poeme" - Lawrence Welk and His Orchestra; "Here We Go Again" - The Glenn Miller Orchestra; "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" - James Brown; "I Got You (I Feel Good)", "Ain't That a Groove" - James Brown; "This Could Be the Start of Something Big"; "Happy Birthday to You"
Adam Shankman
Sound Mixers
Don Cohen
NY Unit:
Tom Nelson
Re-recording Mixers
Michael Barry
Lee Dichter
Todd Kasow
Supervising Sound Editor
Paul P. Soucek
Sound Editors
Warren Shaw
William Sweeney
Dialogue Editor
Dan Korintus
Sound Effects Editor
Michael W. Mitchell
Loop Group:
Recording Engineers:
David Bolton
Bob Baron
Deborah Wallach
Harriet Fidlow Winn
Brian Vancho
Recording Engineer:
George Lara
Steven Visscher
Stunt Co-ordinators
Minor Mustain
Benoît Gauthier
Animal Trainer
Birds and Animals Unlimited
Film Extract
Valley of the Dolls (1967)
Bette Midler
Jacqueline Susann
Nathan Lane
Irving Mansfield
David Hyde Pierce
Michael Hastings
Stockard Channing
Florence Maybelle
John Cleese
Henry Marcus
John Larroquette
Maury Manning
Amanda Peet
Terrence Ross
radio actor
Jeffrey Ross
Christopher MacDonald
Brad Bradburn
Paul Benedict
Professor Brainiac
Dina Spybey
Bambi Madison
Pauline Little
Leslie Barnett
William Hill
Mal Z. Lawrence
Adam Heller
Ellen David
Daniel Ziskie
Guy's doctor
Anna Lobell
David Costabile
junior editor
Brett Gillen
man with bicycle
Olga Merediz
Mrs Ramirez
Jacklin Webb
Clebert Ford
Dick Henley
Sonia Benezra
Richard Litt
Maurice Carlton
orderly 1
Edward B. Goldstein
Eddie in Lindy's
Larry Block
Jack Eagle
Le Clanché du Rand
Lissy Hastings
Elizabeth Lawrence
Mimsy Hastings
Helen Stenborg
Aunt Abigail
John Cunningham
Nelson Hastings
Charles Doucet
John Moore
news anchor
Richard McConomy
Harry Gladrey
Lisa Bronwyn Moore
Irma Gladrey
Steven McCarthy
Book Nook clerk
James Villemaire
Jim Morrison
Karyn Quackenbush
TV cook
Sam Street
Truman Capote
Peter Blaikie
Sheena Larkin
Frank Vincent
Aristotle Onassis
David Lawrence
Steve Lawrence
Debbie Gravitte
Eydie Gorme
Mickey Toft
Guy at 6
Ricky Mabe
Guy at 14
Robin Andrew Wilcock
stage murderer
Jude Beny
sceptical housewife
Jean-Guy Bouchard
wolf whistle teamster
Carl Alacchi
orderly 2
Rebekah Mintzer
young Jackie
Sarah Jessica Parker
Tira Gropman
Jason Fuchs
United International Pictures (UK) Ltd
8,578 feet
95 minutes 19 seconds
Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011