"You have to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dollsit's a brutal climb to reach that peak." Those who remember that camp-epic line from the 1967 adaptation of her infamous bestseller will anticipate how author Jacqueline Susann (Bette Midler) faces considerable obstacles-like her desperate heroines-in her quest for stardom. Before Dolls scandalizes publishing with its coarse prose and crudely-drawn characters, she endures a failed acting career, delivers an autistic son, and is diagnosed with breast cancer. This engaging biopic glosses over none of those gory details.
ISN'T SHE GREAT
directed by Andrew Bergman
with Bette Midler, Nathan Lane, and Stockard Channing
opens January 28 at City Center, other theaters
What saves the novelist from the sordid fate of Dolls protagonist Neely O'Hara is the loyalty of those surrounding her, particularly husband/publicist Irving Mansfield. Though nicely matched with his leading lady, Nathan Lane comes up a bit short in this pivotal role; the big screen curtails the exuberance of his Broadway performances (Guys and Dolls). Midler's real foil comes courtesy of her persnickety blueblood editor, portrayed with irritating precision by Frasier's David Hyde Pierce. Burt Bacharach's mawkish score adds little to the ambiance (the new Dionne Warwick ditty "I'm On My Way" excepted), but if Julie Weiss' eye-popping costumes don't garner an Oscar nomination, it's because she blinded the judges.
Ultimately, star and script drive Isn't She Great. After watching Midler peddle family-fare for so long, it's refreshing to hear the brassy entertainer call somebody "cocksucker" with gusto. Although it's impossible to divorce the actress from her ingratiating character, the two dovetail neatly into an over-the-top, neurotic whole, and she displays surprising restraint in the multiple-hanky moments. Writer Paul Rudnick (In & Out) has crafted a batch of incisive, bitchy jokes skewing "aging stars, hopeful hookers, and cheap studs" for his knowing cast of showbiz vets (including an underutilized Stockard Channing), while director Andrew Bergman (Honeymoon in Vegas) mercifully spares their delivery from the ham-fisted pacing of most Hollywood comedies.