Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
Perhaps it's appropriate that Jacqueline Susann's biopic has been written by Paul Rudnick, whose alter ego, "Libby Gelman-Waxner," waxes witty and bitchy in her Premiere magazine column every month. It was Truman Capote who said on a talk show that Jackie Susann "looks like a truck driver in drag," but whenever that image swims into view, it somehow seems to have the Gelman-Waxner byline attached.
Susann became famous writing potboilers about the sex and drug lives of the stars. Identifying the real-life models for her thinly veiled characters grew into a parlor game, and her Valley of the Dolls became the best-selling novel of its time. She also became famous for revolutionizing book retailing; Susann and her agent husband, Irving Mansfield, turned the book tour into a whistle-stop of America, and there was scarcely a bookseller, interviewer or indeed shipping dock worker who didn't get the Susann treatment.
So tireless was her publicity that she even talked to me, at a time when I was 23 years old and had been on the Sun-Times for 10 minutes. Jackie, Irving and I had lunch at Eli's the Place for Steak, although all I can recall of the conversation is that she said, "I'm like Will Rogers. I never met a dog I didn't like." Full disclosure: Three years later, I wrote the screenplay for the parody "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," and a few years after that, the Fox studio was sued by Mansfield on the grounds that the film diminished his wife's literary reputation. (Had I been called to testify, I would have expressed quiet pride in whatever small part I had played in that process.) Susann's life would seem to be the perfect target for the Libby Gelman-Waxner sensibility; who better to write about the woman whose prose one reader described as "like overhearing a conversation in the ladies' room." My hopes soared when I learned that Andrew Bergman, who made the wacky comedies "Honeymoon in Vegas" and "The Freshman," would be directing--and that John Cleese would play her publisher. I was hoping for satire, but they've made a flat and peculiar film that in its visual look and dramatic style might be described as the final movie of the 1950s.
Maybe that was the purpose. Maybe the whole look, feel and sensibility of "Isn't She Great" is part of the joke. It's a movie that seems to possess the same color scheme and style sense as Valley of the Dolls, but, alas, without Jackie's dirty mind. So devout is this story that when Irving (Nathan Lane) walks out on Jackie (Bette Midler), we don't even find out why he really left. Jackie would have given us the scoopola.