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Jewish Journal

Paul Rudnick’s “Great” Take on Jacqueline Susann

by Naomi Pfefferman

January 20, 2000 | 7:00 pm

If the 1960s marked the start of today's cult of celebrity, Jacqueline Susann was its high priestess, says writer Paul Rudnick. "Jackie wanted to be famous at something, and she didn't care what," says Rudnick, who has written the screenplay for "Isn't She Great," the Andrew Bergman comedy-drama loosely based on the life of the late Susann. "Jackie tried acting, product-pitching, talk shows. She did everything before becoming a novelist, which was just what happened to work."

Susann, who in the film is portrayed by Bette Midler, was the Jewish author who turned the staid publishing world on its ear with her hugely-successful, trashy, sexy potboilers, "Valley of the Dolls," "The Love Machine" and "Once is Not Enough." Before attempting her first novel on her hot-pink typewriter, the fortysomething Susann, as played by Midler, says she knows about "aging stars, hopeful hookers and people popping pills and winding up in the gutter... And nobody writes books about that."

Susann, however, did write books about that; gritty tomes peopled by drugged-out, back-stabbing starlets determined to claw their way to the top. Susann, with her spiky false eyelashes, garish, glittering Pucci outfits and gravelly voice, also clawed her way to the top: The woman who believed "Talent isn't everything" hit the road to promote herself with booksellers and on TV talk shows.

Along the way, she forever changed the way books are promoted, and paved the way for other blockbuster, best-selling authors. Without Susann, Rudnick says, there would have been no Judith Krantz, no Jackie Collins or John Grisham.

And, Rudnick says, Susann also helped to make inroads for Jewish authors in the book biz. In the '60s, the literary world consisted of well-educated, Ivy League WASPs and Jews; the Jews, often, hoping to pass as WASPs. Thus there was perhaps some anti-Semitism in the response to Jackie; a feeling that she was "too brash, too colorful, too Jewish," Rudnick says. But if publishing was not a Jewish milieu, Jackie helped "to explode the barriers," he adds. "She turned herself into a brand name, a commodity. She didn't need the critics. She was like Coca-Cola in a hardcover."

Rudnick remembers Susann and her big hair from her talk show appearances in the '60s and early '70s. Like Jackie, the aspiring writer yearned for a glittering showbiz world far from his Jewish family home in suburban New Jersey. "I remember being hugely entertained by Jackie," Rudnick says. "You could always count on her to say something raunchy and outrageous and terrific."

"Valley of the Dolls," he recalls, was the first "forbidden" book to grace his Piscataway, NJ neighborhood, though his parents worried more about Philip Roth than Jacqueline Susann. "They had a distinct nervousness about 'Portnoy's Complaint,'" Rudnick quips, "a book they thought might not be so good for the Jews."

The openly-gay, aspiring writer, now 42, attended Yale and moved to New York, where he made a career of deliberately raising eyebrows. Not unlike Susann, he gleefully pushed the limits of good taste, in his case with an impudent, subversive wit, turning out irreverent romps on his IBM Selectric typewriter (gray, not pink).

There was the 1991 Broadway comedy "I Hate Hamlet," for those who secretly think the classics can be "a big bloody bore;" the hit play, "Jeffrey," an AIDS comedy; the screenplay for "Addams Family Values;" the off-Broadway biblical spoof "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told," featuring first couple Adam and Steve. Rudnick still writes Premiere magazine columns that poke fun at "high art," under the pseudonym of yenta film critic Libby Gelman-Waxner.

His last screenplay, "In & Out," about a Midwestern teacher forced to confront the possibility that he is gay, shares something with "Isn't She Great," he says. "It's an attempt to find comedy in a very high stakes, potentially tragic situation," the writer explains.

After all, Susann, as Rudnick discovered in the New Yorker memoir that spurred "Isn't She Great," endured more than her share of tragedy. She had a severely autistic son who was institutionalized since age 4, and she battled breast cancer at the peak of her success.

Susann fastidiously hid these unglamorous aspects of her life, fearing they would hurt book sales. For similar reasons she hid her Jewishness, during a time when to be Jewish was to feel unwelcome in America, Rudnick says.

Her Jewish father, however, remained her idol; he was a devastatingly handsome society portrait painter whom Susann once caught in bed with one of his models. The flashy womanizer was, apparently, the model for many of Susann's cruel, sexy heroes.

Rudnick, who quips that Libby Gelman-Waxner "absolutely adores Jackie," has a theory about why Susann is enjoying a cult revival, especially in the gay drag world. "Jackie was someone with a certain outsider's status who became a great, flaming diva," Rudnick says. "What's not to like?"

"Isn't She Great" opens Jan. 28 in Los Angeles.

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