Friday, January 28, 2000
By Joshua Mooney
LOS ANGELES - In "Isn't She Great," a high-spirited comedy about infamous novelist Jacqueline Susann, David Hyde Pierce plays Michael, Susann's long-suffering editor. They make an unlikely team. Susann (played by Bette Midler) is boisterous, vulgar, ambitious, and groundbreaking. Michael is a proper, uptight, intellectual, and fairly neurotic WASP. He can't stand Susann's trashy writing, particularly her first novel, "Valley of the Dolls."
Pierce, 40, admits that the role of Michael is more than a little similar to the part that's made him famous: the neurotic psychiatrist Dr. Niles Crane on NBC's hit sitcom "Frasier."
"When I look for movie scripts, I look for things that are different," says Pierce. "I don't need to do the same part over and over again." But he found the screenplay for "Isn't She Great" remarkably smart and funny. was written by playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick, whose credits include "The Addams Family" and "In and Out." "It's very hard to find movie writing that's as good as we have on 'Frasier,"' Pierce notes.
The icing on the cake was the chance to work with John Cleese, who plays the flamboyant book publisher who gives Susann her big break. "Working with John was a huge draw for me," Pierce says of the legendary British comedian and Monty Python cofounder. "He's always been a hero of mine."
Add to that the chance to work with some of New York's finest theater talents, including Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing, and agreeing to the part of Michael was pretty much a no-brainer, Pierce says.
Cleese did not disappoint. "He was beyond my expectations," Pierce says. "He's a very smart man and we had a lot of fun. We were shooting the film up in Montreal and when we weren't working, we'd have lunch or go to museums together. John's a very thoughtful person and extremely funny - although like a lot of people who do it professionally, he doesn't spend a lot of his time in his private life getting laughs."
Pierce has been getting laughs for several years now on "Frasier," along with star Kelsey Grammer and the rest of the cast. The actor, who has won three Emmys for playing Niles, says he's happy to stay with the show and predicts "Frasier" has several years left. But someday the show will end, and Pierce is laying the groundwork for a career beyond the sitcom. In addition to his early Broadway successes, he's costarred in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" and "Sleepless in Seattle."
Pierce says the elements that attracted him to "Isn't She Great" are the same ones he hopes audiences will respond to. "You don't see a cast like this very often," he says, "and I think Jacqueline Susann's story is pretty amazing, and all the more amazing for being true."
Susann was a unique personality in 1960s America. A failed and aging actress, she coveted fame and fortune and had the moxie to continue forging ahead. With her manager Irving Mansfield (played by Lane), who was also her husband, Susann concocted a bold plan to write a potboiler that depicted the raunchy, bed-hopping, pill-popping backstage life of show business. The result, "Valley of the Dolls," was a scandalous book - and also one of the biggest bestsellers of all time, thanks largely to Susann's bold ideas for promotion.
In Pierce's opinion, Rudnick wrote the story of Susann's life the way she herself might have scripted it. The result is a giddy, freewheeling comedy that doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of Susann's life, including her battle with cancer. The film is loosely based on a New Yorker magazine article written by book editor Michael Korda, who worked with Susann on her second novel.
"Isn't She Great" freely mingles fact and fiction. "The essentials of her life and what happens to her is real," Pierce says. "My character is completely fictional. He isn't Michael Korda. He's more a stand-in for the entire publishing industry at the time."
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