What a pill Preview: Michele Lee, ardently playing Jacqueline Susann writer of such pop treasures as 'Valley of the Dolls,' can't quite drag 'Scandalous Me' over the top where it deserves to be.

December 09, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Jacqueline Susann led a life so deliciously over-the-top, it's a shame her TV bio doesn't follow suit.

Pretty much through sheer force of will, Susann made herself into, first, a Grade-B TV personality, and second, a best-selling author whose books were labeled pornographic back in the days when that really meant something. "Valley of the Dolls," "The Love Machine" and "Once Is Not Enough" all topped the best-seller lists, becoming pop-culture (some would argue that the more correct term is kitsch) classics that portrayed sex, booze and pills as staples of the American diet.

Tonight in "Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story," Michele Lee, who also serves as the film's executive producer, does her best to bring Susann back to life (she died of cancer in 1974). And much of the time, she exceeds, thanks to a shamelessly aggressive performance that no doubt would have set well with the real Jacqueline Susann, who glorified in her notoriety the same way male counterparts such as Truman Capote and Andy Warhol reveled in theirs.

The 56-year-old Lee first plays Susann as a twentysomething struggling to gain a toehold in television and do something to make her father proud, apparently confident doing the former will accomplish the latter. That Lee is able to play convincingly someone three decades younger than she is will no doubt give hope to fifty- somethings everywhere.

Her Susann is a tortured soul longing for only one thing: Fame (she claims it's respect, but we know better). And as Michele Gallery's script repeatedly reminds us, she would do almost anything to get it.

That includes, in one of tonight's most memorable scenes, making a fool of herself in front of Ethel Merman, convinced that becoming the legendary Broadway star's pal would prove her ticket to the top ("Too much booze and dope don't cut it with me," la Merman bellows). There's nothing subtle about the scene, or about Lee's performance, but hey that's at least half the fun.

And that's not the only excesses the fame-starved Jacqueline engages in. She sleeps with all manner of men, trades pills with her female friends the way young boys trade baseball cards (a theme that would achieve immortality in "Valley of the Dolls") and even briefly considers a little girl-girl lip-lock (easily the movie's most hoot-worthy moment -- thank goodness that third party walked in at just the right time!).

Unfortunately, "Scandalous Me" is not nearly as outrageous as Lee's performance; too often, rather than show us how outrageous Susann's life was, it tells us instead. It also tries to engage in dime-store psychology (Susann's whole life, it would seem, was about living up to daddy's expectations).

And the most fascinating aspect of Susann's life, the lengths to which she was willing to go to make her books a success, is given rather short shrift. A strategic plan that included identifying bookstores monitored by the New York Times and buying all the copies of her books they had in stock, not to mention getting her face in front of every camera within a 1,000-mile range, probably deserves a movie all its own.

If only "Scandalous me" was as energized as its star.

Not quite over the top

What: 'Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story'

When: 9-11 tonight

Where: USA cable channel

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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