BetteBack January 23, 2000: Lane finds groove in `Isn’t She Great’

Chicago Sun-Times
January 23, 2000 | CINDY PEARLMAN

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Isn’t he great?

Here’s Nathan Lane on how he can play the husband of Jacqueline Susann when he looks nothing like the real-life man: “I look as much like Irving Mansfield as Bette Midler looks like Jacqueline, OK? It’s a freaking movie!”

A miscast movie? “I don’t look anything like Irving. He looked like Norman Fell. I hope to God, I don’t look like Norman Fell.” In his suite at the Four Seasons, he springs up and places his mug inches from a mirror. “So far, so good. No signs of Norman!” he cries, throwing his hands in the air for joy.

So far, so funny. Holding court in his suite, Lane turns an interview into a stand-up comedy session. At times bitingly funny or stunningly sarcastic, the star of the new biopic on author Jacqueline Susann could write his own book called Valley of the Droll.

Listen as he describes why Midler lucked out getting the role of Susann: “Look, I wanted to play Jackie,” says Lane. “It’s a wonderful role. You get to be funny and wear flashy clothes. Plus you get to have a hospital scene where you almost croak. And frankly, what more could any actor ask for in a movie?

“Except a mouse,” he deadpans.

But more on his winter hit “Stuart Little” in a moment.

Lane is here to talk about “Isn’t She Great,” a biopic of the late Jacqueline Susann that opens Friday and co-stars John Cleese, David Hyde Pierce, Stockard Channing, John Larroquette and Sarah Jessica Parker.

“It’s funny, but in many ways this is a love story,” says Lane. “On one hand, it’s the story of how they made Valley of the Dolls into a best seller and how Jacqueline became a big, recognizable star,” Lane says. “But it’s also about this husband-and-wife team played by me and Bette. It’s about a man who loved his wife so much that he wanted her to be the star of the family. He wanted her to be famous. He was fiercely devoted to this woman, and I think the film will surprise people because it’s very touching.

“But the plus side is that we have all the good trashy show biz stuff, too.”

The movie shows how a driven Susann would stop at nothing to get her book written. It shows the pettiness of other luminaries, such as Truman Capote, who once described Susann’s flamboyant fashion sense in a few words: “She looks like a Mack truck hit her.”

“Irving is a real go-getter himself. He fancied himself a mover and a shaker in the business. He’s running around and trying to sign other artists. At one point, he has no clue who Jim Morrison even is, but he tries to recruit him. Morrison has this look on his face like, `Get him far, far away from me.’ ”

The feature film is screenwriter Paul Rudnick’s take on Susann. It’s also based on the biography Lovely Me: The Life of Jacqueline Susann by Barbara Seaman.

Lane researched the role. “I watched old Dinah Shore shows. I watched old episodes of `The Tonight Show’ to see the real Jackie. I read the book Valley of the Dolls. I think their story as a couple is an us-against-the-world deal. And these two had the guts and determination to really make themselves into something.”

Will the movie make it at the box office? Lane says he is worried about the film’s appeal. There hasn’t been a big marketing push. Midler isn’t even hyping it.

“Obviously, it’s not a film about 19-year-olds, so I don’t know how well it will do,” he says. “It certainly is very smart and funny, which we know doesn’t always sell these days. And that’s very sad.”

Lane knows all about sad. Reared in Jersey City, N.J., he had a tough childhood. “We were a pretty dysfunctional family,” he says. His father was an alcoholic who died when Lane was 11: “He essentially drank himself to death.”

Lane’s mother had to work several jobs to support Lane and his three brothers. Meanwhile, Lane became an unpopular, overweight boy at school who lost himself in the arts. As a teen, he would sneak away to City with his older brother to see plays.

Lane skipped college to try his hand at acting. At age 18, he was already living in a cramped New York apartment with “about 10,000 other struggling actors. Rent was very cheap. We each paid $1 a month.”

To make money, Lane delivered singing telegrams. His show biz break was a short-lived TV series with Mickey Rooney called “One of the Boys.” It also starred Meg Ryan and Dana Carvey.

But real success came on Broadway, where he has received rave reviews for shows including “Guys and Dolls,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

“Of course in Hollywood, theater on the entertainment food chain falls somewhere between folk dancing and accordion playing,” Lane says. “They don’t take it very seriously.” His film work includes playing the voice of Timon in “The Lion King” (1994), plus movies including “Addams Family Values” (1991), “Frankie & Johnny” (1991) and “The Birdcage” (1996).

His recent TV series “Encore” was canceled after one season. “I don’t even own a TV,” he says. “But I don’t want to sound too elitist. Just write: `He has a little kitchen TV, but he never turns it on.’ ”

Lane prefers to work in films, but he says getting cast in big movies is rough. “They talk to you and say, `You’re really right for this and we loved when you played George (Jason Alexander) on `Seinfeld.’ Maybe you could get Jerry to be in this movie, too.’ I’m like, `Sorry, not that guy.’ ”

Other fans are rougher. “Mothers will say, `Look, honey, it’s Timon from “The Lion King.” ‘ One kid actually did look at me in disgust and say, `He’s not Timon. He’s just some fat, old guy.’ ”

He did the Christmas megahit “Stuart Little” because the book was his favorite as a child. Did the aspiring actor ever think, “Someday, I’ll be Snowbell”?

“How could I even think that way? It’s too big a dream,” Lane says with a sigh.

Other dreams remain in the background, too. Would he ever host the Oscars? “They’ve never asked me,” Lane says. “Would I do it? I don’t know. Billy would be a tough act to follow.

“It’s also not the warmest audience,” he says. “My good friend Robin Williams once told me, `I’ve never died like that in my life the way I did on the Oscar stage,’ ” Lane says. “That makes me nervous. All I can think now is that I’ll be up there and Gregory Peck will be looking at me like, `You’re not going to talk about your private parts are you? Because you’re really not funny, little man.’ ”

He is funny in this spring’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” directed by Kenneth Branagh. It’s the musical version of the Shakespeare classic with songs by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. “We’re singing and dancing and doing the Bard,” Lane says. “I play the clown character. He’s a vaudevillian who is down on his luck. He walks around with this little suitcase of rubber chickens.”

Lane also will go back to Broadway soon in “Wiseguys,” with Victor Garber. He hopes “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes will helm it. Lane is also considering a sequel to “The Birdcage,” or a “Stuart” sequel.

“I would like Stuart to fall in love in the next installment, but we do have to face facts. How many four-inch women are there out there?” he asks. “Then again, who knows? It’s just a freaking movie!”

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