BootLeg Betty

THE GAY DECADES Out of the closet and into the living room: nine episodes in the most dramatic cultural assimilation of our time.

An Excerpt from Frank Rich’s book in ESQUIRE MAGAZINE November, 1987

Editor’s Note: Just thought some would like to read the episode on Bette and her contribution to the gay culture….

Episode 2 – 1971: THE DIVINE MISS M For America to be made safe for androgyny, it had to be made safe for camp. “Camp is the triumph of the epicene style, “Susan Sontag wrote in her groundbreaking essay “Notes on ‘Camp'” in 1964. “Homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard – and the most articulate audience – of Camp.” The heterosexual majority was aware of this phenomenon, if only from observing the audience at urban revival moveie houses during certain double bills (WILD STRAWBERRIES and THE SEVENTH SEAL) or from attending Judy Garland’s ritualistic comeback concerts. (At one Garland performance near the sorry end of her life, the old fans, retired couples, parted from the vociferous contingent of young male couples as completely as if Moses had parted the Red Sea.) A Ronald Fairbank sensibility flowered, too, in the funny movies Paul Morrissey directed for Andy Warhol as the 1960s drew to a close – Pictures such as TRASH and HEAT, which acted out what Sontag called camp’s “relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerism” by celebrating the beefcake of Joe Dallesandro, the transvestism of Holly Woodlawn, the cliches of B-movie Hollywood. But half the time I couldn’t figure out who wanted to sleep with whom; the films’ sexual code was as arcane as the Maria Montez allusions in THE BOYS IN THE BAND. The phenomenon that finally made camp kosher was the most unlikely one imaginable – the rise to prominence of a cabaret singer performing in a gay bathhouse, Bette Midler, a onetime Broadway chorus actress, billed herself as “the Divine Miss M” – a campy Mae Westism – and identified herself as “the last of the real tacky ladies” and “everything you were afraid your little girl would grow up to be – and your little boy.” In other words, Midler advertised her female characteristics, starting with her overflowing breasts, in the exaggerated way a drag queen might. (“You’re gonna like this one ‘cuz I shake my tits a lot!” she’d say, by way of introducing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”) She wielded the epithet “Bitch!” with eyelash-batting, limp-wristed abandon – a woman imitating a gay man imitating a woman. She was epicene in a cartoonish way, like Jack Benny, not in a threatening, predatory way, like Crowley’s Emory. “In the Mood,” a song that might have epitomized noxious homosexuality if sung by the boys in the band, became Top Forty pay dirt in the brassy delivery of Miss M and her backup singers, the Harlettes. Aside from her considerable talent, what permitted Midler to move beyond her cult camp following to mass acceptance may have been her attitude of full disclosure; she let us in on the joke instead of making us the butt. The vengeful note of gay anger inherent in camp was further neutralized by the open-door policy of the venue where Midler appeared. “The Tubs,” as she called the Continental Baths (situated below the Ansonia Hotel in the West Seventies), was an undisguised pleasure dome for those who habituated it – slender young men wearing white towels while waiting to swim or to engage in some less visible activity. The Baths let in heterosexual couples on weekends – a brilliant stratagem assuring that a once subterranean environment could be conferred with cachet, not to mention media coverage, from New York’s opinion makers. One simply had to go there, and on the night I did, by which time only a Midler clone was offered for entertainment, the boys were the real main attraction: they didn’t bite, as I and my companion had feared in anticipation, but instead were an attractive advertisement for healthy, polite, and free sex. Their clinical sensual glow was alluring in the manner of early Scandinavian porno movies set in doctors’ offices – particularly if you didn’t try to imagine too explicitly what these men did in the areas off limits to those of us just there for the floor show. At the same time, I wondered what they thought about all these straight people – overdressed (we didn’t want to be mistaken for the regular clientele), staring and yet pretending not to – as we slummed in their private enclave. Maybe the homosexuals were better adjusted than we had thought, for they seem to have nothing, anatomically or spiritually, to hide. The proprietor of the Continental Baths exploited this line of reasoning, appearing on television to contrast the open, unhypocritical sexual activities at his establishment to the “dishonesty” of straight singles’ bars. In the context of the early 1970s sexual revolution, the gay bath was now a hip novelty, and its acceptability was enhanced by Midler’s stardom; her crossover appeal certified the cultural validity of a sexual ghetto much as Diana Ross’s had raised the white public’s consciousness of a racial ghetto. But unlike Ross, Midler didn’t change much as she expanded her audience. The performer one gets in RUTHLESS PEOPLE is still identifiable as the Divine Miss M, yet fifteen years later no one finds it necessary to remark on the derivation of her divinity. Her latest fans, indeed, may not even know whence she came.

Here’s the link to the whole article:: http://www.gaylib.com/text/rept11.htm

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