Cleveland Free Times –
Wednesday, November 05, 2003
Retrovision : The Divine Miss C : Bette Midler is the Rose — Clooney, that is
By Keith A. Joseph
Photo: Courtesy of Ms. Barbara Sussman
BETTE MIDLER DOES NOT HAVE many admirers in the almost exclusively
heterosexual domain of jazz guardians. The only reference she rates in
Will Friedwald’s book Jazz Singing is as an “attitude-heavy harridan.”
That’s because the jazz boys have little tolerance for camp and will
brook no subversion in their divas. They expect them to fall into one of
two categories: the icy, preferably blonde, purveyors of ennui and regret (Peggy Lee) and the exquisitely tuned singing machines (Ella Fitzgerald).
Midler comes with no jazz pedigree. Never a band singer, never honed her
craft in smoky dives, never beaten by a hot-tempered trumpeter, no drug
busts, no breakdowns and no egomaniac driving her into the booby hatch.
Instead, she chose to control her own destiny. She started her career
playing one of Tevye’s daughters on Broadway and went on to spread gay
euphoria at the Continental Baths. She managed to make the Andrews
Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” a hit all over again when the rest of
the pop world was busy “Stayin’ Alive.”
Before the iron curtain of sexual mores collapsed, all show-biz dames
were divided between red-hot mama whores and virginal girls next door.
Midler took her cue from the former. She appropriated Sophie Tucker’s
vaudeville bawdiness and artfully blended it with Mae West’s ability to
satirize sex without seeming smutty. Vocally, she upgraded Lotte Lenya’s
defiant Teutonic growl into Americana. The secret of the Divine Miss M’s
success is that under all the ersatz raunch, you can sense the wink of a
shrewd Jewish bourgeois matron performing party tricks. She can silence
a heckler with “Shut your hole, honey — mine makes money” without
alienating the Kiwanis Club contingent.
Her career has been a roller coaster ride. In her concerts she essayed a
madcap mermaid. On screen she’s played everything from a coked-out rock
diva ( The Rose ) to a loquacious Jacqueline Susann ( Isn’t She Great ).
There was also a failed TV series and an attempt to climb Mt. Everest
when she played a gloriously sung but far too likable Madame Rose in a
TV version of Gypsy .
Now, reunited with her former musical mentor, Barry Manilow, she’s
focused her attention on another Rose. Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary
Clooney Songbook (Sony/Columbia) would strike a Retrovisionist as being
as perverse as Madonna doing an MTV tribute to Doris Day. Yet where
Madonna is like one of those Gypsy strippers eternally hunting for a
gimmick, Midler is an inspired artist trying to solve a riddle: How does
a professional floozy pay homage to one of the most wholesome singing
sweethearts of the 1950s? It’s a dizzying paradox. The most natural
model for the gravel-voiced, Hawaiian-born Jewish bombshell would be the
world-weary, post-nervous breakdown, zaftig Clooney of the ’70s.
Midler and Manilow, however, have focused on the novelty-singing,
ultra-sincere den mother of the Eisenhower years, when Clooney was Bing
Crosby’s earnest Yuletide consort, the Mitch Miller songbird who inspired
middle-aged bridge players to mambo, and club ladies to weep into their
The first thing the shrewd Barry and Bette do is to undo the mayhem of
Mitch Miller, Clooney’s maniacal Svengali, whom Friedwald characterizes
as “the genius par excellence of bad music.” The strategy of the album
entails achieving just the right balance of knowing when to spin kitsch
into camp, and when to revere Rosie.
Midler transforms Clooney’s hit “Come On-A My House” from a Cub Scout
bribe into early-’60s Lesley Gore bubblegum. “Mambo Italiano” is updated
into ’70s disco-lite, with which one can envision Midler livening up a
gay cotillion. Clooney and Crosby’s original duet of “On a Slow Boat to
China” was destroyed by Sy Oliver’s overly busy and hurried arrangement,
which annihilated Frank Loesser’s fine melody. The New Age remake of the
duet with Manilow is sexier and wiser; it sounds like a seductive vamp
kidding her gay best buddy with mock flirtation. Most importantly, the
song is simplified and the melody restored.
When it comes time for the more serious numbers, Midler reveals her
earth-mother side by rendering the plangent WWII ballad “You’ll Never
Know” in the past tense and turning it into an elegy to the recently
departed Clooney. “White Christmas,” sung with the rarely heard verse,
is as open-hearted and direct as Irving Berlin intended it.
Midler has pulled off a sly bit of retro subversion by creating an album
warm and nostalgic enough to delight the listeners of any geezer radio
station and also, naughtily enough, to please the irony queens at the
local piano bar.