That Old Feeling: Best Bette Yet
Richard Corliss cheers the Divine Miss Midler on her latest concert tour
She’s nearly done it all, with a ripe and majestic flair, but there are three things Bette Midler hasn’t tried and would surely bring off superbly:
1. A starring role in a Broadway musical. Nearly 40 years ago she worked her way up from the chorus to a daughter role in “Fiddler on the Roof.” She put her “Clams on the Half Shell” revue in a Broadway house in 1975, and was pretty sensaysh playing Mama Rose in a TV “Gypsy.” But the most theatrical singer-actress of her or possibly any day has never hung her name over a book show on the Great Great Way. It’s time, past time — for Broadway’s sake, if not for hers.
2. A TV talk-and-variety show. Could the woman who repackaged star quality for the post-Vietnam age do what any successful talk show host has to: pretend to listen to other people while thinking up witty ripostes? I don’t know. The 5ft.1in. diva may be too big for the small screen, and end up with ego on her face, as she did in her short-lived prime-time TV sitcom. But remember that Bette found her first fame back in 1970 swapping double entendres with Johnny Carson, and on his last show in 1992 sent him off moist and grateful with a tweaked rendition of “You Made Me Love You.” Besides, for the chance to see Midler five hours a week, it’s worth trying.
3. Hosting the Oscars. She’s got the pizzazz to light up a long dull night. She’s got more Oscar nominations (two) than Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, David Letterman. Chevy Chase, Johnny Carson and Bob Hope put together. (Two more, in fact. Also two Golden Globe awards in 1980, for Female Newcomer and Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. Said the busty, mouthy star on receiving them: “I’ll show you a pair of Golden Globes!”) And if Bruce Vilanch, her longtime gag-writer, is to dream up annual song parodies for a veteran showbiz tummeler who’s determined to go topless, why should that old-timer be Crystal?
Midler has made a greater success of movies (patches of hits and flops amid a strong career, from “The Rose” 25 years ago to “The Stepford Wives,” due out this year) and marriage (happily wed for 20 years to Martin von Haselberg) than she or her fans thought likely. ”She has everything she ever wanted,” Vilanch told Elaine Dutka for the Midler TIME cover story I wrote back in 1987, ”things she didn’t even realize she wanted and didn’t set out to get.” But movies have rarely harnessed her supernal energy, and a happy marriage — hell, even I have that.
No, thank you. Bette (rhymes with pet, sweat, coquette and martinet but never regret) is a full-service entertainer. She would deserve her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — which, she has said, is “under a fire hydrant” — simply for her walk: the not-quite-ladylike mince, the executive sweep, the strumpet’s strut. In the 1987 movie “Big Business,” where she plays two roles, she lopes easily from City Sadie, the bitch goddess who spits out orders to her lab scientists (“Get tougher rats!”), to Country Sadie, struggling with her press-on nails (“I guess I should’ve pressed harder”) and giddy with her first sip of high life in a Plaza bathroom (“Cute little soaps in the shape of swans! Could you die!”). As a movie star, even in this efficient little comedy, Bette is heaven in high heels.
On any stage, which she fills, no matter how huge, her walk is more impressive. In her 1993 Radio City Music Hall concert series she was poetry in perpetual motion, from her prompt entrance at 8:10 (royalty is always punctual) to her exhausted departure just before 11. She must have covered about 10 miles a night in the mincing steps she took across the Music Hall expanse. Playing the tacky chanteuse Delores DeLago in mermaid fin and motorized wheelchair, she raced around like a Betty Andretti. She went supine on the stage, as if it were her analyst’s couch, then busily buffed the floor with her derriere. If there’d have been windows in this grand Art Deco auditorium, she’d have done them.
Bette does more than walk the walk; she talks the talk, and sings the freakin’ songs. That means she’s best seen on the concert stage or heard on records, as we used to call them back in 1972, when she released her first album. Her latest, a tribute to Rosemary Clooney (that’s odd!), came out last year. And now she’s toward the end of a four-month nation-wide concert run, the Kiss My Brass Tour, which concludes this Saturday in Atlantic City. So let’s do a little retrospective of Bette’s greatest hits — the albums, the shows — in tribute to the singer-comedienne who’s given me more soaring pleasure than anyone in showbiz over the past three decades plus.
PUTTING THE SHOW BACK IN SHOWBIZ
The lady knows how to make an entrance. On New Year’s Eve, 1972, she was borne onstage at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center in a sedan chair with the drapes closed, one leg peeking through to salute the audience; at midnight she returned in a diaper as Baby 1973. She has emerged from a giant mollusk in a Polynesian bikini; walked on in a knee-length frankfurter costume, mustard streaked down her front; raced across the proscenium in a mermaid’s spangled fin and a motorized wheelchair; wowed crowds with her renowned mammary-balloon ballet.
At the dawn of her solo career 15 years ago, Bette declared her intention to become a “legend.” She made good on the boast with a song-and-comedy act that elicited raucous laughs and heaving sobs on both sides of the footlights. Midler’s raunch — delivered with a great guileless smile, and a wonderfully perky diction that bleaches out the blue — made her famous as the Divine Miss M, a creature she once described as embodying “everything you were afraid your little girl would grow up to be. And your little boy.” She was the Callas of Camp, peppering her program with jokes in the bawdy spirit and booming voice of Sophie Tucker.
For the uninitiated, here are three Soph’ jokes (and did I mention that this column is R-rated?): “I was in bed one night with m’ boyfriend Ernie. He said to me, ‘Soph’, how come you never tell me when you havin’ an orgasm?’ I said to him, ‘Ernie, you’re never around!’” A second: “I was on a honeymoon with m’ boyfriend Ernie. Suddenly, I cut the cheese. Ernie said, ‘Soph, did you just fart?’ I said, ‘Of course I did — d’ya think I always smell like this?’” And finally: “I’ll never forget it, y’ know. Doorbell rang the other day. Answered the door, there was a delivery boy there, delivery boy there with two dozen roses. I grabbed the card. Opened it. Said: ‘Love from your boyfriend Ernie.’ I was havin’ tea with my girlfriend Clementine at the time. I said, ‘Clementine, y’ know what this means? For the next two weeks I’m gonna be flat on m’ back with m’ legs wide open.’ Clementine says to me, ‘What’s the matter with you — ain’t you got a vase?’”
As chanteuse or burlesque comic, in concerts or movies, Midler has put her body to nonstop work. Harnessing the energy of some Rube Goldberg perpetual-motion machine, prancing on those fine filly legs like the winner of the strumpet’s marathon, Bette uses her body as an inexhaustible source of sight gags. She shimmies it, twists it, upends it to reveal polka-dot bloomers. In 1978 at the London Palladium she flashed the front of it; at Harvard in 1976, picking up her Hasty Pudding Award as Woman of the Year, she exposed her sugary buns. She has made a cottage industry of her buxom bosom. In the 1985 album “Mud Will Be Flung Tonight,” she confesses that she once consulted a postage scale to determine just how heavy her breasts were, and “I won’t tell you how much they weigh, but it cost $87.50 to send ‘em to Brazil. Third class.”
“Mud” has many such gleaming zircons, written by Midler, Vilanch, Jerry Blatt, Marc Shaiman and lots of other men who find in her the perfect blend of femininity and moth-flapping disrespect. (She pays tribute to them by saying, “More Hebrews worked on this act than built the pyramids.”) In that show she spat out gags about the newly-hot Madonna (“Like a virgin? The only thing that girl will ever do like a virgin is have a baby in a stable. By an unknown father”), the androgynous rock star Prince (“When there’s a sex symbol, I like to know the sex of the symbol”), the California fad for internal spritzing (“Do you ever read the L.A. Weekly? Do you ever notice how many ads for high colonics they have? Is this town that full of shit?”). She played with herself too, so to speak. Of her own newlywed status, she observed: “I married a Kraut. Every night I dress up like Poland and he invades me.”
Bette’s jokes fulfill the tradition of the defiant female wit, alive with innuendo, that stretches from the Wife of Bath to Belle Barth. They also tend to obscure Midler’s unique talent: a 5-ft. 1-in. Statue of Libido carrying a torch with a blue flame. Her phrasings have always been as witty as Streisand’s, her dredgings of a tormented soul as profound as Aretha’s, her range wider than all comers’. Yes, she coos bedroom ballads like “Long John Blues”; sure, her charts tease five decades of popular music with the wink of parody. But her laser-precise technique is no counterfeit of feeling. It is the art of the Method singer, who approaches a song as an actor does his text: finding the heft of a melodic line, trolling for the truth in a lyric, daring to shift emotional gears without stripping them. She is a demon explorer, possessed by music.
She hit New York fresh from Hawaii, where she was born and grew up, and where her showbiz-loving mother named her for Bette Davis (her two sisters were named for Judy Garland and Susan Hayward). Right away she met Tom Eyen, author of such plays as “Sarah B. Divine!” and “Who Killed My Bald Sister Sophie?”, and started working for him, soon graduating to dizzy-bimbo leads. From Eyen she learned about camp. From the East Village soubrette Black-Eyed Susan, a frequent player in Charles Ludlam’s triple-off-Broadway travesties, she picked up the retro-chic 30s look. She bought an old velvet dress and coat and started singing songs from the period.
Every spare moment back then, she would study records of Bessie Smith, Ruth Etting, Libby Holman and Aretha Franklin, the adored elder sisters of Bette’s vocal style. She also learned a lot from the Andrews Sisters (whose “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” was an early and then a signature hit for Bette) and the jazz vocalists Lambert, Hendricks & Ross; she covered their “Twisted” — a beautifully nutsy reading of the couplet “He said I was the type that was most inclined / When out of his sight to be out of my mind” — and evoked the trio’s scat-hipster style in her version of “In the Mood.”
Approaching a song in those early days, Bette would often flatten the lyric line, whether doing a Hoagy Carmichael standard (“Skylark”), a Harry Warren movie song (“Lullaby of Broadway”) or a Bob Dylan anthem (“I Shall Be Released”). She was emphasizing the actress in singer-actress, and her need to set a song’s dramatic mood led her into interesting excesses. In the Brecht-Weill “Surabaya Johnny,” she’s young playing old — a brilliant schoolgirl auditioning for a tough part she is not yet suited for. Today, on her concert tour, Midler is old playing young, and somehow she does it much more persuasively.
What worked, musically and vox-poply, were the uptempo covers of songs from the 40s, 50s and 60s — “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Do You Wanna Dance,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” all hits — that helped make her 1972 debut LP, “The Divine Miss M,” produced by Barry Manilow, sell three million copies in its first year. For the rest of the 70s she was a chart-topper, or chart-dweller. My favorite album is the 1975 semi-flop “Songs for the New Depression,” with “Shiver Me Timbers,” the samba “Marahuana,” the lovely harmonies on “No Jestering” and “Samedi et vendredi” and a kicky duet with Bob Dylan on his “Buckets of Rain,” a twist of Tom Paxton’s “Bottle of Wine” into a good-timey rocker that ends with Dylan’s ad-lib grouse, “Paul Simon should’ve done this.”
As she matured vocally, Midler got less campy, less melodramatic. Now she was closer to the material, orchestrating her vocal versatility and preternatural empathy to slip inside the spirit of each song. She could go seductively nasal for “E Street Shuffle,” demure in a perfect channeling of Patti Page for “Old Cape Cod,” brassy and clinging for her evocations of the low-biz songstresses Vicki Eydie and Dolores DeLago.
Her most powerful number, “Stay with Me” (best heard on the sound-track album of her 1980 concert film, “Divine Madness”), is the plea of a woman to her departing lover. Her mood is desperate; her sexual pride has been flayed raw. She can only beg and scream. Bette scorches the soul with this one. In six minutes she wrings out herself and the song, and mops up the audience as well. Her cover versions of all these songs make the originals sound like demo tapes.
The cue for Midler’s later song style was the title tune from “The Rose,” that lovely mantra of regeneration (written by Amanda McBroom) which Bette has now officially performed more times than Judy Garland did “Over the Rainbow.” In succeeding decades she would storm the charts with similar ballads — “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” “Every Road Leads Back to You,” “From a Distance” — nice numbers that, frankly, any thrush could have sung. But I’m glad Bette had hits with them.
By 1998 she was making albums only as vacations from movies and motherhood. On that year’s “Bathhouse Betty,” Midler’s put her vocal voltage and pristine song salesmanship on display in tunes by Leonard Cohen, Chuckii Booker, Carole King, Ben Folds — lots of fine folk. Her voice was still supple, aching with hard-won wisdom (on the first single, “My One True Friend”) or smiling with the sweet clarity of her Honolulu youth (Gus Kahn’s 1925 “Ukulele Lady”). Songs like “Laughing Matters” and “I’m Beautiful” gave the album the sassy intimacy of a pep talk from an old friend. At 52 Midler’s pipes were still brass-bold and silk-smooth.
DID WE SAY BRASS?
Now she’s 58, and the brass hasn’t tarnished. In the first moments of the Kiss My Brass show — a seaside boardwalk vista that will play wonderfully this weekend in Atlantic City — the star descends on a carousel’s white horse to the tune of “Big Noise from WInnetka” (an early Midler cover) and shouts, “I have returned!” The audience does a King Kong.
She looks preternaturally great: not an ounce of fat, except where there should be. Never one to hide her light under a bush, Bette trumpets, “I’m fab-ulous! Don’t I look it? Even I don’t know how I do it.” But shortly into the show, she feigns feebleness: “Two numbers and I’m exhausted. What’s gonna happen when I turn 50?” (This shtick is at least a decade old for our gal. In her 1993 tour, she fretted that she had Oldtimer’s disease, or at least Part-timer’s: “Did I sing the ballad yet? Was it wonderful?”).
Mostly, her singing is still wonderful. When I caught the show, at Madison Square Garden, I heard her cheat on “Skylark.” She also screwed up the second-verse modulation on “Hey, There.” (Mind you, she was lying supine on the stage while crooning most of this Clooney standard.) But she did more than justice to Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” and her medley of “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “It’s a Man’s World” showed the lady still has the lungs.
In the banter portion of the show, Bette comments on the current Brittny-Christina fashion sense: “These days you’re not considered a professional entertainer unless you dress like a ho’.” — a dictat Bette practically invented. She oozes sympathy for a certain radio ideologue: “Poor Rush. Poor fat, stupid, hypocritical, drug-addicted Rush.” She shares her old-fashioned take on romantic rituals: “They exchanged vials of blood,” she says of Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, sighing. “I remember when that used to mean something.” She hasn’t always been on the best of terms with her backup singers, but of the current trio she says, “We have a perfect relationship. They love and adore me. And I pay them.” And as the perennial mermaid Dolores, she confides some of her own fish-dish: “SpongeBob broke up with me. He said it was my fault he was retaining water.”
The show is beautifully paced, mixing a tribute to Fred Rogers with a hilarious interment of her sitcom (“When Martin Lawrence’s show is not cancelled, and my show is cancelled, that’s fucked up!”). And for all Bette’s mock-mewling about encroaching age, the show never gave the sense that it was draining the poor dear of her bizarre fount of energy. The girl who beguiled Carson when she was 24 will be 60 next year, on December 1st, and shows no signs of wearing down. She’s not a Rube Goldberg machine, but a perpetual-motion one. I fully expect her to be still strutting, still entrancing with every high-step entrance, still flaunting her tits and flouting age, still wearing out not herself but her rapt audiences, when she’s 70.
The Bette is yet to come.