Photo: BaltoBoy Steve
Divine Talent: Bette Midler remains a woman of outrageous fortune Lori Hoffman Atlantic City Weekly
My fascination with Bette Midler began when I was a senior in high school. This amazing personality showed up on late night TV with Johnny Carson. She called herself The Divine Miss M, dressed in outrageous campy attire, her breasts prominently accentuated.
Her self-defined persona was, “Trash with flash, sleaze with ease.” Her songs were from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s with a few contemporary tunes in the mix. Midler’s singing was divine, from a nifty “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to the plaintive wail of “Hello In There,” and the sexy romantic spin she put on the old ’60s chestnut, “Do You Wanna Dance?”
However, it was her overall persona – her comic banter with Carson, and her tales about her childhood in Hawaii (“We were the only Jewish family in a Samoan neighborhood”), and performing at the Continental Baths before nearly naked gay men – that sealed my fate as a Divine devotee.
Somehow I talked my father into taking me to Philadelphia in December 1972 to see Bette Midler’s debut in town at the Bijou Café. We didn’t have tickets to the sold-out show and the line went for a block down Lombard Street. Thank God my dad did indignant bluster better than anyone I know. We sneaked by the first check point, then dad poured it on at the door, explaining that his name was on the list, that he was from the press, covering the show. Well he was from the press; he was a sportswriter, but it worked.
We found a spot in the 250-seat capacity room that seemed to have double that on hand. There was barely room to breath, let alone move. She did the songs noted above and more with her pianist-conductor Barry Manilow and her trio of singers, the Harlettes, which at that point in time, included Melissa Manchester. It would be the last time she ever played a room this intimate. Her cult following was about to explode into a legion of fans across the globe.
Now, 32 years later, Bette Midler is back on tour. Following on the heels of her latest CD, Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook, produced by Manilow, Midler’s Kiss My Brass Tour is coming to Boardwalk Hall March 20. It will be her third visit to our shores. Back in 1999, I watched her ring in the New Year at the Taj.
Midler’s career has had low points and high points. She made her major film debut channeling the spirit of a self-destructive rock diva ala Janis Joplin in The Rose and picked up an Oscar nomination. More importantly, she earned respect as an actress beyond her brassy comedic personality. However, despite the overwhelming acclaim, her film career came in fits and starts over the next three decades. If you’re a man, you can get away with not being movie star beautiful. If you’re a woman and you’re not a kid, you’d better be funny.
She was funny, and when she wasn’t earning accolades on Broadway and elsewhere for her brassy live shows, she found work in a series of popular comedies in the 1980s-Outrageous Fortune, Down and Out In Beverly Hills, Ruthless People and Big Business. The popular soap opera Beaches gave her career a boost and a new signature song, “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
In 1991 she reunited with her director from The Rose, Mark Rydell. For The Boys was an underrated drama about a showbiz couple who entertain the troops. Midler and James Caan were terrific, but the film was a box office flop.
She did have a major hit opposite Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn in The First Wives Club (1996) about three women tossed aside by their husbands who unite successfully to seek revenge. It didn’t lead to more film roles.
TV always beckons. She did a fabulous turn as Mama Rose in a TV version of Gypsy and then went the sitcom route in 2000. Even this Midler fan couldn’t watch Bette more than a couple of times. It was bad but as always Bette bounced back.
Her recent well-received Clooney CD is a prime example. Working again with old pal Manilow, the album is a beautifully crafted tribute, with Midler paying more of a homage to the style of Clooney, treading lightly with her own fingerprints on the material. The songs range from “Mambo Italiano” to a jazzy rendition of “Come On-A My House,” a lovely “You’ll Never Know” and even “White Christmas.”
Now, at age 58, she is back on the road, winning acclaim once more for her one-of-a-kind “trash with flash” persona. Her Portland, Ore. show evoked this response, “Midler hit on all cylinders with a high-energy, often bombastic show, with swinging tunes such as her trademark ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,’ performed with a video of herself from the ’70s’ She really poured on the gaudy Broadway-meets-Vegas style with a faux-Broadway revue, with her as diva Delores Delgado, a tacky-fun mermaid who spewed tasteless fish jokes over a medley of reworked Broadway tunes and silly wheelchair choreography.”
Three decades later, the essence of Bette Midler’s appeal remains a constant in the universe.