by Guy Blackman
April 10, 2005
Bette Midler revives her flamboyant showgirl shtick for her Kiss My Brass tour but, behind the scenes, Guy Blackman discovers the boogie-woogie babe isn’t as bold as she used to be.
Bette Midler is commiserating with me over my slight hangover, and the ungodly hour at which our phone interview is taking place. “Do you want to do this another day?” she teases.
“Make sure you drink a lot of water. Maybe you need a sponsor, babe.”
Despite the fact that her new cabaret spectacular (coming to Australia this month) is called Kiss My Brass, the sassy, loud and vulgar Bette Midler that millions know from stage and screen is nowhere in evidence.
Last year Midler had the sixth highest-grossing tour in the US, pulling in a cool $US53.3 million ($A69 million), but off the stage she is gentility itself – sweet, softly-spoken, patient and almost motherly.
Approaching her 60th birthday in December, this is a softer, more reflective Midler.
“I’m a pillar of the community”, she says, and she’s only half-joking. These days Midler lives quietly in New York City with her husband of 21 years, artist Martin von Hasselburg. Their only child, 19-year-old Sophie, has just left home to go to college.
In between occasional movie projects such as last year’s The Stepford Wives and her touring commitments, Midler busies herself with the New York Restoration Project, an organisation she founded in 1994 that aims to restore the city’s parks and gardens to their former glory.
It’s quite a turnaround from the louder-than-life, fiery-haired diva who first rose to prominence in the early 1970s via her appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
As her fortunes ebbed and flowed through that tumultuous decade, she maintained feuds with almost every major person in her life, from early musical director Barry Manilow to long-term manager Aaron Russo, record producers, movie directors and radio-station executives.
In the ’80s, Midler channelled her mania into movies, settling into married life while perfecting the Bette Midler persona in a run of artistically dubious but hugely successful Disney comedies such as Outrageous Fortune, Down and Out in Beverley Hills and Ruthless People.
It was through these movies that Midler’s crude, sentimental and hilarious alter ego became entrenched in the popular consciousness, and it seems no matter how sedate she may be in real life, this is how we will always know her.
But 21st century Midler is much less confrontational than her previous incarnations. Take her most recent CD, a tribute to recently departed singer Rosemary Clooney, as a case in point.
It marks the touching end to a 30-year cold war between Midler and her former musical svengali, Barry Manilow, and the first time they have worked together since an acrimonious parting of the ways in 1973.
The two met at a piano bar in 1970, where Midler was singing for tips and Manilow was filling in for an AWOL pianist. Midler had just finished three unfulfilling years on Broadway as one of the daughters in Fiddler On The Roof, and Manilow was still looking for his big musical break.
For the next few years they had a fractious but artistically satisfying working relationship, with Manilow first her accompanist, then her musical director and eventually the co-producer of her first two albums.
The reason for their split is something even Midler isn’t sure she remembers properly.
“He was my musical director for a couple of years, and then we went on the road together and something happened,” she says.
“I needed him to stay with me and he decided to go out on his own. He said (recently) that if I had either paid him more money or done this or done that he would have stayed, and at the time I didn’t know that. I felt that he left under not auspicious circumstances but he had great success. I had my share of success too, so I don’t begrudge anybody anything, but you know how it is. It’s like a spurned lover in a way, it’s like a break-up. But fortunately we got over it.”
Manilow called Midler shortly after Clooney died from lung cancer in 2002 and asked her to make this album with him. Midler was surprised and thrilled.
“He’d been out of my life for a long time, and I thought he was so mad at me the last time we spoke,” she says.
“But he called me up and wanted to do a project with me. I thought ‘Oh my goodness, my life is going to start again’. He’s a consummate musician and he’s got good taste and good ears, especially for my stuff – and he’s a lot of fun. I don’t know what people think of him, but I know him as very funny, a really hilarious guy.”
His choice to cast Midler as keeper of Clooney’s musical flame seems an odd one. Some of Clooney’s songs were mildly risque when first recorded in the ’50s, but they pale in comparison to Midler’s bawdier material, like Daytime Hustler with its steamy orgasmic sighs, or the daring ode to Midler’s favourite ’70s vice, Marahuana.
After such fare, the idea of Bette Midler singing “come on-a my house, I’m going to give you candy” seems a little tame.
Much like her music, Midler’s politics have also drifted towards the middle over the years. In the ’70s, Midler’s self-professed fondness for marijuana was legendary and unashamed, as was her objection to its criminalised status.
On New Year’s Eve in 1976, she wanted to put a joint underneath every seat of the Los Angeles theatre in which she was performing, anticipating a January 1 change in California state law that would reduce possession of small amounts of marijuana to a misdemeanour.
Word leaked out before the show opened, however, and the district attorney’s office put a swift halt to the stunt.
Of course, it’s a different story in 2005. When asked if she has smoked pot in the past 25 years, Midler replies with a simple “Honestly? No.”
Midler was once similarly outspoken about gay rights, performing benefit shows for gay organisations and appearing at Gay Pride rallies, but during the recent heated debate over same-sex marriage in the US, she became strangely equivocal.
When questioned by The Advocate in June last year, she said only “I haven’t done enough research or reading on it to have an informed opinion.”
Then in an interview with talk-show host Larry King, she went one step further, saying: “Gay men, they like to, you know, they like to move around. That’s part of the fun of being a gay man. So if they’re married, does that mean they’re not going to cheat?”
Seeing as gay men make up possibly the largest, and certainly the most devoted part of Midler’s fan base, it was a disappointing comment – one even more difficult to comprehend when you consider where Midler got her start in show business.
Between 1970 and 1972, she performed regularly at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse famous for revolutionising the gay scene in New York. The baths opened in 1969 in the basement of the august Ansonia Hotel on Broadway, and its premises included a dance floor, a cabaret lounge, sauna rooms and a swimming pool.
Owner Steve Ostrow (a man whom Midler later referred to as “that bastard”) had made only one other musical booking, folk-singing duo Lowell and Rosalie Marks, before stumbling across Midler.
The Marks’ down-home act hadn’t clicked with his clientele, so Ostrow was on the lookout for a performer with a camper sensibility. He heard there was a brassy young woman waiting tables and singing at the nearby Improvisation bar, so he went to listen, loved what he heard, and hired Midler on the spot.
“It was a big break, and I knew it was a big break,” Midler says. “First of all, it paid. I wasn’t getting paid at the time. The crowd was raucous, and I liked that. I liked the idea that they were out for a good time. They weren’t necessarily disrespectful, they just wanted to have fun.”
Bringing Manilow with her as her musical director, Midler quickly became a hot-ticket item at the baths. Punters both gay and straight began to pack the place to the rafters, fully dressed heterosexual couples mingling hesitantly with half-naked men for a chance to see her perform.
Midler sang show tunes, girl-group hits, saucy blues numbers and cheesy love songs with an exaggerated swagger that somehow spoke to the audience of changing times, sweeping out the doe-eyed optimism of the ’60s and ushering in something bigger, bolder and more cynical.
Word of Midler’s talent soon reached two hugely influential New York figures – Tonight Show host Johnny Carson and Ahmet Ertegun, president of Atlantic Records.
Ertegun caught one of her shows and was immediately won over, offering her a record deal that night.
“It was the wittiest musical performance I’d ever seen,” he later said. “It was striking to see such innate elegance and good taste in someone who, superficially, appeared not to have any.”
Carson likewise was so taken with Midler that he made her one of his most frequent guests from 1971 until his retirement from television in 1992, when Midler sang out his last show.
Supporters such as these saw Midler’s fame rapidly outgrow the confines of the baths and, although she may have recently distanced herself from her early supporters, she has never entirely forgotten where the foundations of her success were laid.
“I guess the shows that I’m doing now are not that different from the shows I did then,” she says.
“They had all the same elements – you always laughed and you always cried, there were always sad songs, there were some rockers, you always talked a lot and told really bad jokes. I think it’s like the template for everything that I’ve done on the stage.”
Midler’s yen for performing stretches back to her childhood, a period she has often painted as dismal, lonely and sad, despite occurring in idyllic surroundings.
Her father was a stern New Jersey house painter who relocated his family to Hawaii in the ’30s, her mother a movie-obsessed housewife who named her three daughters after film sirens. Bette was for Bette Davis, Susan for Susan Hayward, and Judith was named after Judy Garland.
Born in December 1945, Midler attended Honolulu’s Radford High, a school primarily populated by Samoan, Chinese and Japanese students. Red-haired, buxom Midler stuck out a mile.
“All the girls hated me because I had such big boobs,” she told Rolling Stone magazine in 1973. “I was an ugly, fat little Jewish girl who had problems.”
Midler was initially drawn to music and drama as a way to project the illusion of confidence, to cover up her crippling shyness. According to Midler, she discovered that illusion soon became indistinguishable from reality.
“In pretending, you become,” she says philosophically. “In pretending to be joyful you become joyful, you become one with the intention. It’s part of the reason that I still do it, because I love the emotional ups and downs that I personally go through when I’m on the stage.”
After scoring a walk-on in the movie Hawaii in 1965, Midler put her payment towards escaping as quickly as possible.
“I used to have a lot of trouble when I was living there,” she told Johnny Carson in the early ’70s.
“Cause I was a Jewish girl growing up in a Samoan neighbourhood. I left and, you know, the old story about ‘I’ll show them!’ I really felt that way and I had a lot of anger built up in me from those years.”
But time’s misty lens has softened Midler’s perspective. Four decades after leaving Honolulu with a one-way ticket to New York, she speaks of her childhood home with nothing but nostalgia.
“Oh my God, I miss just about everything,” she says. “I miss the skies and the air, I miss the colours. The people are very beautiful, I miss them. I miss the music. I miss a lot about it. I think it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. Even today I still say that it’s really my home, even though I’ve been gone for so long.”
And her oft-maligned parents she now credits for giving her the energy to survive in her chosen profession.
“My parents just must have come from really tough stock,” she says. “My mother, I remember, was really feisty and really speedy, she could get to the store in a minute and a half. I remember vividly trying to hold on to her hand while she walked down the street, and I couldn’t keep up with her. So she had some energy on her, and I guess I just inherited it.”
Midler’s years of parental resentment and revenge-fuelled ambition may be far behind her, but so it seems are her years of colourful behaviour and newsworthy antics.
Now the big bombastic songs that Midler sings in Kiss My Brass seem like well-worn fancy-dress outfits, rather than close-fitting uniforms.
“Well, you know, they are familiar costumes,” Midler admits.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s my job and my life’s work, and it is a little bit like a mask that you put on – but it’s fun. It’s a costume I look forward to putting on. You have to love the illusion more than anything else, and once you fall in love with that, I guess there’s no turning back.”
As she enters her golden years, Midler seems peaceful and content, but in no hurry to retire.
“I think about it, I think about it often,” she says. “But what would I do? I mean I have my parks and gardens and I love that, but I like to be engaged. I love the people that I meet in the work that I do – I just love people.”
Perhaps it’s her gradual change in attitude to that ever-present tag, the Divine Miss M, that best illustrates just how much milder Midler is in middle age.
Sounding for all the world like she is making one of her frequent appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Midler says “In those days I didn’t really understand what that word (divine) meant. As I’ve grown older, it has taken on more and more meaning. It has to do with spirituality, and I didn’t know that at the time. It’s just an expression, but over the years it has become quite meaningful. I think its aspirational, as most things that people do are, to become better, to become stronger, brighter, and happier.”
Bette Midler plays the Rod Laver Arena April 18, 21 and 23.