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Mother Of All Divas
By James Kaplan
Published: January 20, 2008
Photo: Firooz Zahedi
I’m a big personality, but I’m a little person,â€ Bette Midler says.
Itâ€™s a double understatement. At 62, this entertainer extraordinaireâ€”she acts! she sings! she dances! she tells raunchy jokes!â€”is not just a personality. With two Oscar nominations, four Golden Globes and three Emmys as a movie and TV star, plus four Grammy Awards and 15 million albums sold as a recording artist, Midlerâ€™s a certifiable icon. Yet at a scant 5 feet 1, sheâ€™s so petite, so unassuming in her jeans, tan jacket and tinted glasses, that not a single head turns when she enters a restaurant on Manhattanâ€™s Upper East Side. But then she sits across from me and removes the glasses to reveal that familiar, big-featured face, with arched eyes merry over apple cheeksâ€”a face that makes you feel something quite improper could be said at any moment.
â€œYou look great,â€ I tell her.
â€œThank you,â€ she says. â€œI will give you a list of all the people who look after me.â€
Sheâ€™s going to need every one of them for her next gig, which will be a very tall order for a lady of a certain age: On Feb. 20, Midler will replace CÃ©line Dion as the headliner at the 4100-seat Colosseum theater at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, beginning a two-year, 100-shows-a-year stand.
She calls her new production Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On, â€œbecause the truth is that Iâ€™ve been around a long time. By the time I get out of this, I will be close to 65 years old. That really does bring you up short.
â€œBut Iâ€™m very excited about it,â€ Midler adds. â€œIâ€™m also a little bit trepidatious, because itâ€™s the biggest stage Iâ€™ve ever been onâ€”itâ€™s 120 feet across!â€”and the video screen is enormous. So the challenge was not to let the enormity of it intimidate you to such a degree that you say, â€˜My God, Iâ€™ve got to get an elephant. Iâ€™ve got to get a dog act. I have to have hordes of people on point.â€™â€
At this point in her career, Bette has earned whatever caprice she desires. She arrived in New York in 1965, an innocent 20-year-old from Hawaii, where her father, Fred, was a housepainter and her mother, Ruth, a seamstress. But her innocence didnâ€™t last long. In 1967, she won a role in the smash Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof and made important friendships in the theater.
â€œI have a real weakness,â€ Midler says. â€œI love to laugh. If I canâ€™t laugh, I feel like Iâ€™m dead.â€ And her theater friends, she found, â€œalways had a really odd take on things. They were always way, way ahead of the curve.â€ Soon, so was she. Her love for old Hollywood musicals quickly endeared her to her young pianist, Barry Manilow. He in turn produced her acclaimed first album, The Divine Miss M. Next came a special Tony Award in 1974 and a starring role in The Rose. In the years since, there were unsuccessful movies and records that didnâ€™t sell, but there also were hits and a second Oscar nomination for For the Boys (1991).
So why, at an age when many stars might be tempted to hang it up, is she putting herself through this?
Midlerâ€™s last stage show, Kiss My Brass, played to sold-out audiences in the U.S. and Australia between 2003 and 2005. â€œI had a tremendous tour,â€ she says. â€œAnd I was 60 when I came back. I thought, â€˜Whatâ€™s there to do?â€™ I really had to settle on the fact that I wasnâ€™t going to be making movies anymore. I made peace with that. And the record business has been shaky for a long time, so the door wasnâ€™t exactly closing, but it wasnâ€™t what it had been. But if youâ€™re a live entertainer, if youâ€™re someone who still works and people still want to see, you can go on forever.â€ Or almost.
â€œThis is my 40th year,â€ she tells me. And it brings her, she confides, to a point where sheâ€™s nearly ready to say, â€œThatâ€™s goodbye. Gotta go!â€
As in â€œretireâ€?
â€œI think so,â€ Midler sighs. â€œI think so. I must say, my high kick is just as high as it ever was, thanks to tai chi. But everything is a bit slower. The mindâ€”things donâ€™t stick the way they used to. I feel like Iâ€™m going out with a bang. Itâ€™s something my husband and I have talked about. I certainly donâ€™t want to die in harness. Iâ€™m not one of those people.â€
What she is, deep down, is a devoted wife and mother. â€œIn a funny way, Iâ€™m quite civilized,â€ she says. â€œAfter all that moaning and cussing and working blue, it turned out that I was really a lady.â€ She and performance artist Martin von Haselberg met in the mid-â€™80s, at a low ebb in both their lives. Midler had just broken up with her longtime manager/boyfriend, and von Haselberg was working unhappily as a commodities trader. After they married in 1984, he told her he wanted to quit his job and go back to performing. Midler bridled at being the sole earner. â€œIt was very, very hard,â€ she says. â€œAll of a sudden, it was going to be all on me, and I wanted it to be more of a team effort.â€
Then she got pregnant.
After their daughter, Sophie, was born in 1986, Martin found a new role. â€œHe basically picked up all the slack,â€ Midler says. â€œHe did a fantastic job. He taught her German. He taught her to cook. Taught her martial arts, encouraged dancing. When I was out of town, he was there with the homework, watching over her. Heâ€™s a fantastic father.â€
These days, with Sophie about to graduate from Yale, Martin spends his time painting and advising Bette on her career. â€œHe was always very calm,â€ she tells me. â€œHe has to be, because Iâ€™m not. Iâ€™m a nervous wreck. Especially when Iâ€™m putting new shows together and I have a lot riding on me. I get a little panicky. Heâ€™s a real nurturer.â€
Midler sips her iced tea. â€œI like to work,â€ she says. â€œIâ€™m not done yet. I have plenty of charities that are looking for help. My legacy…â€ She makes a face. â€œI hate to say this, but I do think in these terms. Iâ€™ve been thinking in these terms since I was 11. What kind of 11-year-old thinks about their damn legacy? Me.â€
Midlerâ€™s grin fades. â€œBecause I am a live performer, my legacy is really ephemeral,â€ she says. â€œPeople donâ€™t really remember. I mean, Iâ€™ve made some good movies, Iâ€™ve made some bad movies. They will last. But the rest of it, what I did live, thatâ€™s only memory. Thatâ€™s not really a legacy. My real legacy is this group that Iâ€™ve established here in New York, called New York Restoration Project.â€
Midler founded the nonprofit organization, dedicated to revitalizing the cityâ€™s neglected parks and gardens, in 1995. Last fall, she and the NYRP, in conjunction with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Parks Department, announced a plan to plant a million trees in the city. â€œThis could be and should be one of the most beautiful places in the world,â€ Midler says. â€œThereâ€™s no reason why it has to be dirty. Thatâ€™s really what I spend my time thinking aboutâ€”I mean, that and dresses and high-heeled shoes.â€
Not to mention Vegas. â€œIâ€™d like to have nudes,â€ she says about her show, with a mischievous grin. â€œNot nude nudes, but a new kind of Vegas nude. A showgirl who can do a lot of things. A little bit naughty, but pretty nice all around.â€
In the end, of course, all Bette really needsâ€”and what the people will be there to seeâ€”is the all-around megawattage she gives off solo, when the spotlight is on.
How will she keep it fresh night after night, 100 nights a year? â€œOh, well,â€ Midler says. â€œThereâ€™s a little bit of improvisation built in. You never know when a zipper is going to break, when youâ€™re going to sprain your ankle. Every day is a crapshoot. Lots of half-naked girls running around.â€ She smiles. â€œEverybody loves them. Stand in front of me, girls. Come on. Stand right in front, right here. Gotta go.â€
MISS Mâ€™S MOVIES
Betteâ€™s lead role as a troubled rock star (modeled after the late Janis Joplin) on her last tour earned her an Oscar nomination.
In a tender story about a lifelong friendship, Bette flexed her range.
THE FIRST WIVES CLUB
With Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn, she spoofed as a bitter divorcÃ©e.