I’ve had a few … Bette Midler’s career has taken her from New York to Hollywood, and now to Las Vegas. She wishes it had all gone a little differently, she tells Emma Brockes, but she is still a star in her 60s – and that’s not easy these days
Photo: Stephen C.
The night before I meet Bette Midler I watch Beaches again for the first time in 15 years. There it all is: the smoking under the boardwalk, the seminal photobooth scene, the Christmas carols in the tiny flat, the row at the makeup counter (when Midler says to Barbara Hershey, “You’re jealous of my career” and Hershey says, “You only got your husband by default” and Midler says, “At least I own my life”), the reconciliation, the vacation, and the swan song when Hershey, limp in a deckchair, is knocked stone dead by the condescension of Wind Beneath My Wings. Midler, vibrant in yellow, cackles and fluffs out. “My God, it seems like such a long time ago. People still talk about it. It’s either the worst chick flick or the best chick flick. Nothing in between.”
The career prospects of a sixtysomething female performer with professional pride have never been good, but at this point in history they are, says Midler, unprecedentedly awful. Hollywood tastes run to “so much junk”; the music industry bows to Disney’s teenage “Mouseketeer clones”. For those who don’t want to pose naked under a sheet for Vanity Fair or compete for best supporting stereotype at the Oscars there is, in her opinion, only one course of action: to knock out a greatest hits album and haul ass to Vegas.
In February, the 62-year-old started a two-year contract at Caesars Palace, the celebrity gulag where CÃ©line Dion toiled unrelieved for five years. Midler alternates with Cher and Elton John, performing for 20 weeks a year, but while the others could have been hatched in Vegas, her appeal has always rested on her lack of pretension. Needs must, however, and Midler will go where the work is, just as she will protect her image via the necessary means. A few days before the interview, the Guardian picture desk is sent a set of lighting instructions for her photoshoot that look like the manual for the Hadron Collider. (We decline the shoot.)
Her latest movie is a remake of George Cukor’s 1939 classic The Women, in which Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell have been replaced by Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and Eva Mendes. Midler has only a cameo, just as well since the film was described in the New York Times as a “witless straining mess”. She doesn’t look concerned. She looks like she always does, like someone on the brink of an amusing rebuttal.
Midler’s part took just two days to film, but the absence of any male actors – the film features only women – was instantly apparent in the atmosphere on set. “I do love men, but you get that alpha-male, top-dog thing that is so tedious. It’s like, ‘Ach, go away’. We didn’t have that.”
The remake is, she says, “very funny. But you don’t have the wacky perspective that you get from the old one. And Rosalind Russell was genius. Genius.” (She doesn’t speculate on Ryan’s genius). I wonder what the all-male equivalent would look like and Midler explodes, “They make those movies all the time! You just don’t think of them that way because it’s so common. All men and some robots. Those war movies. Stalag 17. The Bridge on the River Kwai. My God, there were no women in that David Lean film …”
Lawrence of Arabia?
“Yeah. They always make movies with no women. How’d you like Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man? Walking around serving coffee? I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Don’t they know who this is?’ I ought to be her agent.”
Midler grew up in Hawaii, but is associated with New York, which better suits her temperament. She left one for the other when she was 19 and never looked back, although she stayed in contact with her parents. “I used to call on a Sunday, but they didn’t expect me to come back. That’s what you did then. When you left, you never went back. And they used to kick you out. You’d turn 18 and they’d say, ‘OK, time’s up.’ Now they don’t kick you out.” She smiles. When her only daughter Sophie went to university, Midler and her husband kept her room exactly as it was. They hope she might move back. “Or else we’ll move in with her.”
Her parents were more distant – her father a house painter, her mother a housewife – and it’s with sadness that Midler associates her own drive with her mother’s, a woman whose life was “small, as women’s lives were then”. She was, she says, “always too quick for the islands. Too busy and too energetic and I got it from her. She was capable of doing a lot of things quickly.” Midler’s mother named her after Bette Davis, and “loved glamour. She didn’t like drama. She didn’t really want to be thrilled. She didn’t like problems. She had enough problems of her own. She was a moviegoer in the old days, and then when she got to Hawaii they didn’t have many movies. She was living on dreams.”
Hawaii is suddenly politically interesting, since it is where Barack Obama was raised. “Isn’t that fantastic?” says Midler. Fifteen years his senior, her experience of Hawaii would have been very different – it wasn’t even a state when she grew up, only a territory. “I was in the sticks. Even the metropolis when I was a kid was very small and provincial. I remember the day after it became a state the cranes came to throw up the skyscrapers. Before that you weren’t allowed to build higher than the Aloha Tower, the tower for the ships. We were in the land that time forgot when I was growing up. You grow up thinking the whole world is like this, and it’s such a bring-down when you discover it isn’t. Obama has made much better peace with it than I ever have.”
She’d like to campaign for him. “I think he’s smart, that’s the key. I think he listens and absorbs and he processes and can come up with solutions. A lot of these people can’t do that. A lot of them can’t keep all the pieces in their minds.” I ask what she considers to be the Hawaiian character. “I think of it in two ways: full of laughter. Lots of laughs. And I think of it as quite violent. In communities where there are no jobs, it can be very violent. Not towards strangers, but towards each other.”
In 1980 Midler won an Oscar nomination for her lead in the Janis Joplin-inspired film The Rose, but she is often uncomfortably confined within roles too small for her. In The Stepford Wives, another terrible remake, she was the comedy ethnic neighbour, and between that and For The Boys, only The First Wives Club gave her any real rein.
“I wish I had had a different career,” she says. “I did things that I felt obliged to do at the time and I felt that I needed the security and the parts didn’t come so quick and fast. Do I have any regrets? Yes and no. I don’t think anyone in my position would have had any better luck than I had. I did about as well as I could have done. As well as they would let me. They are what they are. It’s very rigid and nowadays it’s even worse than it was.”
She says this with a sort of weary indignation. How are things worse now? “Look at the movies that they put out. It’s so junky. So much junk, it’s like the food. No content. Nothing. If you’re a performer like me the only thing you can do is [sing] live. They can’t own you if you do live. So people of a certain age are back on the road, doing what they do well.”
She says she’s over the disappointment. “I made this picture called Jinxed! It was very hard to make, it was a big bomb and everybody blamed me. And I didn’t work again for a couple of years. And that was very frustrating. I used to get upset. But those days are over. Now I look around and I see so few people my age working that I’m lucky,” she says. “It’s all right to have twinges, but it’s not all right to let it rule your life.”
Consequently, she takes a dim view of artists who are in demand and squander it. Amy Winehouse’s talent thrills her and she is also appalled by her. She says, “She has no history. She doesn’t know where she could be standing in the continuum of singers. If she did, she wouldn’t trash herself so. She’d have a little more self-respect. It’s very sad. It really upset a lot of people.”
But it’s a tradition in rock to self-destruct, isn’t it? “It’s a waste of time. Such a waste. It’s also a tradition to do good work up until the day you decide it’s time to leave. Picasso worked until the day he died. Why aren’t popular artists the same? Why are they so skimpy with their gifts?” Maybe the demands of celebrity have got worse. She snorts. “Hogwash.”
Midler’s career was helped by the willingness of her husband to stay at home with their daughter. He’s German and “quietly, staunchly in the background. He’s tremendous for me. A real rock. Because I had my daughter but I also had this gigantic other child. He took up all the slack.” They met in a bar in LA where he was appearing as a performance artist and have been married for 23 years. “I’ve been the breadwinner since we were married and he doesn’t find that appalling. He loves to cook. We ate together every single day of my daughter’s life. We took long holidays and tried to show her the world, from our crazy point of view. For a 21-year-old, she’s very wise. And she’s very kind. Which I think is important.”
Last year the family hired a van with some friends and went on a driving holiday around Britain. They went to garden centres and museums and pubs. “Oh my God what a time we had. The food has gotten so much better. The food in the pubs? Sensational! You can tell ’em I said that.” They even went to look around Highgrove. “The whole bunch of us, all of us in the van. We somehow managed to get some PR person to let us in there. We were in the grove and we look up and there’s the biggest, blackest helicopter. It was him. I was flipped out. It was so un-Charles to be in that helicopter.”
Midler is quite taken with royalty, mostly for its theatrical awfulness. She’d like to have met Wallis Simpson. “Cos she was so wacky. Nutty as a fruitcake. But the whole thing was so nutty. A piece of history that doesn’t quite compute. I read all the books. I’d like to have seen the clothes. The two of them were so beautiful, they would have been a great design team. But he probably would have been a terrible king.”
Most of the time Midler and her husband live in New York and lead a relatively quiet life, working on the Restoration Project she founded, which plans to plant a million trees in the city over the next 10 years and has already revitalised scores of community gardens. She is a big fan of the Slow Food movement, reads the New Yorker and then, every so often, disappears to Vegas for four weeks, where CÃ©line Dion has advised her on how to fix the humidity in her dressing room. “Very sweet girl. Hyper-emotional, but wonderful.”
There are worse fates in showbiz. “I’ll tell ya something. I like performing and I love making music. It’s fun to be with musicians, to be the lead singer in a band. It’s playing. I don’t know why people have to torture themselves so.”
Â· The Best Bette, featuring 18 Bette Midler classics, is released on Monday