TONIGHT’S edition of ”The Barbara Walters Special” -on ABC at 10 o’clock – is the 37th in a series of periodic celebrity interviews. Perhaps inevitably, even as Ms. Walters seems to become younger and more glamorous with each passing year, even as the ratings remain strong, the format has gone soft in the center and dull around the edges. There are, after all, only so many celebrities worth interviewing. The rest are gobbled up quickly in assembly-line machines such as ”Entertainment Tonight” and ”Life Styles of the Rich and Famous.” How much do even their more devoted fans want to know about performers hustling for a career?

The session this evening, for instance, is of interest for one reason only: the presence of Bette Midler, who can still, despite her protestations that marriage and motherhood have changed everything, light up Beverly Hills and environs with her driving sassiness. The two other guests leave Ms. Walters going through the pro-forma motions. Yes, she discovers, Michael Douglas had some difficulties growing up as the son of Kirk Douglas, but they have been resolved and now the son speaks vaguely of ”a continuity of generations.”

And yes, Ms. Walters finds on a tour of the ”Dallas” set, a conversion to Buddhism helped Patrick Duffy deal with the tragedy of the murder of his parents last year. In a decidedly sticky observation, Mr. Duffy argues that his parents, owners of a bar for years, in a sense ”courted disaster” by not getting out of the business. It is little wonder that Ms. Walters looks a bit removed and uncomfortable.

The opening session with Ms. Midler is considerably less complicated. The star is apparently in the midst of a campaign to change her image. Much of the material on this Walters show can also be found, albeit with a more questioning approach, in the current issue of Time magazine, which features Ms. Midler on its cover. She obviously has a hard-working agent. Ms. Walters offers a quick review of the Midler career, including some ”home movies” from 1971 when she was performing at New York’s Continental Baths, a deluxe bathhouse for homosexuals. Her pianist at the time, barely visible in the background, was Barry Manilow. It was there that she put the finishing touches on the loud and brassy persona that would win her so many awards, including the Grammy, the Emmy, the Tony.

Her career in movies, however, stalled. After getting an Oscar nomination for ”The Rose,” she stumbled over ”Jinxed,” its completion leaving her with what she describes as a nervous breakdown. Then after three years of being ignored by Hollywood, Ms. Midler married a man she lovingly concedes is ”quite eccentric” and signed a deal with the Disney studios that has led to three consecutive movie hits: ”Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” ”Ruthless People” and ”Outrageous Fortune.”

What now for the irrepressible bombshell with the madcap smirk, the tiny delinquent staking out her territory in four-inch heels? She is, Ms. Midler insists, a hausfrau. ”I’m Harriet Craig,” she announces, referring with just a hint of glint to the Joan Crawford character who was compulsive about cleaning her home. ”Now everyone’s so tacky,” she explains, ”I have to be royalty.” She wants to raise her baby daughter within the confines of a ”classical education” – music, art, books, no television. What will she tell the child about her own career? ”I’ll sing her the songs but I won’t show her the shows. I don’t want her to say, ‘How could you do that?’ ”

Frankly, even though Ms. Walters seems amused and unperturbed, I find the new Ms. Midler unsettling. She appears to be shifting before our eyes from her outrageous Delores Del Lago mode to a corset of pathos more suited to Stella Dallas. The true disappointment would be if the child did not grow up to appreciate her mother’s special and distinctive gifts for comedy and song. Ms. Midler retains enough of a devilish grin, however, to let her fans suspect that this hausfrau business may not be all that serious.

Meanwhile, Ms. Walters confides that after she touched Ms. Midler’s baby, the infant ”did a little something in her pants.” Not missing a beat, Ms. Walters smilingly adds, ”I do that to people.” While she may occasionally let her guests get off easy with powder-puff banter, Ms. Walters is as sharp and demanding as ever about herself.

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