BetteBack: The Midler Moxie

Article from:Albany Times Union (Albany, NY) Article date:January 8, 1989
Byline: Jackie Demaline Executive entertainment editor

Let’s talk moxie.

Let’s talk Bette Midler – before “Ruthless People,” before “Outrageous Fortune,” before “Big Business.” Her personal life was on an upswing, but professionally she was – like her last movie – “Jinxed.”

Five years ago, career-wise she was down and out in Beverly Hills – not with Richard Dreyfuss and Nick Nolte, but for real.

So what did she do? Picked herself up, brushed herself off and started her own production company with long- time pal and personal assistant Bonnie Bruckheimer- Martell. If nobody was going to call her up, she’d make a few calls of her own. Margaret Jennings South joined them and they became All Girl Productions.

Somewhere in there, novelist Iris Dart came to Midler and said she was writing a book with her in mind. That’s nice, figured Midler, at least somebody still was interested in her.

Midler was so low she wasn’t even necessarily looking for projects for herself. All Girl has put a TV movie on the air, “Winning,” starring Meredith Baxter-Birney. Soon there will be a children’s comedy for theatrical release, “Pals Forever.”

“I don’t think she could see any further than what was happening at the time,” says Bruckheimer-Martell, who met Midler during the shooting of “The Rose” and has been with her ever since, through good and bad. “She’s extremely sensitive; she doesn’t do anything halfway.”

Bruckheimer-Martell had the confidence Midler lacked, and knew that Midler’s luck would change. “I thought, the whole world can’t not know what I know about this woman.”‘

Then came that string of hit comedies for Touchstone, and Midler, who these days protests she’s overweight (she isn’t) and baggy-eyed (they aren’t) is suddenly in a Hollywood catbird seat.

Midler is wielding a certain amount of box office power. What’s she going to do with it?

Let’s talk serious moxie.

Bette Midler is going to attempt what Barbra Streisand and Liza Minelli have failed to do before her.

“Musicals,” she says.

The red hair is pulled back but sproinging out of control, glasses are perched on her nose – from the neck up, Midler could pass for a frazzled Hollywood Producer.

Below the neck, tiny Midler is shivering in her black, bejeweled sweatsuit, her hands burrowed in her armpits. “I want to try to revive the musical form,” she says, and she isn’t making casual conversation. “Not just glossy, glittery, fancy Hollywood movies, but darker, too.”

Think back a decade and more in her rollercoaster career, and recall that Midler, the silver screen’s reigning funny lady, is first and foremost a singer – of ballads and rock, ditties and torch songs.

She hit Broadway as one of the daughters in the original “Fiddler on the Roof,” and hit it harder on a half shell as the Divine Miss M. She pulled in an Oscar nomination for her movie debut in “The Rose.”

It turns out Midler hasn’t forgotten her past. She’s just been playing it the industry’s way until she could play it hers.

Which brings us to “Beaches.” Iris Dart did write that book, and she and Midler stayed in touch over the years. When Midler couldn’t afford to option it, she went to Touchstone, which gave the nod to its favorite actress. It’s All Girl’s first big-screen project.

The movie opens Friday on area screens with Midler and Barbara Hershey playing lifelong friends who have as many ups and downs as an elevator in the Empire State Building.

It’s a hanky-wringing women’s movie, and any woman who’s ever had a girlfriend will be weeping away. There’s nobody who can go for your throat like your best friend.

Beneath the melodrama, there is music: Midler kicking back with “Under the Boardwalk”; mugging her way through “Sizzle” (which she co-wrote), a bawdy revue number that harks back to her headlining days at the Baths, and, through it all, the movie’s theme, “The Glory of Love.”

If you’ve been wondering what’s happened to “The Rose,” she’s blossomed.

The theme of friendship always has impacted on Midler’s career. “You’ve Got to Have Friends” became a signature song early in her career.

All Girl started because Bruckheimer-Martell had had enough of being an assistant. “My Bonnie was going to leave me,” says Midler. “She had worked thanklessly for me for a long time; she’d been there through so many changes in my life.”

Midler, with some help from her friends and some urging from her husband, started her own production company, making her former employee her partner.

Today, friendship means more than ever to Midler.

“So many people I know are passing from AIDS,” she says. “A good friend is something I try to be, but it’s something I have to pay attention to….

“My friendship has been tested so many times in the past four years, but it’s really the only thing you have in this life.”

Pal Diane Keaton also is producing, starring and singing these days, in “The Lemon Sisters.” Keaton will be singing “I’ll Be Seeing You” – a song she put in her film after hearing Midler sing it a friend’s funeral.

Midler gives you the feeling she makes a very good friend, even as she lists all the things that make her difficult. “I speak too plainly,” Midler says ruefully. “My voice is too raucous. People take things I say too personally.”

Can Midler bring back the film musical, a genre that went into a decline more than 20 years ago?

There’s ready evidence that it can be done. “Saturday Night Fever” was a hit, so was “Flashdance.” Both broke with the standard formula and made the film musical contemporary and electric.

Midler has never struck anyone as a broad hidebound to tradition.

“She always wants to do what everybody else isn’t doing,” says partner Jennings South. “There’s a line in the movie: ‘What do you do? Whatever they told me not to.’ That’s pretty Bette.”

Midler has been tapped to play Lotte Lenya in a film bio; there’s talk of adapting her latest literary endeavor, “A View from a Broad,” for the screen.

In spring she’ll be starting an update of “Stella Dallas” for Touchstone, which bought the rights for her three years ago. Midler isn’t sure why the powers that be are so hot on the project, she just knows she’d never say no to them. She figures she owes Touchstone for her career turnaround.

On the All Girl schedule is “For Our Boys,” a musical drama that follows two entertainers through three wars – World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

“Have you seen Offenbach’s ‘Tales of Hoffman?'” Midler asks.

That’s moxie.

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