BetteBack: “Experience the Divine”

STILL DIVINE AFTER ALL THESE YEARS; The Indomitable Miss M on Disney, Stardom, Roz Russell and …
Article from:The Washington Post Article date:August 22, 1993 Author: Tom Shales

Bette Midler sounds like something the cat dragged out. But she has a right to be pooped. First, she’s a big busy star. Second, she’s had an especially hectic few months, going from the Disney witch movie “Hocus Pocus” to filming the musical “Gypsy” for CBS to a month’s feverish planning for her first concert tour in 10 years.

The tour is called “Experience the Divine” but, snaps Midler, “it’ll probably be called `Experience the Profane’ by the time we get out there.”

She hasn’t yet mapped the whole thing out, Midler says; the touring may continue through the end of the year. She’s running the show herself. “From the middle ’70s up through the last show we did, in 1983, my best friend was my director and he kept all the stuff away from me,” says Midler from her home in Los Angeles. “But he died in 1989. I’ve lost so many friends.”

The tour, now at nine cities and counting, comes to the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia Wednesday for a two- night stand. Soon after, Midler goes on to New York’s 5,800-seat Radio City Music Hall for a run of six weeks that, Katie Couric said on “Now” the other night, could turn out to be “the biggest-grossing concert series in history.”

Midler, 47, has high hopes for it, but she tends to have high hopes for everything. She’s a high-hoping kind of gal.

“Parts of it are going to be great, and parts are going to be terrible, but it’s going to be fun,” she says. “It’s going to be a real nice change from doing what other people want me to do. For once, I’m doing something that I want to do. I haven’t done that in a long time, and I’m kind of looking forward to it.”

You’d think someone in her position would pretty much be able to do what she wants all the time.

“Well, that’s not really the business that I’m in. I haven’t been in the Bette Midler business for the past 10 years: I’ve been in the Touchstone film business, pretty much.” Midler’s contract with Disney’s Touchstone has two pictures to go. “They have their ideas. I’ve been good, I’ve done good work, I’ve had a lot of fun with them, but I’m looking forward to doing my own thing.”

Midler’s association with Disney has, on the one hand, been credited with broadening her appeal, but on the other, it’s been said the studio homogenized and pasteurized her, took away some of the brass and sass. Disney is known for exerting fanatically tight control over projects, sometimes so tight it’s stifling.

“Well, I don’t think they intended that to happen,” Midler says, “but I think they just couldn’t help themselves. That’s the way they are. They’re extremely nervous, cautious people and it served them well for a long time, but I think the formula has pretty much run itself into the ground, and it’s time to get a new formula. It might be that it’s time for them to let people be what they are.

“They’ve been very kind to me. But it’s very hard to get work done there. It’s very hard to get things that have a sense of outrageousness to them done. It didn’t used to be that way, but in the past few years it has been. They don’t want to do anything from anybody else; they want to develop their own projects. And they tend to `team it’ – you know, Team Disney – and it tends to be a hundred voices instead of just one voice.

“I don’t know where they’re going. I’ve lost touch, sort of.”

Midler’s movie career has been at best middling. There were disasters like “Stella” for Disney and “For the Boys” at 20th Century Fox. “Hocus Pocus” has not been setting any records either, but critics have generally said Midler as a daffy witch is the best thing in it. And Midler’s 6-year-old daughter, Sophie, loved it. So there.

“She’s seen it many times. Many, many times! She’d rather see that picture than anything. She walks around in those teeth – you know, I brought the teeth home. So she puts them on and carries on and does the dialogue. She really likes that picture. That’s her favorite one so far. I did have her on the set of `Gypsy,’ which I did right after that, and that was a real eye-opener for her. She sings all the songs.”

A lavish $15 million production that will be released theatrically overseas, “Gypsy” airs on CBS in December. The 1959 Broadway musical, in which Ethel Merman introduced “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” was filmed once before, in 1962, with Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose, mother of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Told that the earlier movie was “awful,” Midler leaps onto her high horse and rides like the wind.

“I don’t think anything Rosalind Russell ever did could be awful! I adored her! I thought she was totally brilliant, totally brilliant, and very underused and underrated. She did get some kind of humanitarian award at the end, but she was a genius! When you watch her in `Auntie Mame‘ or in `His Girl Friday,’ you just can’t conceive that she wasn’t queen of the world!”

Yes, but Bette –

“So talented! I mean, `The Women‘ – God! Who could even do that?! There’s nobody alive who could even do that!”

Yes, but Bette, no slur was intended on Russell. It was the movie that laid the big one.

“Oh. Well, I was just rising to the occasion because I’m really a Roz Russell fan. Roz could never do any wrong as far as I’m concerned. But I haven’t seen the movie in 25 or 30 years and I didn’t want to watch it because I didn’t want to be influenced by it. I didn’t want any of that hanging over me. And I’m very proud of what we did.

“I have high hopes for it.”

Another Midler project, still in the early planning stages, teams her with Eddie Murphy (but only as producers): a film about Florence Greenberg, pioneering record company executive, to be played by La Belle Bette. Might Murphy also appear in it? “I don’t know if he’d actually be in it. There’s a part for him, though. He could probably play the crap out of it too.” Greenberg had a long affair, Midler says, with rhythm-and-blues artist Luther Dixon. “So there is a part for Eddie. He didn’t say nothin’ to me about it.”

One naturally wants to know what the meetings between Midler and Murphy have been like. “We’ve never gotten together,” Midler says deflatingly. “Call my people! His people and my people are having a wonderful time! They eat lunch every Friday! See, he’s a busy guy, and I’m a busy girl. We’ll probably get together as soon as this whole tour is over and see what we can do.”

And there’s yet another project in the works, a film biography of singer, actress and old Midler crony Lainie Kazan.

“Well, this Lainie Kazan story is probably one of the most hysterical stories that ever existed. You know, she’s a friend of mine, I worked with her in `Beaches‘ and I’ve always liked her, always admired her, but I didn’t realize what a hilarious woman she was until she sat down with me one day and told me her story.

“I said, `Well, there must be a movie in this,’ so we got Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna, who are also unbelievably hysterical, to write this treatment that has actually wound up having very little do with Lainie’s life – but it was inspired by Lainie’s life. I haven’t read it yet but the dribbles have been coming through to me and I hear it’s very funny, so I have high hopes for it. I like playing those larger-than-life ladies and – ”

There is an ominous pause. Midler has stopped talking. Is something wrong?

“It’s amazing that I still have `high hopes’ after all these years,” she says with a rueful laugh. Meaning what? “Well, you know, it’s hard! It’s very very hard! And you can get trampled every step of the way. I find it amazing that I keep picking myself up and dusting myself off and keep plowing on.”

But fortunately she does.

Let’s see if we can goad her into a catty comment about Barbra Streisand. Has she heard Streisand’s windy “Back to Broadway” album? “No, I haven’t. Have you?” Parts of it, yes. “Well, you try to get through it, and you call me,” she says.

Okay. Then let’s ask Midler whether she’ll be taking a documentary crew along to film the backstage shenanigans of her concert tour, a` la Madonna’s “Truth or Dare,” of course. “No, God, no! I’d be afraid to have everybody see what really goes on in our group.”

Anyway, she does promise to do some of the old songs in her concert, including “Friends,” one of her earliest signature tunes. “Of course I’ll sing `Friends.’ I have to sing `Friends.’ ”

Everybody will probably cry, like when Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow.”

“Ya think? I wish I had her act!”

Midler needn’t worry; she’s as much one-of-a-kind as Garland was. “Friends” includes the refrain “but you’ve got to have friends,” and Midler has millions. She may make a few more before the year is over.

The Bette Midler Business seems to be booming again.

We have high hopes for it.

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One thought on “BetteBack: “Experience the Divine”

  1. I can’t believe 17 years have passed! As Miss M would say: “Time flies when you’re on Prozac…”

    This was such an exciting time for Bette’s touring career. Better than that just her International Kiss My Brass Tour and the Vegas extravaganza.

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