BetteBack: Back On Track

Article from:Albany Times Union (Albany, NY) Article date:July 21, 1995
Byline: ELAINE DUTKA Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD Bette Midler is grabbing a business lunch in the Rotunda, the mouse-motif restaurant frequented by the top rung of Team Disney, when a sandy-haired executive interrupts her, mid-bite. “You’re my favorite . . . seen everything you’ve done,” he says, both excited and apologetic. “I was in the second row at Radio City (Music Hall) the one who caught your hairpiece in the mermaid act.”

This Midler, however, is a tidal wave removed from Delores DeLago, her over-the-top aquatic alter ego who tore up the stage in a wheelchair that night.

“No one believes that’s just a mask,” Midler says of the Divine Miss M, whose 16th album, “Bette of Roses,” is due out from Atlantic Records this week. “My real self, however, isn’t a character people would pay to see.”

Her real self, however, is what brought Midler to Disney that day to discuss a project in development at All Girl Productions the company she and longtime pal Bonnie Bruckheimer formed in 1985 at the suggestion of Disney top brass Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. But, fed up with “exclusivity,” convinced the fit is no longer right, Midler and Bruckheimer will soon be moving on, bringing their decade at Disney to an end.

Atypical in look and style, the actress has always generated her own work. After “The Rose,” which did good business and brought Midler a 1979 AcademyAward nomination, not a single job offer came her way.

All Girl Productions so named to poke fun at the politically incorrect term for women got off to a running start with the release of “Beaches,” “Ruthless People,” “Outrageous Fortune” and “Big Business,” which helped establish Disney as a force to be reckoned with and resuscitated Midler’s career after “Jinxed!” in 1982. Things hit the skids in the ’90s with “Scenes From a Mall,” “For the Boys” and “Hocus Pocus.” But with the critically acclaimed TV musical “Gypsy,” the recent success of “Man of the House” and a host of new projects in the works, the Girls, it seems, are back on track.

For starters, there’s “That Old Feeling,” starring Midler, getting off the ground at MGM. And “Texas Guinan,” the tale of a female entrepreneur during the Roaring ’20s, on which they’re working with Martin Scorsese and Barbara De Fina at Universal. “Murdering Mr. Monti,” based on a book by Judith Viorst, is in development at Hollywood Pictures. And “Traps,” a thriller with music, will air on NBC.

“Being a female production team is a real tribute to both of them,” observes Interscope president Robert Cort, who is working with them on Iris Dart’s “Show Business Kills.”

Midler and Bruckheimer refuse to cry “victim,” however. (“Disney treated us as bad as (it does) everyone else,” quips Bruckheimer, an animated strawberry blonde who keeps pace with her partner in the humor department.) But in Hollywood, as in the rest of life, gender inevitably factors in. As the first women to penetrate that studio’s production ranks, they were “grateful” for a deal that gave them office space but no capital.

“We didn’t get a discretionary fund that’s the domain of the boys, so we had to rely on Disney to buy material for us,” says Midler, sitting at the kitchen table of their Disney offices. “We’re not able to put in a bid for an author’s next book but, then, we don’t aspire to that. . . . Entertainment shouldn’t cost $125 million that’s the budget of whole states.”

According to Bruckheimer, they’re much tougher these days. “Politeness is a sure-fire way of getting stepped on,” she says. “Though we used to be ladies, we’re not anymore.”

Championing female-oriented material such as “Beaches,” “Gypsy” and “Show Business Kills” the story of five women in their 40s didn’t make life any easier. Hollywood’s conventional wisdom has it that actresses can’t “open” a film especially abroad. And it’s the sex and violence Bruckheimer and Midler eschew that provide even a modicum of box-office insurance.

Disney’s refusal to greenlight All Girl projects especially those in which Midler didn’t star made for a creative roadblock, they say. After a frustrating stretch in which they pitched 80 ideas to the studio, none with any success, All Girl managed to set up several projects with current studio chief Joe Roth. But when Disney failed to meet two deadlines for submitting material, the duo determined to leave after a transitional year on the lot.

If it’s Bette’s name that opens the door, it’s Bruckheimer who makes sure they don’t get trampled going through. An industry veteran, she runs interference for Midler and serves as an all-purpose safety net.

The Brooklyn-born Bruckheimer, who is in her mid-40s, worked with directors Paul Schrader and Arthur Penn before assisting Midler’s ex-manager, Aaron Russo, on the set of “The Rose” (1979). Hired to scout out projects for the actress, she soon became indispensable. “Everyone thinks I’m Bette’s manager,” Bruckheimer says. “I still run her life.”

Musicals, they note, are another uphill battle. The industry and the public must be “re-educated” about the possibility of movie stars bursting into song. If “Gypsy,” for which Midler received a 1994 Golden Globe award, revived the form on TV, the failure of “For the Boys” the tale of an entertainer over the course of three wars was their most painful experience on the big screen.

Trying to fudge the movie’s anti-war message, they claim, 20th Century Fox marketed it as a musical. “People saw Bette singing `Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ and assumed that’s all there was,” Bruckheimer says. “The numbers weren’t that bad, but the press dubbed it the turkey of the holiday season after it was out a day. It destroyed us.”

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