BetteBack: Rarely has there been an actress as energetic and effervescent as Midler

Bette Midler plays herself in new series, but that may not be enough.
Article from: Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Article date:October 10, 2000
Author: Perkins, Ken Parish

Although she’s starring in a sitcom that, so far, shows scant sign of excellence, Bette Midler is nonetheless one of the promising pleasures of the new television season. Rarely has there been an actress as energetic and effervescent as Midler, who gleefully punches holes in her renowned appeal _ which, of course, only ends up making her seem that much more appealing.

Bette Midler in a half-hour series about Bette Midler might sound brazenly simplistic, but there’s no better way of explaining the essence of this new sitcom that CBS is blissfully expecting to be its next great hit.

Except to say it has even greater potential to be its next great bust.

In a long and decorated career, Midler, now a bouncy 54, has starred in more than a dozen films, including both sentimental dramas and irreverent comedies, written two books, one of which _ a story for children _ was a bestseller. She has won Emmys and Grammys and Tonys and Golden Globes and was nominated for a couple Oscars.

But Midler’s career-long challenge has always been exactly how to creatively satisfy this hybrid of a performer. What’s clear is that Midler no longer interests Hollywood, because there’s little call these days for middle-aged female movie comedians.

Midler isn’t satisfied unless she’s literally all over the place _ singing, dancing, doing pratfalls, anything physical, anything zany.

You’d think that television, with its minifilms produced weekly over an eight-month season, would be perfect for her, that Midler’s brash, winning personality makes her a natural for a medium still intrigued by women over 40, because, well, it’s women viewers who sustain most successful series on air.

But if the pilot of “Bette” is to be our guide, this might not be the proper showcase either, or at least not this premise executed in this way.

We have to remember that for all those whose sun rises and sets on Midler (her live stage performances are still hot tickets), this amazing burst of schizo shtick can also be utterly unwatchable for those who don’t love absolutely everything about her. It must be acknowledged that Midler has long trod a delicate line between treasure and irritant, and that over the years even the manic jokery she indulges in compulsorily at news conferences and during talk shows, a curdled version of the rat-a-tat-tat looniness that was exhilarating and fresh at one time, is now harder to consume.

“Bette,” for better or for worse, might come closest to exposing the Midler hybrid, and you wonder if that in itself is a built-in problem.

The comedy features Midler as herself, focusing on the dichotomy of life as highly praised performer, with her sold-out shows and adoring fans on the one hand, and her laid-back, almost apathetic husband, mall-going teen-age daughter and best buddy-slash-manager on the other.

Wednesday night’s episode, which has Bette wondering if she’s over the hill, sets up quite succinctly what viewers will see over the course of the season _ a star more than willing to poke fun at her own legend, truth and perception. It begins shortly before a stage performance, with Bette pained with anxiety and everyone simply trying to get out of her way. “What is it tonight?” she asks her husband, Roy, played by Kevin Dunn. “Supremely overconfident or riddled with anxiety?”

No flaw or quirk goes unnoticed, including her age (“I look like a fossil in heels”), weight, looks and the celebrity vagaries of Hollywood society. Midler zips through the pilot like a woman possessed _ talking a mile a minute, bursting with wisecracks and throwing out so many inside-Hollywood lines there ought to be an advisory warning: Those unfamiliar with Bette Midler’s career may not get it. Staring into the mirror, she gasps, “I look like the last 20 minutes of `For the Boys.””

At one point, when Bette is spewing some romantic line about love and lust, Roy asks, “Isn’t that from `The Rose?””; another heartfelt Bette line prompts Roy to ask, “Isn’t that from `Beaches?””

Celebrities will be a main focus of the series (Danny DeVito plays himself in the pilot), and Midler goes after Sally Field, who beat out Midler for an Oscar, saying “Sally Field my (butt).” And later, to Roy: “You have a mistress? It’s Sally Field, isn’t it? I’ve been looking for an excuse to kill her for 20 years. I’m coming to get you, Gidget!”

The contrast of an extraordinary public life with an extremely ordinary private one presents its own brand of difficulties _ in fact, test audiences of the series howled at the scenes of a zany Bette getting into another Lucy-style moment, only to fall silent as soon as the domesticated Bette was presented in her home dwelling as a mother, wife and friend.

Most episodes, says co-creator and executive producer (along with Midler) Jeffrey Lane, will be grounded in the backstage-family-vs.-onstage-diva conflict, so the challenge for Midler is how to let viewers in on the chaos that’s her life.

One way is to make it as close to real life as possible, which is why the setup is like her own. There’s a husband, 13-year-old daughter, friend/manager and accompanist, her core support system. So tied to her real life is Midler, who never watches TV and calls it dumb, that the character also scorns the medium on the medium, saying, at one point during a discussion of how low her career has fallen, “I just don’t know if I should do TV. If I keep doing these guest spots I’d soon have my own series. Then I might as well kill myself.”

Bette delivers these lines, most of them average and some of them quite lame, with energy and snap, and it doesn’t help that her supporting cast, at least in the pilot, is nothing more than stand-ins who could very well have been plucked from the studio audience.

Surely it will improve, but the pilot has very talented actors: Dunn, for instance, and the lightning-quick Joanna Gleason as her best friend and manager, Connie, who speaks only when spoken to and stands back far enough to give Bette her room. (Lindsay Lohan, who played the twins in “The Parent Trap,” is her daughter in the pilot but will be replaced by the third episode. She dropped out after the sitcom was forced to film in Los Angeles instead of New York, where her family resides.)

Watch closely enough and you’ll see Midler’s co-stars smiling lovingly as Bette goes through her paces, as if they’re not a part of the proceedings. (I’m surprised that after one of her more trying shticks they simply didn’t break into applause.)

But, then, everyone seems clear that “Bette” will live or die on the talents of the star in the title, that, unlike Jerry Seinfeld, who played Jerry Seinfeld in his series, this is a star vehicle in every sense of the word.

Midler’s ignorance about the ways of TV is refreshing, sure _ calling CBS President Les Moonves to ask why her series couldn’t air at 9 p.m. and out of the firing line of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” when no comedy series has ever been successful at that time _ is downright adorable.

For now, “Bette’s” plum position as anchor of the night and up against only one comedy, John Goodman’s “Normal, Ohio,” might be enough to keep the series afloat in the ratings. But there’ll soon come a day when Midler’s skill, charm and energy won’t be able to keep the series aloft.

So Midler had better learn quickly one truism of the medium she rarely watches and has long scorned _ a solid ensemble cast is priceless.


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