‘Crazy Bette’ Midler an unlikely that made it in show business
By TOM SHALES
NEW YORK – “Did you think I was going to be odd?” asks Bette (she says, “Bet”) Midler. “I’m not, am I? Do I look awful? Do you think I’m schizzy?”
These are tough questions for an interviewer, sitting in her New York grey apartment, drinking grapefruit juice. Bette is curled into an overstuffed chair that is covered with an American Hag and asking her boyfriend and her backup bass player Michael if he has melted her third coffee pot of the year by leaving it on the burner too long.
In a time of unlikelies and a city of grotesques, Bette Midler is still something else. She’s avant. Singing and vamping and leaping about a few square feet of stage space, she just completed her second smash engagement at Manhattan’s Trendy Downstairs at the Upstairs. The new darling of the Johnny Carson Show (“Crazy Bette Midler is with us tonight,” Johnny will say), she opens on the bill with Carson in Las Vegas this April.
She is a tiny 5 feet 1, and her spastically expressive face is too big for her body, but Richard Avedon has just photographed her adoringly for Vogue. Atlantic Records has signed her to a contract and she’s moving away from bleak
W, 72d Street to the Village. At the Downstairs, where she is introduced as “The Divine Miss M,” she tells audiences
“I’m everything you don’t want your little girl to become” and lapses Into her own Midler jive to express reactions. “It’s the pits,” currently her favorite phrase, means, Its, “100 times worst.”
“I NEVER EXPECTED (o go this far ever,” she says. “I mean. I wanted to, but now that I have lo do it, it’s Just a V . V
whole other story.”
On stage, it’s manic-depressive time, as she plummets from an incredible imitation of all three Andrews Sisters at once, singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” to a solitary, ’70s “Superstar.” Her repertoire has also included “Sh-Boom” and “Do You Wanna Dance?” and a number called “Marijuana,” began but not finished in an obscure ’30s movie musical. When she sings that one, she’s a licentious Carmen Miranda. When she sings “Empty Bed Blues,” she’s a white Bessie Smith. But in her braless ripped and filmy blouse, in a skirt slit up to here, in her too much lipstick and hubba-hubba rouge, she is not mere Miss Nostalgia. She’s a multi-media experience.
“I sort of have sung off and on most of my life,” she says, huddled into a corner at a seafood restaurant and poling at
the 12 clams her manager has permitted her for lunch. “But three years ago. when I first heard Aretha Franklin, I said.
‘Ah! That’s what it’s about!’ ” Even without her makeup and with a funny knit hat pulled down over her ears, she is theater. Her hands and arms pose in mock surprise at a compliment; her eyes come out from behind their natural squint and light up. There are gasps, jumps, shouts and a medley of movie musical swoons.
Born, of all places, in Hawaii, she worked at her father’s pineapple plant as a kid. “We all did – my two sisters and I. One sister has since passed away. One is home getting a master’s in speech therapy, and my brother is mentally retarded. A hot family, honey. A hot family. They’ve seen moi on TV. My father can’t handle it live. It disturbs him. My molher thinks it’s all wonderful. My father just thinks it’s Ihe pits.”