TV Review: Bette Midler – The Showgirl Must Go On

Bay Area Reporter, a division of Benro Enterprises, Inc.
Still struttin’ her stuff
by David Alex Nahmod
Bette Midler – The Showgirl Must Go On (HBO, premieres Dec. 31)

Her beloved Sophie character may be 93 years old, but neither Soph (her boyfriend Ernie always calls her Soph!) nor the Divine Miss M, herself now 65, are sweet old ladies. In this filmed record of The Showgirl Must Go On, her recent two-year stage show at Caesar’s Palace, Bette Midler does exactly what her fans expect: she sings, dances, shakes her booty, and shares raunchy stories. “Salty songs and dirty jokes put my daughter through private school,” she quips gleefully.

In truth, her song selections aren’t salty at all, but are in fact quite lovely. Bette puts her heart into chestnuts like “From a Distance,” “Friends,” “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “The Rose.” John Prine‘s “Hello in There” is particularly moving. She performs this ode to senior citizens against a stark, black-and-white blow-up of a foggy New York City skyline which underscores the sadness of the song’s heroine.

These musical performances highlight Bette’s formidable talent: she has two distinct personas in her act, and she moves between them with ease. In one, she’s an old-school torch singer, belting out classic “cry in your beer” tunes. In the other, she’s a larger-than-life drag queen, running madly to and fro, telling tales that would make a sailor blush.

It’s the way she tells these stories that makes them so funny again and again. While sharing anecdotes from Sophie’s colorful life, Miss M uses only the most proper language, as befitting Sophie’s status as a “lady.” Feeling in need of some “personal attention,” Soph struts over to the local nursing home, “where I can still turn a few heads.” There, she and old Mr. Feldman engage in “relations.” “I didn’t know you were still a virgin,” says Mr. Feldman as they “bask in the afterglow.” Replies Sophie, “If I knew you could still get it up, I’d have taken off my pantyhose!”

As herself, Bette isn’t afraid to poke fun at her age. At one point, she collapses on stage, gasping for breath. “Celine, come back,” she cries, “all is forgiven! Thirty years ago, my audience was on drugs. Now, they’re on medication!”

As always, she acknowledges her sizable gay audience. “Where are the gays?” she quips, as she peers out into the bleachers. “They always travel in such well-manicured packs.”

But in promo interviews currently airing on HBO, Bette takes on a more serious tone. She recalls her days in the early 1970s, when she was the featured performer at the Continental Baths in NYC. She speaks of her long-standing support for gay rights. “I hope I did something to bring the movement forward,” she says. At 65, Bette Midler, as sassy and as energetic as ever, proves that age is only a number. The show and the showgirl will indeed go on.

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