The outrageous queen of brash is going soft.
Bette Midler has gone from trash mouth to trash collector, from Vegas showgirl to ukulele student. It could be her boldest move yet, because it’s the opposite of how she’s spent the past 40 years of her life delighting her core fan base.
Case in point: Midler, she who rose to fame on the salt of her bawdy shows at a gay New York bathhouse, is the first speaker in this season’s SmartTalk series, which generally features famous mature women recounting their lives to an audience made up mostly of other mature women.
What will she talk about? “Oh, my life, my career, my inspirations, my view of the world, various things that have brought me joy,” she rattled off recently by phone from her home base in New York. “This is the first time I’ll be doing it. I hope it will be fun.”
That’s a lot of ground to cover for a star who could spend 90 minutes just recounting her exhausting stint in “The Showgirl Must Go On,” the Las Vegas show she performed 200 times at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, through January 2010, with a backup group dubbed the Staggering Harlettes. Cher, who’s close to the same age, did Vegas as well, but she’s bionic.
The reported $120 million Midler was paid must have been a great incentive, but still, how does a mortal woman in her early 60s harness the energy required for such a feat?
“The show itself was the workout,” she said. “You ran from the time the curtain went up till it went down. I was unprepared for how big the stage was; it’s got to be the biggest in the country. ” Pause, abrupt tone change: “It was so much fun I wouldn’t trade a minute.”
If you didn’t happen to catch Midler’s live show, or the New Year’s HBO special based on it, you probably haven’t seen her at all of late (you may have heard her, voicing the lead role in the animated “Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”). In a time when middle-aged and senior actresses are getting more work than they have in years– which isn’t saying much — it’s puzzling that the two-time Oscar nominee isn’t popping up on the big screen, especially in less comedic, more dramatic roles (she shone as Helen Hunt’s self-absorbed birth mother in the underappreciated indie “Then She Found Me”).
Midler begs to differ.
“I wait for them to come to me, sitting here in my ivory tower,” she said. “There’s not much you can do if they don’t want you,” she said. “Meryl gets most of the jobs. She’s the go-to girl and everyone else is kind of an also-ran. But it’s adapt or die. You have to assess your options and keep going.”
There’s always her music. A woman who has sold more than 30 million records and won four Grammys must have a few more tunes to belt out. But she sounds a bit jaded about that process, too.
“They always want you to have a concept, a songbook album or duets, and that makes me feel like running out the door,” she said. “That’s living someone else’s dream.”
She does have one surprising hankering left — going country.
“Some of the best character songs being generated are in country,” she said. “They’re wonderfully evocative, three-minute Shakespearean tragedies. I love the music, but I don’t know if I would be accepted as a country singer.”
Instead, she’s taking music lessons. She now plays the ukulele, official instrument of her native Hawaii, and is learning piano.
“It’s hard, but it keeps me sharp,” she said. “The one thing I really don’t want to do is get any dumber than I am. When you’re young, you think it’s never going to happen to you. You’ve got to stay engaged.”
One subject on which she’s very engaged is her husband, Martin von Haselberg, with whom she has a 24-year old daughter, Sophie. Though he’s been pictured at her side in many a paparazzo photo over the years, he’s kept a low profile. Midler gets effusive on the subject of her husband of 26 years.
“He’s the handsomest and kindest man in world, and a really interesting character. He started out as both a performance artist and commodities trader, then started concentrating on photography and painting.”
Midler said he was very involved when Sophie was young because she was often out of town during those years.
“We’re a tiny family, but very close. I was out of town a lot when Sophie was young. He picked up the slack and raised our daughter. He’s from Germany, from a very old-school [philosopher] Rudolf Steiner-style family. He rebelled against that but remembered it in bringing up Sophie. You make your presents, you don’t buy them, you learn to cook, do community service.”
A big part of that community service is a project close to Midler’s heart. She launched a foundation 15 years ago to clean up New York City’s parks and plant trees. “I just started picking up trash with a bunch of my friends,” she said. “No one was doing it; I felt I had to.”
The New York Restoration Project (www.nyrp.org) clears garbage from city parks in all five boroughs, and now owns more than 50 community gardens, including three funded by Minneapolis-based Target Corp.
“I’ll be bringing pictures” when I come to Minneapolis, Midler said.