It is suggested to Bette Midler she wi ll run out of t ime before she runs out of ideas. Her reply is s w i f t, wi thout trace of a smile.
“Oh no, don’t SAY tha t ,” she says. “You mean I wo n ‘t l ive forever?”
Trying to pin Bette Mi d l er down in a phrase or two is l i ke trying to play Name That Tune wi th the motorman on a moving subway t r a in. Under a n y t h i ng resembling normal circumstances, it cannot be done. Take, for instance, the present.
At l a n t ic has just released her latest a lbum, a live comedy session wi th a d u s t i n g o f s o n g a n d t h e
honest-enough t i t le Mud W i ll Be Flung Tonight. Bette f l i n g i ng mud at Madonna: “Touched for the very f i r st time? . . . H a! . . . Today, maybe.” At the Fr ench: “The nation that gave us Renoir thinks Jerry Lewis is a genius.” At Bruce Springsteen: “I knew him when his arms were as skimpy as his chord changes.”
Meanwhile, she is also starring in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hi l l s, the first R-rated f i lm f rom a Disney studio. Midler isn’t the specific reason for the R, though she does her part with a howlingorgasm scene unavoidably reminisc e nt of a s i m i l ar m o m e nt in Porky’s. Otherwise, she plays what seems at f i r st to be a wa l k i ng C a l i f o r n ia
j o k e, a bored, n e w ly monied housewife wi th tacky home furnishings and a weakness for any charlatan who promises eternal enlightenment and thin thighs in more t h an two syllables. A c t u a l l y, it tunis out, she doesn’t like the joke;
she’s just trapped in it. But let s not get ahead of ourselves.
She will also begin f i lmi n g, any minute now, her next movie: Ruthless People with Danny DeVito. After that, she’s planning to star in the Ina Ray Hutton story, a musical about a woman bandleader of the ’30s. In between she may squeeze in a Broadway revue, perhaps along the lines of her 1975 Clams on the Half Shell.
If that happens, it m i g ht answer the question of wh e t h er she can go home again. In the Clams days she was still Hot Young Star of Chic New York, Queen of Flash and Trash, Most Bizarre Success Story of the ’70s. Here was a Jewish
gi rl f rom Hawa ii who looked l ike six feet of body scrunched into a five foot f r ame, who got her f i r st notice in the C o n t i n e n t al Baths wi th Barry Ma n i l ow as her musical a r r ange r, who had a wonderful voice she of t en seemed not to take seriously, who could do nothing too outrageous.
Soon a f t er Clams she thanked the Harvard Hasty Pudding C l ub for its “woman of the year” award by shooting the audience a moon.
“I’m an entertainer,” she reflected years later, wi th a strong trace of a smile and no visible h i nt of regret. “I’ve bui lt my own house.”
That house has i n c l u d ed two movies: The Rose, for whi ch she won an Oscar n o m i n a t i o n, and Jinxed, for whi ch she won a nervous breakdown. I t ‘s also included a lbums, tours, books and TV specials, which have told both lots and l i t t le about the compulsive woman behind them.
At the end of her long 1983 tour, she mused about being exhausted (“You pour eve rything into it for six months and it never turns out q u i te the way you envisioned . ..a l t h o u g h c e r t a i n n i g h t s a r e ma g i c ” ), but doomed never to rest.
“One of my f avor i te songs is Marshall Crenshaw’s You’re My Favorite Waste of Time. To me, just spending t ime wi th f r i ends is like a v a c a t i o n. Y ou d o n ‘t m a ke a ny money doing it, but it’s refreshing.”
Whi ch is as specific as she gets about her l i f e. An interview with Midler is f u n n y, wi t t y, s t imul a t ing, even cha t ty; you just don’t end up pa int ing toenails and telling secrets. She doesn’t mind providing a cheerful “None of your business” to r e q u e s ts f or n a m e s, p l a c es or dates, and she once mused, “I can’t believe people really care what I have for breakfast or who I sleep with.”
Even if we forget the personal side, however, some professionalquestions r ema in. Is she a rock ‘n’ roll singer? Actress? Cabaret singer? Comedienne? Pe r formance art i s t, whatever that means? Even when she seems to be singing, is she
sometimes put t ing us on? The only recent career even remotely comparable to hers in scope, success and style is Eddie Murphy‘s. So is t h at i t? Is s he a s h o rt E d d ie Mu r p hy wi th a large chest?
Yes, well, we had to get to the chest, if only because Mi d l er has gotten more mileage out of that subject than Di r ty Ha r ry gets f rom a .44 Magnum. On Mud, a f t er telling a few hundred chest jokes, she remarks, “Does anyone knock the pope because all he t a lks about is God?”
As it happens, the chest jokes probably provide a good clue to the whole question of who this woman is, since they comprise perhaps the best example of her ma jor weapon: p r e – emp t i ve s t r ike s. She dodges scrutiny the way she dodges insults, by raising the subject so loudly herself that the question fogs over.
If you sometimes sing parodies, then maybe t h a t ‘s what a bad tune was supposed to be. If your stated wardrobe goal is to look tacky, how can you f a il as long as you don’t wear a business sui t?
On Mud, she does a routine on her 1984 marriage to Ma r t in von Ha s e lbe rg, pr evious ly described only as a “commodities dealer and performance artist.” “He’s a German,” she says on the record. “A Kraut. Every night 1 dress up like
Poland and he invades me.” And everyone laughs and the fact remarriage the way IBM guards microchip research.
Now, it’s no crime not to invi te People ma g a z i ne on the honeymoon. The mi ldly ironic part is t h at someone who prefers to dodge ins u l ts makes money by h a n d i ng them out.
But then, that’s show biz. As opposed to l i f e.
“The questions you hear in the ent e r t a inment business these days are all ‘How can we make the best deal?’ or ‘How can we sell it?’ Not ‘ Is it a ny g o o d ?’ A nd t h a t ‘s a c h a n ge over j u st the past 10 years.”
But is the business part at least sometimes s t imul a t ing?
“It would be,” she says, quite serious, “if it weren’t a matter of l i fe and death.”
What she’s more sure about is her fans. “They’re great. They let me try so much. Some of the ones I see now I knew 10 years ago in the Village, when I was shooing them off my doorstep. It’s fascinating to see how they’ve grown up. They
have jobs, they’ve lost weight. They don’t call themselves Mother Teresa any more.
“Of course, I don’t call myself Mother Teresa any more, either. So maybe I’ve grown up, too.”
Certainly possible, although the continuing shroud around her private l i fe makes the theory d i f f i c u lt for an outsider to confirm. Which doesn’t matter a whit, of course; if s h e ‘s h a p p y, w h at d i f f e r e n c e whether we have the details? Her former manager Aaron Russo once said she had ‘a lot of love to give and a fiery temper,” a combination that suggests her conservative approach is wise.
“I like to shop alone,” she said in 1983. “And I’m fortunate that I can. I remember Ma r i lyn Monroe saying once that she could turn it on and off â€” b y certain gestures she could become Marilyn or not. I feel a little bit the same way. Like when
I wash this face o f f, there’s no face there.