BetteBack – 11-06-1987: Bette Midler: Settling Down In Disneyland

Bette Midler: Settling Down In Disneyland
By Dan DiStasio

“My daughter will have a very traditional upbringing. No television. Lots of books. Piano lessons, dance lessons. I don’t ever want her to see my work and say, ‘That’s you? How could you do that?'”

Could this really be the self-pro­claimed “last of the truly tacky women” speaking? Yes, the ultratalented, brash and b a w dy q u e en of camp, having m a de three hit films for Walt Disney Studios, has now b e c o me the toast of Hollywood, a Beverly Hills matron, mother and wife. Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, who recently s i g n ed her to another three film d e a l, says, “As a performer, Bette Midler is the single b i g g e st asset we have.” Has she t r a d ed In her fabulous four-ietter-wit to walk the squeaky c l e an p a th of Wait Disney’s family entertainment machine? Has she, in a wo r d, sold out? Or is the first lady of “trash with flash” l e a d i ng the Mickey a nd Minnie c r owd up a new g o l d en road?

That her hystericaiiy funny vulgar hu­mor hasn’t b e en t emp e r ed is obvious from touches in Outrageous Fortune like her identifying a corpse using anatomical detail not In most textbooks of forensic sci­ence. Yet in the same film, this woman of the wild wa r d r o be c an be seen wear ing not a glitzy halter top stretched precariously across pos­sibly the best-known mammaries in moviedom, but rather a relatively tame tailored houndstooth jacket.

More and more. Miss Madness seems to be favoring the stylish rags of Rodeo Drive instead of wild frip­pery from the Frederick’s of the im­agination. If clothes make the man, how much more do they make the woman? A peek into the closet of Ms. Midler would p r o b a b ly reveal not only a history of hysteria a nd kitschy taste in the ’70s, and ’80s,
but with a little luck, the woman, the di­vine Miss M herself. So imagine, if you will….

A six-foot-long, mustard-streaked hotdog in a bun? Hanging off it a long dark robe befitting a nun? Do these both belong to the mad woman of Honolulu? Yes. Bette, ever in search of the outrageous and absurd, did indeed don a knee-iength dog with relish in one of her wildly success­ful stage shows. Imagine the quips!

Yet that long dark turn-of-the-century gown buttoned tight against immoral­ity is precisely what Bette wore In her true screen d e b ut in 1966, playing a missionary’s wife in Hawaii. Born on December 1,1945, to work­ing class parents in a modest Honolulu neighborhood, the third daughter of Ruth Midler was named after one of her mother’s favorite movie stars, Bette Davis. Throughout Bette’s c h i l d h o o d, her mother encouraged her to pursue her eariy ambitions of becoming a star.

Fred, Bette’s father, never ap­proved, a nd in his entire life he never saw his daughter perform. Hawaii p a id Bette enough to buy a one-way ticket to New York, where she
c o u ld begin to make her dreams come true.

A hardworking D-cup brassiere to keep Bette’s bust in line (when she chose to). A necessary piece of ac­coutrement, let’s face it: Bette’s Bust is part of her trade­mark. She began creating a stir in the late ’60s at the Continental Baths in New York, a gay establishment forced to o p en its doors on Saturday nights to the straight public’s
d e m a nd to see the new sensation. Few knew that they might already have seen her in the hit Broadway musical, Fid­dler on the Roof as Tzeitel, the eldest daughter.

The antique velvet dresses she first wore on Broadway b e c a me an early trademark for Bette, a l o ng with the torch-song style that would later elevate her to stardom. In the baths, Bette also b e g an a pro­fessional relationship with another future success, Barry Manilow. Barry t a p p ed the ivories at the “tubs” (as Bette c a l l ed them) a nd e n c o u r a g ed her to d e v e l op her own distinct musi­c al style. G o od a d v i ce for a young woman with the pizzazz of Garland, the precise phrasing of Streisand a nd a voice that c o u ld handle anything from Piaf to Presley. But ’30s a nd ’40s songs b e c a me Bette’s breakthrough material, giving her a c h a n ce to lose public eye, whether mooning the Harvard Club after being given the Hasty Pudding Award or stealing the Oscar ceremonies by appearing in a lowcut, shiny gold gown with red and blue silk spangled scarves billowing
from the sleeves. [She floored the audience by proclaiming. “I guess you thought it was impossible to overdress for this affair.”] A 5′ 1″. pudgy Jewish girl who didn’t consider herself very pretty.

Bette had created a mask, a persona strung with all those baubles, bangles and beads which gave her creative genius freedom to fly. But Jinxed weighed heavily on her. The line to Hollywood was on indefinite hold. A near nervous collapse occurred. Had she come to the end of the line? Was she all dressed up with no place to go? What now? What
new costume could she wear?

A simple blue-gray chiffon dress and a maternity gown. In December of 1984, it was love at first sight for Bette and Martin von Hasselberg, a.k.a. Harry Kipper. A German South American industrialist, he doubled as a Kipper Kid, half of a comedy duo who per formed in jockstraps and smeared each other with chocolate and paint, fterhaps just crazy enough to appreciate the private Miss Madness.

Bette was off again to Las Vegas, this time in the simple aforementioned wedding gown, to be married by an Elvis impersonator. Clam Shell girl calming down? Hardly. Yet. motherhood soon followed and in the tradition established by her mother Bette named her own daughter after a favorite performer–Sophie Tucker. But instead of settling down to enjoy the simpler and quieter life she seemed ready for, Bette surprised everybody, including herself. She was about to see her dreams come true.

Fox fur, diamond earrings, platinum watch, and a cream-colored silk chamois dress designed to kill. Who would have thought that Bette (bleep%m-if-they-can’t-take-a-joke) Midler would be playing a bored Beverly Hills matron? Yet Bette was never more seductive on the screen.

Jiggling up and down the stairs in tippy-toe high heels, sitting crosslegged and cooing mantras to her guru. Bette stole the show in what she originally thought was not a major role. A comeback in the Disney stable as a sedate but loony married woman was middle age making Bette a Midler-of-the-roader? Was the wonderful vulgar spokeswoman of bad taste and good comedy about to vanish into the simonized hills of Lala Land?

Not on your life. In a single year, Bette had a baby and three hit movies.

A crown and sceptre–not the ones she carried years ago as the Statue of Libido.

No. to Bette Midler goes the crown of the Queen of Comedy. The biggest female box office attraction in film in 1986. Cleaned up her act? Watch her have her way with Danny DeVito in Ruthless People. As she lets out a hilarious string of expletives she tops it by saying sweetly, “They made me say that.” No. Bette Midler isn’t slowing down. She’s just getting started.

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