Miss M: Finally a successful film career
Sun., July 3, 1988
In hindsight it’s hard to believe that only a couple of years before outrageously good fortune led Disney’s Touchstone
Pictures to let director Paul Mazursky take a chance and cast her in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” Midler’s screen
career had been down and out itself.
“That’s why whenever I get a little award or something I always try to say thanks to Paul Mazursky,” says the fiery-haired star “Because I really do believe that if it hadn’t been for him, I would probably still be in the toilet.”
It hadn’t started out that way.
In the late ’60s the Honolulu redhead had burst on the New York scene like a typhoon, parlaying her standing-room only shows in a gay bath house to appearances on “The Tonight Show” and record contracts.
Her campy rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” was a hit and the revue “Clams on the Half Shell” put her on Broadway.
The next yearÂ she brought her hit revue “Divine Madness” to the screen and published the best-selling “A View From A Broad,” a memoirÂ of her European tour.
There were Grammys for “The Rose” and “Blueberry Pie” in 1980, too.
Then in 1982 her red hair was platmumized for the not-so funny black comedy, “Jinxed,” about a woman who wants herÂ husband murdered.
And the offers stopped.
“I would never, ever, ever want to live like that again,” she says with quiet determination about the years following “Jinxed,” whose title seemed to sum up her career at the time.
“I would never want to live like that again. I would never want to go through that again ever. Ever.
“It was horrible. It was just horrible. I suffered a lot. I was in a constant state of anxiety. I couldn’t eat. I lost weight. I couldn’t stop crying. I was really in just the worst shape.
“And I don’t want to do that again. I don’t think anything is worth that in life.”
She felt that her film career was washed up. “Yes I did. Yes I did. And I couldn’t believe it. I refused to believe it.
“It had all the earmarks of being dead as a doornail and I refused to believe it. I kept on fighting.
“I have to say ‘Jinxed’ was my fault… but it wasn’t just my fault,” she says of the film whose entire Nevada shootingÂ schedule was widely reported to have been filled with bitter fighting.
“I had an agent who told me that if I didn’t do this picture it would be over for me. And I believed him. Â That was in 1981 or ’82. I’d made ‘The Rose’ two years before that.”
She had taken a chance on “Jinxed” because, despite her Oscar nomination, she hadn’t been offered any other nonrevue film roles after “The Rose.” Why that happened is a question that still perplexes her. “God only knows,” she says,Â shaking her head. “I never figured it out. I have no idea. I was never offered anything. For a long time I thought, well, they must think that that’s really my story (in ‘The Rose’) and I really only have one story to tell.”
After the release and quick disappearance of “Jinxed,” it was nearly four years before she was offered another film … but even then she didn’t jump at the chance to play a nouveau riche Beverly Hills matron who welcomes a bum into her home in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”
“I didn’t think anyone would believe me having two children of that age (in the film she has a teenage son and a college-age daughter) because I consider myself a perennial 28-year-old,” chuckles Midler, who will be 43 t h is year. “But he (Paul Mazursky) believed it and it worked out.
“After The Rose’ I thought I would be a different kind of a player. I didn’t think my direction was going to be comedic. I thought it was going to be straighter.
“But, you know, you have to look in the mirror and see what it is. You have to take stock of yourself.
“And I loved being part of an ensemble. That was one of the big things I discovered … that I didn’t have to have my name above the title. Because then the whole onus wasn’t on me. It didn’t rise or fall on my name value. Other people were sharing the burden. That was a huge breakthrough for me.
“I wasn’t nervous because I was just a minor player. I really felt it was Richard (Dreyfuss) and Nick’s (Nolte) picture and I was just supporting them. So I felt like, ‘Hey guys, you do the worrying’ And that was good because it was very freeing.
But Midler was such a hit in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” that Touchstone signed her to an exclusive contract and rushed her into four films, including “Beaches,” which she is currently shooting for director Garry Marshall opposite Barbara Hershey and Spalding Gray. It’s a about a long-term friendship between two women.
For the first time since “Divine Madness” in 1980, she gets to sing on screen. Gray calls her “absolutely out there; totally extroverted” on the set.
“Also, because she’s one of the producers of the film, she ‘directs.’ I mean, she yells out, ‘Come on, let’s move it! All right, let’s do the close-up of Spalding. We want to get that angSt!’ She’s always yelling out to them. It’s like she’s the director. Bette’s one of those really classic extroverts,” Gray said.
But when she’s asked what it was about the prospect of appearing with Tomlin as twins in “Big Business” that made herÂ say, “Bang, I gotta do this one” Midler gives a surprisingly introverted answer: “I never say ‘I gotta.’ Ever. I don’t think about anything like that. They show me. They tell me. And I show up.
“I think they’re (the studio heads) better judges of it than I am. I don’t have that much emotional investment.
“I’ve always wanted to be a contract player … to know what it was like in the old days of the studio system…
“To not know what your next picture was going to be. To do one picture after another and to be able to look back at the end of 10 years and say, ‘Gee, I’ve made this many pictures. I have a backlog of work.’
“Not, ‘I made 10 pictures in a whole lifetime,’ but that I made 50 pictures in a whole lifetime. I wanted to know what that felt like.
“Now,” she says exhaustedly, “I know what it feels like.” Besides movie-making she has to attend to her husband,Â commodities trader and performance artist Martin Von Hasselberg, and their 18-month old daughter, Sophie.
The Divine Miss M says that hard as it is to believe, she has become domesticated … sort of. “Well, you don’t look around so much anymore,” she says of the way married life has changed her. “You don’t find yourself eyeballing the person at the next table so much. And I don’t go out so much. I find myself very happy at home. Quite domestic.
“But I also feel like the world is passing me by sometimes. I love music and I love watching new performers come along in shows and stuff and I don’t get a chance to go so much anymore.
“So I do miss it. But on the other hand there are other things that are just as rewarding.”
“Well,” she says with a sigh, “the career tends to look a little bit unimportant in the light of the baby.