Bette and the Boys
November 24, 1991
“For the Boys” takes singer-comedian Dixie Leonard through three wars and 50 years. Making “For the Boys” took singer-comedian-actress-producer Bette Midler through four studio chiefs and 12 years. It was a germ of an idea when she finished her 1979 film debut in “The Rose,” based on the life of Janis Joplin. “I was sorry the character died,” Midler says. “I had the thought–Rose Goes to Vietnam.” But in between that idea and this movie came a well-publicized nervous collapse, a now notorious “little thing” with an unsavory talk-show host, the remarkable resurrection of her film career, late marriage, later motherhood and the start-up of her own company.
“For the Boys” was made by the girls, that is, Midler’s All Girl Productions, the Disney-based company she formed in 1985 with partners Bonnie Bruck Margaret South. That the movie exists is a testament to Midler’s fortitude and charisma. “She got the picture made,” says co-writer Lindy Laub. Disney turned it down about six years ago; Twentieth Century Fox picked it up, but it kept “changing executives like crazy,” says Laub. “Every time it flagged she would go to the studio and talk it up. Even studio heads are star struck.”
The project languished until 1989 when Joe Roth became studio chairman. “I’m a big Bette Midler fan,” he says, “and this was our only opportunity to be in the Bette Midler business.” Midler’s own business is delivering the goods in a town that may rival the U.S. Senate for institutional sexism. “Women are getting more and more opportunity to direct and produce. The business can’t afford to shut out people who are capable,” Midler says. “My hope is that once they get to know the girls, they’ll be less frightened.”
Midler’s dream director, Mark Rydell, signed up (they’d previously worked together on “The Rose”) but he thought the script needed a lot of work. He turned it over to Marshall Brickman, co-writer of “Annie Hall,” who brought more humor to the characters and gave Dixie a son, a process that took 41 drafts, including 200 pages of possible endings. And after the cameras started rolling in January, Brickman considered including a reference to America’s newest war.
He didn’t, but it would have been appropriate. The first scene filmed was Midler and James Caan‘s rousing show for World War II troops, many of whom were played by local reservists. “The next day, half those guys were gone,” says Caan. “We really were entertaining them before they went off.” Alarm shot through the production. The movie, which details the increasing psychic toll of U.S. military involvement, has a decidedly antiwar theme. Would a country gripped with patriotic fervor accept it? Rydell never wavered, and Midler saw “For the Boys” on more intimate terms. “Dixie’s not concerned with the destiny of her race or gender or nation,” Midler says. “She is concerned with a simple thing: the destiny of her child.” She pauses as her eyes well up. “I get so overwrought. I don’t mean to, but I do.”
Although moods can play across her face with the swiftness of air currents, at 45 Midler is glowingly serene. There is no hint that she is temperamental, a reputation she says has dogged her unfairly. “I am the nicest, hardest-working person in showbiz,” she says, smiling but serious. “I don’t like confrontations. I don’t like to be humiliated.” What she can’t deny is that she’s demanding. It is said keeping up with her requires the constitution of a Humvee. South recalls the many meetings spent picking songs for the movie (Midler turned up a never-recorded Hoagy Carmichael tune). “Everyone’s thrown in the towel and is saying, ‘I don’t care what she sings,’ and she says, ‘It’s only 2 a.m. Let’s keep working’.”
Coming from a rehearsal for the film’s premiere, at which she’ll perform with Caan, she is tiny and compact, dressed simply in slacks and a black sweater, glasses perched on her nose, her blond Marilynesque hair and bright red lips the only theatrical notes. One of the joys of the film, Midler says, was the chance to age 50 years, ending up in her 80s. “I really enjoyed being that old. I found I was unafraid. At first my husband was appalled, then he said, ‘You’re pretty great for an old broad’. ” She’s not bad for a middle-aged one, either. “I have the most fabulous life,” she says gratefully. “I work and get paid an inordinate amount. I have a beautiful child, a wonderful husband, a great home. This is like a dream. I can’t believe it happened to me.”
It takes a while for “For the Boys” to get all its engines revved, but when it catches fire–at the moment that Bette Midler slides into a stunning rendition of “P.S. I Love You” in a darkened hangar full of U.S. troops in World War II–you’re reminded that there are certain sentimental pleasures only Hollywood movies can provide. That they do so seldom these days is all the more reason to take Mark Rydell’s big, emotionally overstuffed musical drama to heart. This is not a movie for lovers of subtlety and restraint. “For the Boys” is madly ambitious, overstated, funny, corny and heartbreaking. Spanning 50 years and three wars–including Korea and Vietnam–and raising such issues as the blacklist and the ambiguous interplay of showbiz and politics, it bites off more than any one movie could possibly chew. But in the face of such pizzazz–and real power–it’s not hard to forgive its sins of excess.
It’s the Midler movie that fans of “The Rose” (also directed by Rydell) have been waiting for. As Dixie Leonard, the funny, gutsy songstress who hooks up with Eddie Sparks (James Caan) to become one of America’s most successful singing, dancing and comedy teams, Midler gets the kind of juicy role that lets her strut her best stuff. And when Midler is cooking on all burners, no one’s more fun to watch. Caan more than holds his own. Eddie is a charming s.o.b., a womanizing egomaniac, yet Caan makes this charismatic heel irresistible.
“For the Boys” is about Dixie and Eddie’s long, rocky relationship, but it’s not a conventional love story. Both are married when they meet, Eddie to an alcoholic society wife he ignores, and Dixie to a soldier who’s killed in the war, leaving her to raise her son alone. Though Dixie and Eddie aren’t lovers, he becomes her son Danny’s surrogate father, and the screenplay (by Marshall Brickman, Neal Jimenez and Lindy Laub) pivots on their battle for her son. It’s a political as well as an emotional battle; Danny’s preference for the rakish, superficially jingoistic Eddie leads him to military school and on to the horrors of Vietnam. The movie doesn’t hide its anti-Red Scare, antiwar sentiments. War by messier war, it charts the fracturing of American society through the prism of Eddie and Dixie’s USO tours.
Those tours provide both Midler’s, and the movie’s, richest moments. In North Africa, Dixie sings a catch-in-the-throat “Come Rain or Come Shine” to her beaming husband (a fine cameo by Arliss Howard), and in Vietnam, where her son (Christopher Rydell) is a captain, she hushes the unruly troops with a quietly devastating “In My Life.” At the end, in the present, when the wizened troupers share a stage at a ghastly awards ceremony, the movie tries gamely to reconcile its characters, and its themes. That it doesn’t quite succeed is almost inevitable: no neat resolution is possible. For a big, glitzy Hollywood entertainment, Rydell’s movie opens a surprising number of wounds, and warns us to suspect the very glamour it revels in. It’s no small accomplishment.