It was suggested to Bette Midler she will run out of time before she runs out of ideas. Her reply was swift, without a trace of a smile.
”Oh no, don’t say that,” she said. ”You mean I won’t live forever?”
Trying to pin Bette Midler down in a phrase or two is like trying to play Name That Tune with the motorman on a moving subway train. Under anything resembling normal circumstances, it cannot be done.
Take, for instance, the present. Atlantic has just released her latest album, a live comedy session with a dusting of song and the honest-enough title Mud Will Be Flung Tonight. Bette flinging mud at Madonna: ”Touched for the very first time? . . . Ha! . . . Today, maybe.” At the French: ”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 Hills, the first R-rated film from a Disney studio. Midler isn’t the specific reason for the R, though she does her part with a howling-orgasm scene unavoidably reminiscent of a similar moment in Porky’s. Otherwise, she plays what seems at first to be a walking California joke, a bored, newly monied housewife with tacky home furnishings and a weakness for any charlatan who promises eternal enlightenment and thin thighs in more than two syllables. Actually, it turns 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 filming, 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 might answer the question of whether 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 girl from Hawaii who looked like six feet of body scrunched into a five-foot frame, who got her first notice in the Continental Baths with Barry Manilow as her musical arranger, who had a wonderful voice she often seemed not to take seriously, who could do nothing too outrageous. Soon after Clams she thanked the Harvard Hasty Pudding Club for its ”woman of the year” award by shooting the audience a moon.
”I’m an entertainer,” she reflected years later, with a strong trace of a smile and no visible hint of regret. ”I’ve built my own house.”
That house has included two movies: The Rose, for which she won an Oscar nomination, and Jinxed, for which she won a nervous breakdown. It’s also included albums, tours, books and TV specials, which have told both lots and little about the compulsive woman behind them.
At the end of her long 1983 tour, she mused about being exhausted (”You pour everything into it for six months and it never turns out quite the way you envisioned . . . although certain nights are magic”), but doomed never to rest.
”One of my favorite songs is Marshall Crenshaw’s ‘You’re My Favorite Waste of Time.’ To me, just spending time with friends is like a vacation. You don’t make any money doing it, but it’s refreshing.”
Which is as specific as she gets about her life. She doesn’t mind providing a cheerful ”None of your business” to requests for names, places 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 professional questions remain. Is she a rock ‘n’ roll singer? Actress? Cabaret singer? Comedienne? Performance artist, whatever that means? Even when she seems to be singing, is she sometimes putting us on? The only recent career even remotely comparable to hers in scope, success and style is Eddie Murphy‘s. So is that it? Is she a short Eddie Murphy with a large chest?
Yes, well, we had to get to the chest, if only because Midler has gotten more mileage out of that subject than Dirty Harry gets from a .44 Magnum. On Mud, after telling a few hundred chest jokes, she remarks, ”Does anyone knock the pope because all he talks 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 make up perhaps the best example of her major weapon: pre-emptive strikes. She dodges scrutiny the way she dodges insults, by raising the subject so loudly herself that the question fogs over. On Mud, she does a routine on her 1984 marriage to Martin von Haselberg, previously described only as a ”commodities dealer and performance artist.” Everyone laughs and the fact remains Midler has guarded this marriage the way IBM guards microchip research.
Now, it’s no crime not to invite People magazine on the honeymoon. The mildly ironic part is that someone who prefers to dodge insults makes money by handing them out.