Independent Press Telegram
GOOD, BETTER, BEST, BETTE
By KAY HOLMES
September 9, 1973
Bette Midler is almost too camp to be true.
From her frizzled, orange-red hair to herÂ clompy, platform shoes, she embodies aÂ busty, bawdy, rag-and-bones vision which isÂ both uproariously funny and emotionally electrifying.
She struts, she shimmies, she vamps herÂ way across the stage, as she belts out fourÂ decades of American popular music. She describes herself as “trash with flash” and tellsÂ her audience she’s going to sing “all the garbage” she knows.
From the torch songs of the 30s, the Andrews Sisters of the 40s, to the teenybopperÂ laments of the 50s and the “low-rent rock ‘n’Â roll” of the 60s, Bette’s performance is aÂ blend of high style and art and super self expression.
On New Year’s Eve she filled PhilharmonicÂ Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center â€” twice.
At midnight, with horns hooting and fireworksÂ crackling out in the streets, she ascended fromÂ beneath the stage, diaper-clad, proclaimingÂ 1973 with a banner wrapped around herÂ ample decolletage.
To call her a character is feeble, milk-toastyÂ language, an unworthy appellation for such aÂ vibrant, gutsy girl. She’s a cult figure to beÂ sure, but she’s also a phenomenon. The typeÂ which provokes newspaper headlines like,Â “Good, Better, Best, Bette-” And that accoladeÂ came from the New York Times.
We met in her Greenwich Village apartment â€” four rooms of over-stuffed and faded Â furniture, wall-to-wall records and a livingÂ room carpeted by a clutter of sheet music.
OnÂ a 90-degree day there was kindling in theÂ fireplace, peacock feathers and a palm tree inÂ opposing corners and a clock on the mantleÂ which probably hadn’t moved past 10 in days. Â The door was wide open with the keys stillÂ stuck in the lock, and a faint breeze movedÂ the hanging plants occasionally. Happy andÂ free-spirited, in snug levis and bright halterÂ Bette drank iced coffee and chatted.
At a time when there is screaming nostalgiaÂ for the ’50s, when heads turn backward instead of confronting today, never mind tomorrow, Bette Midler is much more than a campÂ entertainer. Her performance may be aÂ bawdy, bodacious vision, but Bette herself is aÂ visionary. Her zest, her fun, her satire and her searching echo the heart and hinderland ofÂ America 1973.
She is expansive, in gestures and speech,Â energetic and warm. She smiles and laughsÂ and mocks and mimics. She doesn’t take herself too seriously â€” at least on the surface.
When she pushed her hair back and did anÂ early Rita Hayworth or stood coquettishly at Â the door of her garden for the enthusiasticÂ photographer â€” “very Ida Lupino” â€” she isÂ sending herself up and loving it.
“I really like people,” she says. “I like toÂ talk to ’em. And I get personal real quick. IÂ mean, I don’t snoop around in their lives orÂ anything, but I like to talk to ’em about whatÂ they want to talk about. What they’re doing,Â where they came from, what they like. I likeÂ to be friends.”
The warm reaching out is part of an interview too. Several times she stopped andÂ asked, “What do you think?” And she reallyÂ wanted to know.
Bette talked about anything and everythingÂ except her age. “I’m a mystery woman,”Â sheÂ said, rolling her eyes which become tinyÂ moons of merriment. “I’m ageless. Â AnywayÂ it’s not important.”
The popular guess is 28-30 years old. Â SheÂ was born in Patterson, N.Y., but her father, aÂ housepainter, soon moved the family to Hawaii in search of more idyllic environs.
As aÂ kid growing up Bette planned to be a greatÂ actress. After all, her mother had named herÂ after Bette Davis but pronounced it “Bet.”
But she was fat, she was funny looking andÂ she was Jewish in a community
that didn’tÂ particularly like Jews. She had immortal longings but the only way she could express themÂ was in the language of the Silver Screen. “IÂ used to call people ‘dahling.’ ‘Oh my dear,’ IÂ would say.”
She drifted through school and a year ofÂ college, working summers in a pineappleÂ factory, sorting out the good from the badÂ slices.
Bette escaped Hawaii by getting a )ob asÂ an extra in the film Hawaii in 1965. She was Â shipped to Los Angeles for the filming in theÂ studio and existed on a daily food ration of $2Â in order to save what she earned. When theÂ film finished she moved to New York.
She settled into the Broadway CentralÂ Hotel, a seedy establishment which is goodÂ for aÂ singer’s breath control. And for five yearsÂ she wandered around the Village looking forÂ Bob Dylan, while supporting herself by typingÂ and filing and being a salesgirl. She sang without pay in Village coffeehouses.
Finally, she made it into the chorus of fiddler on the Roof, from which she graduated toÂ Tevye’s eldest daughter. For a while it seemedÂ like heaven. Then she reconsidered.
“I’dÂ come to New York to have a career not justÂ be in one show. I wanted to work a lot, toÂ grow, and the theatre was a closed market.”
So she started singing again. She workedÂ hard at it â€” “the way I was brought up I wasÂ taught you must work” â€” and took lessonsÂ until one day her acting teacher called her up and said there was a guy who ran a posh,Â homosexual bath and he was starting entertainment.
Thus began her gig at the ContinentalÂ Baths, “the tubs” to Bette, which characteristically and quixotically skyrocketed her toÂ fame.
After singing to her male audience, starkersÂ except for loincloth, for $50 a night, she became a cult figure, and Johnny Carson wantedÂ her and David Frost wanted her and nightclubs all over the country wanted her.
When Bette talks about “the tubs” sheÂ just glows. Let others titter, she remains fiercely loyal “to the boys” â€” and they to her.
“Me and those boys,- we just wentÂ somewhere else. It was so much fun. I had theÂ best time. It was something I just had to do,Â and I did it for them, and I did it all. AndÂ probably they saw the most inspired of it. ItÂ was really abandon.”
The word spread and the straighter, richer,Â crowd came on weekends to see the raffishÂ little figure, with the orange frizzled hair andÂ outlandish costumes sing songs left over fromÂ Your Hit Parade and American Bandstand.
The freak who sang at “the tubs” becameÂ the Divine Miss M, whose characterizationÂ was as finely honed as Charlie Chaplin‘s LittleÂ Tramp. She started as a cult figure, but sheÂ soared to broader heights.
Two of Bette’s mentors are Bessie SmithÂ and Aretha Franklin, and she’s been compared Â to both â€” plus to Janis Joplin, Mae West, RitaÂ Hayworth, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf. SomeÂ company for a gal who a year earlier couldn’tÂ find an agent.
Bette camps up a lot of songs, like GoingÂ to the Chapel, but she’s also in her elementÂ when she’s wringing the last drop of emotionÂ out of Am I Blue.
“I like torch singers who can make youÂ cry. Ethel Waters used to kill me. When I first
started listening, I heard the stories theseÂ women were telling; they were laying incredible stuff down. Their lives were fabulous andÂ it was in their voices and their songs. ThereÂ were some things I had to say about things,Â where I’ve been and who I’ve been with andÂ the pain I know . . .”
When Bette talks about fabulous lives, sheÂ isn’t using an ordinary yardstick. Like a mothÂ to the flame, she is attracted to the strange,Â the tortured, the painful people. She dismissesÂ the mundane, the plastically funny molds ofÂ Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball.
“I’m fascinated by people whom I guessÂ most people consider bad. People outside theÂ pale, Tennesse Williams characters, peopleÂ who have found themselves through no faultÂ of their own in certain positions in life . . .Â alcoholics, junkies, prostitutes and BoweryÂ bums. I like people who live lives outside theÂ ordinary.”
She studies them â€” in the streets of NewÂ York and vicariously, by reading biographiesÂ of the great, soulful ladies. It’s almost as if, inÂ encompassing another’s pain, hers is lightened.
“I like to observe the way people are. It’sÂ hard to do on any level except a superficialÂ one, but even then it’s very entertaining.
“Sometimes I make a judgment, but theÂ only judgment I really make is whether I wantÂ to continue studying them. You know, if theyÂ know anything better than I do.”
The Divine Miss M tossed her head andÂ rebuked herself. She says ‘You know’ or ‘DoÂ you know what I mean?’ quite often, and sheÂ doesn’t like people who do that. ImpatienceÂ bristled through her slight frame. She’s only 5Â feet 1, and she bites her fingernails.
“I don’t know myself very well. I can neverÂ figure out if the way I lead my life is the wayÂ a human life should be lead. Like the fact thatÂ I have no patience, that I move around soÂ much, so fast.”
She describes herself as “tense, temperamental and without patience.” The latter is
probably a product of her desire “to get thingsÂ done” and get them done well. She says she’sÂ just “a schlepper,” and her publicist saysÂ she’s a perfectionist.
“I worry about problems more than mostÂ people. I went to a psychiatrist for a little while. I am a do-it-yourself kind of person. IfÂ it doesn’t come from inside you, it isn’t valid.
Other people can talk till they’re blue, but itÂ doesn’t matter unless you know.”
She thought about her act: “I could beÂ better. Good, better, best, Bette. I have severe bouts of unhappiness. I also have great moments of real joy about what I do. The mostÂ wonderful thing is having something to liveÂ for. A lot of people don’t have something toÂ live for.
“I don’t really understand why people areÂ on this earth. I’m not religious. I realize that Â there is a certain amount of time on earth youÂ have to spend. The more enjoyable it is theÂ faster it goes. ‘Living well is the best revengeÂ for having to live at all. ”
She doesn’t think that’s depressing â€” justÂ realistic. And then as she’s opened wide the Â door of her vulnerability, she snaps it shut.
“J’ai ne regrette rien. It’s been interestingÂ so far.”
Now that she’s well on her way to richesÂ and fame haven’t some of the shadows receded? She may endure a New York summerÂ without air-conditioning, she may still have aÂ wardrobe of hand-me-downs from fans, butÂ that’s her choice now.
Security or lack of it has never lurked inÂ the shadows of her mind. It is not one of her hang-ups. “I have been poor a little, but IÂ have never starved. I have never spent muchÂ money. Does it look like I’m a star? If I boughtÂ anything more to put into this place it wouldÂ be over-flowing, gluttonous. I am not into possessions.”
She is thinking seriously of starting aÂ scholarship for some black to study drama orÂ films.
“I think the black people have the biggest cause in this country.”
She is not essentially into causes. She’s notÂ a joiner and is suspicious of anyone who hasÂ all the answers. Take the Women’s Movement. Bette herself has always felt liberated.Â But looking at Women’s Lib after its turbulentÂ beginnings, she observed:
“Some good and some bad came out of it.Â It helped some people realize they were notÂ alone and that they had no reason to feelÂ guilty about their feeling, because everyoneÂ else was going through the same changes.
“But it also offered false hopes like psychedelics did in the early ’60s. People thoughtÂ they’d find themselves through drugs but onlyÂ made life harder for themselves. I think theÂ Equal Rights Amendment was a good thing but all the rest of it isn’t the sort of thingÂ which you can work out on a group basis.
Bette admits that she doesn’t have muchÂ time for anything but her work at the moment.
This summer, her rest period before anotherÂ exhausting, cross-country tour, she’s takingÂ singing, piano, dance and acrobatics.
“I watch politics now and again, and IÂ dabble in scientific things. But I don’t haveÂ much interest outside my work unless someone brings it to me. I’m a dilettante. I don’tÂ know much about anything other than what IÂ do. I’m not exactly well-rounded.”
She’s not particularly comfortable with theÂ cult crown and stardom she’s won. She’s notÂ ready to become an institution.
“I’m quiet. I don’t bother anybody. I justÂ have a few things I’d like to say, and I have Â these ways of saying ’em, and some of it isÂ real good and cheerful, so it’s like healthy, Â you know, and I feel like I’m doing somethingÂ constructive in the world . . .”
She pauses, shifts abruptly from the seriousÂ to the self-mocking. “I wanted to be a diplomat but I don’t think I was very diplomatic,Â so …”
Bette is upset by inefficiency and peopleÂ who lie. Â She dislikes great, huge manufacturing companies that don’t care about peopleÂ but police the air and streams. “But anyoneÂ can hate them, that’s easy.” So she switchesÂ into something more personal.
I don’t like people who follow trendsÂ blindly. And people who have to be part of aÂ group like ‘hippies’, ‘college grads’, ‘swingingÂ singles’ or ‘young marrieds.’ ”
Speaking of young marrieds – â€¢- I neverÂ once thought of getting married and settling down. I never met anyone who I wanted toÂ commit myself to. I know the way I do thingsÂ and I like to have everything my way. MaybeÂ I could live with someone if we had a giganticÂ house with two wings â€” one for each ot us.
And if I could find someone who was asÂ strong as I am and nevertheless compatible.
Talking about her personal life was, sheÂ thought, “tacky,” which is also one of herÂ favorite words. Like “pits” her description ofÂ the lowest, whether a club or a song ending.Â But she did it anyway.
“I love to be in love. I’ve done it fourÂ times. But everything gets harder as you getÂ older. You don’t trust it. It isn’t really worthÂ the trouble. I don’t pursue love so much now.
And I expect less from all situations. I’d just asÂ soon have my own company as the companyÂ of one who I wasn’t crazy about.
“People aren’t sentimental as they onceÂ were. I like people who are sentimental, who want to get involved in others’ lives. TheyÂ want to hop into bed. You can, and you feelÂ good for a while, then they go back to theirÂ own cocoons. It’s all very degrading.”
Although Bette doesn’t talk about her family much, one senses a certain closeness. OfÂ her parents and five siblings, she says, “We reÂ fairly close. But we’re all individualists. She dedicated her album to Judith, her oldest sister, who is dead.
None of her family has seen the DivineÂ Miss M in concert “and they’re not gonna. ItÂ would just kill my father. My father’s very,Â very conservative and I wouldn’t do it to him.Â He’s OK, you know; he’s a good man. HeÂ always tried real hard.”
Her mother, a movie buff, happily saves clippings. And of course they have seen herÂ on television talk shows.
She sounded protectively maternal whenÂ she talked about her father. And Bette admitsÂ that there’s a lot of that in her. It could haveÂ started when she was a camp den mother atÂ the tubs, but one guesses it has deeper roots.
“Yeah When I’m on tour I always playÂ housemother. The first tour I went insane. IfÂ there were fights, I always tried to patch themÂ up to keep things running smoothly.
“I feel very irritable on the road. Tours getÂ me down. I feel torn away from all the thingsÂ I love, like the rug has been pulled out fromÂ under me.” . .
Nevertheless she’s going on another bigÂ one this fall, which will include Los Angeles.
She’ll tone down her raffish, Rabelaisian act aÂ bit â€” not so many sequins and CarmenÂ Miranda hats for the small town audiences.
But she’ll still be Bette, belting out those oldÂ favorites, sometimes tender sometimes bawdy, always with warmth and laced withÂ inner laughter.
I think about her rendition of Friends â€”Â Bette really swings into it: ”You’ve got toÂ have frieeeeeeeeennnnnnnnnds. And thenÂ she talks over the music: ‘We’re moving too fast, got to slow down.” That seems to be self directed advice.
“I get along with almost anyone. But I likeÂ to be around people who are alive and whoÂ are doing their best. My closest friends areÂ people I have known since I have been inÂ New York. I don’t want to give them up because they’re my only link with reality.”
“I feel myself slipping out of reality whenÂ I’m on tour. That’s when it’s frightening.Â Everytime I do a different project I change.Â The only time I remember what I really am isÂ to confront people who knew me before allÂ this happened. As long as I have this link IÂ don’t have any fear of going under.”
She is wistful and she is searching. I amÂ lonely sometimes.. .sometimes I think I haven’tÂ got any friends left at all. I’ve traded in big friendships for the love of a great number ofÂ people. But you can’t take 10,000 peopleÂ home to bed with you.”
The Divine Miss M shrugged, almost visiblyÂ shedding the creeping sadness. She switches,Â does Miss M, from a low to a high quickly.
She showed me her favorite plant, a stag hornÂ fern, which is not temperamental. It just growsÂ and grows.
Now that she’s famous, does she worryÂ about what people think? About critics and images?
“I try not to worry. It takes too much timeÂ and energy that I need for my work. Pause.
“I just want to wrap it all up like a presentÂ and give it to people. If they dig it, they dig it, Â and if they didn’t get it ,well, like they didn’t getÂ the vision. But it’s scary.”
How would she like people to think of her?
“Just the way they think of me,” she retorted, all perky and soaring into high.
“People think I’m fabulous, and that’s whatÂ I’ve always intended. I didn’t use to think I Â was verv crazy or interesting. But I am theÂ happiest I’ve been with myself. I like me.”
- BetteBack: The Ruby Awards ~ Bette Midler Meets Ethel Merman ~ April 23, 1973 (bootlegbetty.com)
- BetteBack: Bette Obsessed With Ecology Even Then…April 23, 1973 (bootlegbetty.com)
- BetteBack: Divining Miss M ~ March 27, 1973 (bootlegbetty.com)