Parental Guidance: When Bette Met Billy

Twin Cities
“Parental Guidance” review: When Bette met Billy …
By Chris Hewitt
Updated: 12/22/2012 02:41:07 PM CST

Bette Midler and Billy Crystal are roughly the same age, they both cut their teeth in New York clubs during the late ’60s and they get along great in their new movie, “Parental Guidance,” which opens Christmas Day. So, you’d think they’ve been buds forever.


“I think we met once at the Improv comedy club …” Crystal, 64, begins.

” … back in the Johnson administration,” Midler, 67, interjects, from a Beverly Hills hotel room where they are both on speaker phone.

“We’ve seen each other at benefits and things, but this is really the first time we got to know each other,” Crystal says. “But it’s not like we had to spend a lot of time getting to be comfortable with each other. When you come from a similar heritage and appreciation of what’s funny, it’s easy.”

“Yeah,” Midler says. “Funny is funny.”

There’s a lot of that sort of finishing-each-other’s sentences during the interview as well as in “Parental Guidance,” in which they play a comfortable long-married couple pushed to the brink by a weekend of baby-sitting their grandchildren in their daughter’s (Marisa Tomei) high-tech, modern-parenting household.

“The movie started because of me baby-sitting for my grandkids,” says Crystal, who has four (Midler’s daughter does not yet have children). “I wrote a bit of a script after trying to keep up with them and trying to follow all of the rules that my daughter, Jenny, was trying to do. It became the beginning structure of the movie. Jenny and I

and my wife have a great relationship now, but when the grandchildren are very little, it’s hard to keep up with them, and some of those rules, you take personally. I mean, you haven’t been in that (parent) mode for 30 years or so, and it’s suddenly a whole different ballgame. I think it’s a great theme for a movie: old-school parenting vs. new school.”

Script in hand, the next step was figuring out who would play Crystal’s wife and, although he barely knew her at the time, Crystal says he and director Andy Fickman both thought of Midler first. Getting her, Crystal jokes, was a snap.

“Bette was on the highway with a big sign saying, ‘Will work for food,’ so we gave her some food,” Crystal claims.

“And that’s basically what I did,” Midler adds. “There was no budget. I did almost work for free or just for food. But it was good food.”


At this point in her career, Midler says she wants to make a movie only if the food is delicious and the project is fun: “I don’t want a director who is mystical or angry. I want him to create a happy set. I want someone like Andy, who is jolly and wants everyone to succeed and harbors no suspicions. He really set the stage for everyone to be at their best, and

Billy Crystal and Bette Midler
the fact that he was good with the children — who can only work so many hours a day, which is tricky with no budget — says a lot about him.”
Plus, there was the lure of working with Crystal.

“His movies are fantastic, of course. ‘City Slickers,’ I think, is one of my favorites of all time,” says Midler. “And ‘Saturday Night Live,’ too. Not a bad career, Billy Crystal. I can’t hold a candle to you. You are, like, Mr. Show Biz.”

“I was for a while,” Crystal says, mock-forlornly, and, at about this time, the two seem to completely forget they’re doing an interview.

“Oh, whatever, Mr. Sad. Can you do a chorus of ‘Mr. Bojangles‘ for us like Sammy Davis Jr.?” asks Midler.

“No way. But did you know I was actually his opening act for a while, long before I ever did him? He was one of the most amazing people to know and work with. He was cool and bizarre at the same time.”

“I love that! I have to say he did always look cool and completely demented at the same time. Did you ever hear from him after you started doing your impression of him?”

“I did. I still have several notes from him and even some phone messages from him. It was my outgoing message for a while on my answering machine — Sammy Davis, saying, ‘Hey man, can’t come to the phone. I’m in the groove with some friends. Please leave a message.’ ”


One theme of “Parental Guidance” is the couple’s inability to cope with a sophisticated, computerized home that tracks where everyone in the family is and what they’re doing. In real life, both Crystal and Midler are more tech- savvy, but they admit they’ve had some issues.

“I tried to tweet this morning and I started a fire,” Crystal says.

“He’s kidding. Billy tweets like a madman,” Midler says. “But I tried to print something yesterday, and before I could get it to work, I was reduced to tears. I’m trying to make an album for my family of a trip we took, but I’m tearing my hair apart. Also, I took all these pictures of Hurricane Sandy for my grandchildren, if I ever have any, so I can document it for them in an album. But I could not make the printer work. I also can’t turn on the TV. Do you know how to turn on the TV?”

“Yes,” Crystal says, sounding like he and Midler are really a long-married couple who have had this conversation before. “But I can’t get it off.”

“The thing is: Why are there so many different boxes? And why is there no one to help you? How are you supposed to understand what the instructions are telling you?” asks Midler, who goes on in this vein for some time until a press agent cuts in to say it’s time for the interview to end.

All the while, Crystal murmurs — with bemusement, not irritation — “Help me, help me, help me. Chris, please help me!”

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