Bette Midler: a ferocious little kitten
November 2, 1979
The press was growing impatient.
About 12 reporters from all over the Midwest had been trading dreary shop talk, guzzling orange juice and stuffing themselves with Danish for half an hour while awaiting the arrival of a late Bette Midler.
When the 5-foot-1, dyed-blonde bounced into the Drake Hotel meeting room wearing leather pants, embroidered blouse and a big, toothy grin that shrunk her large round eyes into tiny crescents, the press didn’t remember her being tardy at all.
“You can’t all be from Chicago'” Bette gasped in her scratchy, nasal-toned voice. One woman said she was from \innesota
” Bette screeched as though she were dying at embarrassment. “I’ve never been there Oh, I want to go to Milwaukee in the worst way. There are a lot of places in the middle part of the country that I’ve never played that I felt like a fool for not going to, but logistically we couldn’t get it together.”
THE SELF-PROCLAIMED “last of the tacky ladies,” Bette Midler (also known as “The Divine Miss M” and the’ladv who teaches her fans, to “sleaze with ease”) seemed uncomfortably reserved when she first talked to this conservative-looking group, but it wasn’t long before the stage phenomenon was slinging her infamous oil-color quips around the room like deadly Chinese fighting sticks.
“ls there anything that shocks you or grosses you out”” one reporter dared to ask.
Oh, fart jokes,” she said bluntly, “although I’ve been idling them myself in my old age I don’t know what’s happening to me.” She laughed and her small audience broke up. possibly more out of shock than humor The bubbly singer continued her answer with, “Yes, certain things do gross me out. Certain real personal things, you know Ear wax jokes make me nauseous, you know, things like that â€” ukk!”
Bette’s earthy tendencies have been an integral part ot her stage career In concerts, the singer has been described as an explosion of styles ranging from Bea Lillie to Mae West to Liza Minelli and ’60s vocal artist Janis Jopin.
Bette has turned out five albums, but her first, featuring the songs “I Am Blue,'” Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Delta Dawn,’ remains the most popular among her fans, usually urbane and young.
IT WAS ONLY NATURAL that she would be considered for the lead in a movie script called “Pearl,” a musical based on Janis Joplin‘s life complete with drugs, drinking and degradation.
But Aaron Russo, Bette’s one-time romantic interest and career manager, would produce the movie and supply the singer only if the references to Joplin were deleted and the story changed.
What emerged from the alterations was “The Rose.” The story of a larger-than-life rock singer pushed around bv a capitalist manager and driven to the breaking point. Now the lead character is billed as “a composite of the rock stars of the ’60s ”
Someone wanted to know if Bette had studied much of Joplin’s style before going before the cameras last year.
“I listened to everything she cut,” Bette responded, “because I wanted to hear what the band sounded like and how her voice fitted in with the band. But I didn’t make any effort to imitate Janis or imitate her speech pattern or her singing style. When the script was first brought to my attention, it had elements of Joplin. I didn’t want to do that because it seemed so well, necrophihac is the right word ”
The first thing the naturally red-haired actress did was bleach her hair to get as far away from her own personality as possible After the film, she realized she liked being a blonde so much she kept the frizzy mop.
“THE ROSE,” opening in Chicago Nov. 9, also stars Alan Bates as Bette’s manager and Frederick Forrest as her leading man. Although this is a first major film role for Bette. it isn’t her first time before the camera.
She appeared as a missionary’s wife in “Hawaii” and an extra in “Goodbye, Columbus.”
However, the movie is the first time the 34-year-old singer has tackled hard rock’n’roll for an extended time.
“The music was really tough,” she admitted. “I never had to sing that hard that long. It really hurt me phsyicallv I was unprepared for how hard it was. “I sing a little bit of it, one or two songs, but not the entire show,” Bette said. “I’ve always loved that kind of music, but I worried that people wouldn’t believe me, that I wouldn’t have any credibility because I come Irom Honolulu and the wrong side of the tracks.”
She laughed, “I’m always trying to be superior to my roots not drag myself back to my roots ” Bette has an easy-going manner and a certain vulnerable quality about her makes for instant rapport with people. It’s this combination of innocence and vulnerability with her tough-talking exterior that sets her apart Irom other performers.
BETTE WAS BORN in Hawaii, the daughter of a New Jersey house painter who had moved to the island in search of his own personal paradise. She was named after Bette Davis, although the singer’s name is pronounced like a racetrack “bet ”
In the early days of her career, the late ’60s, Bette would stand on a stage with her back-up trio, the Harlettes. and do her thing at the Continental Baths, the defunct gay hangout on Manhattan’s West Side. Ten years later she was still doing her thing, but now for audiences in the penthouse of the New York Hilton.
Bette has also caused problems for television censors with a network broadcast and appeared in a hit cable television broadcast Clams on the Half Shell Revue ”
The man in Bette’s life now is a young actor named Peter Riegert. currently starring in Joan Micklin Silver‘s “Head Over Heels ”
“Isn’t he a doll?” Bette cooed to the room full of reporters. “Isn’t he handsome” He’s a wonderful, wonderful actor He’s helped me a lot on this film.”
The two performers rarely get an opportunity to see each other, she said but when they do they treat each other “very nicely ”
I don’t think we’11 ever work together,’ she said. “I don’t think he would want to work with me. I can be pretty awful.’ She paused
“WELL, WE MIGHT (work together) but it might cause us to break up,’ she said “I was awful good on this film. I made an effort to be real good. But putting together shows can be a very trying experience .. things can get hairv”
Bette is one star who admits she is her own worst critic. “I don’t give mvself a break,’ she said-“I’m very hard on myself. Nothing about me impresses me. I used to be even worse. I was filled with this thing.. I don’t want to say self-loathing, but that’s what it boils down to .. always striving, never being satisfied with what you do.”
When I talk to other (performers), they tell me they leel the same way. So I don t flagellate myself the way I used to.”
In addition to considering another movie role (“I think I would like to a comedy where I can wear bright blonde hair and wear very little clothing”) and returning to the stage. Bette is putting the finishing touches on a book titled “A View From A Broad,’ some observations and travel experiences of the Divine Miss M, written from her “particularly jaundiced perspective” The book should be out early next year.
THE CHARISMATIC Bette admitted that as the years go on the spark and fire that marked her entry into the performing profession have diminished slightly “I m becoming meeeellow,” she purred “I used to be angry all the time. Really nastv, I used to always ask why this didn’t happen and why this did But I’m “not like that anymore I’m much more ‘Aw, let it go. Maybe tomorrow we’ll flix it’ That’s not a very good attitude to have ”
Offstage, Bette admits that her behavior is rather limp ” But the magic of show business is like adrenalin for her.
“I love lo perform and I love to be the life of the party ” she nearly shouted It takes a lot of energy to be on all the time and I can’t do it. I save it. I’ve had plenty of off-nights And I used lo really get sick over them. I used to flagellate myself and get drunk. But I don’t do that anymore. I still have off-nights, but they don t terrorize me the way they used to. I m a little more sedate ”