BootLeg Betty

After Years of Playing Bette, Another Role

The New York Times
After Years of Playing Bette, Another Role
Published: April 10, 2013

Photo: New York Times
Photo: New York Times

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — “It’s all about the bosom,” Bette Midler says as she slinks down in an armchair, arches her back and steadies her breasts until they are horizontal enough to balance an ashtray.

This isn’t a sight gag from her Divine Miss M days. It’s how the Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers sometimes smoked on her living room sofa, a cigarette in one hand and a joint in the other, as she dispensed wit and wisdom like the Cheshire cat to movie stars who dropped in. So sedentary was Mengers that when the ashtray was full, she had the housekeeper place a clean one on her chest.

“Sue even had a friend blowing marijuana smoke into her face as she passed away,” Ms. Midler said of Mengers, who died in 2011, by then a legend in film circles for her brazen ways and starry dinner parties. “She was high until the bitter end.”

Or so the story goes — one of many that Ms. Midler collected here this winter as she prepared to play Mengers in her first role on Broadway in some 40 years, in John Logan’s new one-woman comedy, “I’ll Eat You Last,” now in preview performances. In conversations with Ali MacGraw, David Geffen and other friends of Mengers’s Ms. Midler zeroed in on body language to help with her chief challenge: holding the audience’s interest with an 80-minute monologue delivered from a couch. Such research is rare for Ms. Midler, but it reflects her own perfectionist anxieties — her earliest dream was to become a Broadway star — as well as a new resolve.

At 67, after nearly five decades in the business, Ms. Midler is acutely aware of her faults (playing it safe) and mistakes (passing up unconventional movie roles). She doesn’t want this return to Broadway to falter because of the same old impulses that kept her from achieving another dream of hers: being regarded as a serious dramatic actress.

“My husband calls it winging it — the way I just took what the studios gave me, didn’t do my homework and avoided roles that would risk my image,” Ms. Midler said during an interview at the Beverly Hills Hotel, not far from Mengers’s home, during one of her fact-finding trips here.

“As an actor you’re supposed to take jobs that will challenge you or force fans to see you in a different light. By the ’90s I wasn’t really an actor anymore. I was someone who went on the road with these gigantic concerts. I got so far away from what they told you in acting class: Do something different. Producers kept offering me the ‘Sister Act’ movie, but I said, ‘My fans don’t want to see me in a wimple.’ I literally said, ‘My fans don’t want to see me in a wimple.’

“And ‘Misery’ — I turned that down because I didn’t want to saw off someone’s foot, even though the role won an Oscar,” Ms. Midler said of Kathy Bates’s turn in the adaptation of the Stephen King thriller. “It was stupid to say no to those pictures. And while I was unsure about doing this play, I felt it was time for me to say yes.”

Broadway has always been a high-wire act for celebrities used to the safety nets of film and television, like reshooting scenes to correct mistakes, and many such actors cop to nervousness. It can lower expectations, as Tom Hanks did when he said he was worried about “blowing” his Broadway debut this spring in “Lucky Guy,” and then went on to earn respectful reviews from most critics.

Ms. Midler’s edginess is not exactly surprising, then, but her insecurity is still striking. It has paralyzed her in the past. She has been approached about returning to Broadway before, including for a revival of the musical “Mame,” but she said she had been afraid of the rigors of the spotlight — eight performances a week, as a character, required real technique, stamina and confidence in the face of audience assumptions about her abilities.

Those worries endure, so much so that her voice dropped to a whisper as she talked about them, as if she didn’t want to say the words aloud.

“I hope people will cut me some slack, but who knows — maybe they’ll take me down for it,” Ms. Midler said. “I mean, can I really create a full, three-dimensional character? I don’t know anymore. I’m certainly going to try.”

Mr. Logan wrote “I’ll Eat You Last” — the title sums up the agent’s feelings about dog-eat-dog Hollywood — with Ms. Midler in mind after the Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter suggested that Mengers, who had been his close friend, would make delicious material. The two women are both known for saucy humor and straight talk, Mr. Logan said, but that was hardly enough to win over Ms. Midler at their first meeting in August 2012, a time when she was exhausted from concert engagements and not looking to do a play.

“Bette’s eyebrows went up three inches and she immediately came up with 27 reasons not to do it: ‘You’re out there alone, you’re so exposed, it’s just you, you’re responsible for all the drama and all the laughs,’ ” recalled Mr. Logan, who won a Tony Award for his previous Broadway play, “Red,” which was also about a real-life figure, the painter Mark Rothko. “But Bette did relate to Sue. She said she understood creating a persona and then having to live up to it all the time, like it or not. Bette has had to do that with the Divine Miss M, and Sue had to do with her fearless, take-no-prisoners image in Hollywood.”

The art of reinvention is undeniably central to both women. Mengers was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1932 and emigrated several years later with her family to Utica, N.Y., where she shed her accent and won over others by being forward: introducing herself and making them laugh. She weathered her father’s suicide and her mother’s detachment, and eventually began working in a New York talent office as a receptionist and typist. She rose quickly, mastering the trade by listening to bosses through a keyhole and working the room at Sardi’s, according to a long article about Mengers in Vanity Fair in 2000.

Her breakthrough came in the 1960s, when she became pals with Barbra Streisand, then a rising star, and their bond grew into a kind of sisterhood, friends of Mengers said, after she became Ms. Streisand’s agent at Creative Management Associates. Such was their relationship that, according to the Vanity Fair article, Mengers was moved to reassure Ms. Streisand after members of the Manson family murdered the actress Sharon Tate in Los Angeles in 1969. “Don’t worry, honey, stars aren’t being murdered — only featured players,” Mengers reportedly said.

Ms. Midler, for her part, grew up shy in Honolulu but broke out of her shell at 16 by watching a high school friend “just stand up and give it to everyone with both barrels, making them laugh.” Ms. Midler soon moved to New York and joined the replacement cast of “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway earning $200 a week; after two years she couldn’t get a $25 raise, let alone another big acting job. She began singing in nightclubs without pay and got her break when she took a weekend gig paying $300 to sing at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse on the Upper West Side.

Performing there, with a young Barry Manilow on the piano, Ms. Midler developed the image of the brassy broad that many people still associate with her — which, she says, is closer in reality to Mengers’s personality than her own. While Ms. Midler is known for emotional performances in movies like “The Rose” and “Beaches,” and over-the-top ones in her 1980s comedies like “Ruthless People,” she is far more demure in person than you might expect, using euphemisms like “heck” and cutting off a question about the frolicking at the Continental Baths. (“Oh stop, I can’t even go there.”)

“I’m very retiring, very retiring, while Sue was much more outgoing than I am,” she said, her hands folded and legs crossed, except for the occasional kick of her foot in a leopard print high heel.

“As hard as I try to be social, I have that terror. In the play Sue says, ‘Life is one long audition,’ and I can identify with that. Sue and I were always on the line: Will people like you? Will they ask you back? Did I make the cut? That’s always on my mind. It gave me fear about Broadway. And it was very hard for a lot of years, because I wasn’t conventional looking. I didn’t look like a leading lady. I didn’t look like an ingénue. Even when I had success” — like Oscar nominations for “The Rose” and “For the Boys” — “I couldn’t get another great job. People thought every good picture was just a fluke.”

Mengers faced her own professional depths after Ms. Streisand fired her in 1981, for reasons that differ depending on who is talking. Ms. Midler became friends with Mengers years later, and said she never delved too deeply into the Streisand relationship, which figures into the play. But other friends said the firing was a blow from which Mengers never recovered.

“Deep down there was a lot of pain in Sue, especially over Barbra, and you knew it was there even though she rarely let it show,” said Boaty Boatwright, an agent and longtime friend of Mengers. (Ms. Streisand declined to comment.)

Conveying that pain is perhaps the tallest order facing Ms. Midler, said Mr. Carter, the Vanity Fair editor, who advised Mr. Logan on the script and is producing “I’ll Eat You Last” with a veteran Broadway player, Arielle Tepper Madover. (The play’s opening night is April 24.) It unfolds in real time on an important day in Mengers’s career — to divulge more would spoil it — and large swaths of the dialogue involve her educating the audience on showbiz and her own colorful life.

“You don’t see much fear or heartbreak, because that wasn’t Sue, so you need an actress with a big personality who can get across Sue’s sadness in just a look or a pause,” Mr. Carter said. “We made a short list of actresses, but it was Bette who we always wanted. We just weren’t sure we could get her.”

Once Ms. Midler accepted the role — earning in the high five figures per week, though producers declined to provide a specific figure — it took her about four weeks to memorize her lines. Joe Mantello, the Tony-winning director of the play, said that Ms. Midler was holding up well, in part because they approached the play “like a concert performance, the different sections and stories building rhythmically.” Still, Mr. Logan has been tweaking the script for weeks — including on April 5, the day of the first preview, when he cut a section and wrote a new transition.

“Bette scribbled it down, said it once, then said, ‘O.K., next,’ ” Mr. Logan said. She has had to call out for lines at times, as she predicted she might, given her decades away from the stage and the lack of co-stars to rescue her with a prompt. (Ms. Madover said the producers were “thrilled about Bette’s performance,” no doubt in part because the show has been selling out.) As for Ms. Midler, the idea of dropping a line did not faze her, she said, because she had drilled hard on the script. She had done her homework.

“The hardest part will probably be acting like I’m high,” said Ms. Midler as she mimicked the trance of a pothead. “I haven’t smoked dope since the old days, the kind of dope that made you laugh. I wanted to be the next Ethel Barrymore once. Now I’m a stoner.”

Share A little Divinity

4 thoughts on “After Years of Playing Bette, Another Role

  1. I liked this piece very much. Revieling and insightful. I really want serious dramatic movie roles for Miss M… Along with gargantuan arena concerts!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.