Digesting a Three Dimensional Bette Midler…

Huffington Post
Digesting a Three Dimensional Bette Midler
By Carol Smaldino
Posted: 04/15/2013 1:37 pm

4-10-2013 7-55-13 AM

In a recent interview with Bette Midler, the New York Times Patrick Healy evoked her many qualms and apprehensions about a long awaited (by many) return to Broadway in the one woman show “I’ll Eat you Last.” One of the questions that almost certainly was rhetorical, is quoted as part of Ms. Midler’s meanderings: “I mean, can I really create a full, three-dimensional character? I don’t know anymore. I’m certainly going to try.”

So if she is still posing this same question about the show that is still in previews, I’d like to add my own opinion in the very positive: definitely, she can. She can and she does. And what’s more, for those of us who were doing other things while (the character Midler plays,) agent Sue Mengers was wooing, elevating and losing famous clients, Ms. Midler makes us interested, wanting to catch up on the gossip, let’s admit it. But it doesn’t end there. The character — her character — does have her camp, something Bette Midler is known and loved for. Sue Mengers, however, also had her own desperation, her apparent awareness that the world of Hollywood could be most cruel, relegating yesterday’s stars to today’s irrelevance.

There is often the question in a play such as this about its limitations, what kind of theatre goers would attend and pay the price of the ticket and the babysitters, etc. And perhaps it might be assumed that younger viewers who don’t know the incredible Julie Harris, for one, co-star opposite James Dean in “East of Eden” and brilliant actress (one of the stars discussed in some depth), might not give a damn. But we do; at least we can because many of the themes are universal.

The thoughts and the glow that persist after the theater experience in fact go way beyond Bette Midler alone. They move us to behold just what may be emblematic of the pervasive epidemic of our time: the desperation to gain acceptance, the desperation and lengths to which one would go, the extent to which a person would buy and sell favors and compliments and dinner parties, to keep what ultimately will be fleeting.

Bette Midler smokes on stage (but is she inhaling??? I hope not, for her sake), holding one cigarette and one joint at times in each hand, shows us the sorrow and in a sense the pity, made all the more poignant because she is aging in the play, and some of us know that the actual Sue Mengers died in 2011. There is that fine line between what is attractive and enviable and what is pathetic, and aging actors have at least till (best to use until) now never worn the lust of fame all that graciously, let’s say for the most part. So the woman who courted fame by courting the famous, who became necessary to the extent that she could manipulate the hungers of those who believed in her–well, she winds up looking kind of sad.

We love our famous people, our show biz people. I love, I admit, Bette Midler, because her versatility is startling, her voice delicious, her mischief full of twinkling and the outrageousness of her comedy is a gift forever. Her camp, her irreverence have a comedy which questions the politically correct, and should be an obligatory part of coursework for anyone who really wants to study and appreciate the funny as a necessary part of real living.

I have one piece of advice for Ms. Midler, which I hope she takes. I hope she can refrain from obsessing about the roles she should have taken, because while she might have played it safe in some ways, she was a pioneer in others. She is full of life and she is still developing.

In this way, she can take herself out of the play: she is not the desperate Sue Mengers who was a pip, a wild card and at times lots of fun. Bette Midler is a brilliant performer, actress in fact…She succeeds in creating a three dimensional role, but she succeeds in doing something more. She succeeds in making us want to know more about Sue Mengers the person in real life. And she succeeds in getting us to ponder just how much Hollywood mirrors our continuous addictions to seeking the fame that by itself, can be so hollow.

As I wait to board the plane for Denver my mind wanders to marijuana (I did say she smokes it, sort of, on stage); you know Colorado is one of the states in the process of legalizing it. While some of us feel this is a liberating development, there is the talk and the controversy about it–marijuana–being one of the most dangerous gateway drugs, the ones that lead people into disastrous and at times lethal addictions.

While the play, “I’ll Eat You Last” doesn’t pose these questions, I find that haunting remains of the mood, leaves the issue hanging in the air, with a distinct idea about the addiction in general. Consider please, as both part of the pathos we feel in this play, and in our lives when we dare to look: The gateway drug, as it turns out, may be our addiction to external recognition at almost any cost, something that winds up for almost all of us as that shallow fix that always leaves so many of us in cycles of yearning, stealing, getting, losing, rehab and on and on.

Heavy, huh? You bet. And as such it winds up that not only is Bette Midler three dimensional but she is also starring in a multi-dimensional play.

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