The 42 folks who make up the nominating committee for the Tony Awards gave the cold shoulder to Bette Midler this season.
That the two-time Oscar contender was not nominated for her performance in “I’ll Eat You Last” is a real headscratcher. Tony-winning scribe John Logan (“Red”) penned this piece for her about the live of Hollywood’s first superagent Sue Mengers. Midler holds court solo on stage and earned rave reviews from the critics.
Charles Isherwood (New York Times) said, “It is hard to imagine any other actor imbuing the character with the same seductive effervescence or giving a feeling of perpetual motion to a 90-minute monologue without even standing up.”
Elysa Gardner (USA Today) thought, “Midler dives into the role with predictable relish — which is not to say that she chews the scenery. However brassy her persona, Mengers clearly valued taste and discretion, as Pask’s spacious, elegant scenic reminds us. Holding court over an audience whose members, as she repeatedly informs us, aren’t nearly distinguished enough to warrant an invitation to her house, the actress brings an element of wry detachment to even some more personal observations.
And Linda Winer (Newsday) noted, “How much fun is it to have Bette Midler curled up barefoot on a sofa on a Broadway stage, chatting at us for 90 minutes in a periwinkle blue caftan with silver sparkles to match her long fingernails? So much fun that, even when the script doesn’t scintillate as much as it intends to, a happy contentment seems to permeate the theater.”
Buoyed by these great notices, she is breaking box office records at the Booth Theater. So, why wasn’t Midler among the five nominees for Best Actress in a Play?
Were she and the play deemed to be too Hollywood for the theater crowd?
Three years ago — when Logan won Best Play for “Red” — the Tonys raised a few eyebrows by giving prizes to Oscar champs Denzel Washington and Catherine Zeta-Jones for their star turns in revivals of “Fences” and “A Little Night Music” respectively as well as Scarlett Johannson for her performance in a restaging of “A View From the Bridge.”
While Washington could boast of a theatrical pedigree and Zeta-Jones had been a chorus girl in West End musicals, Johannson was a newbie.
Washington used his star wattage to good effect, elevating his co-star Viola Davis to leading lady status despite the role’s originator Mary Alice having won the featured Tony back in 1987.
However, Zeta-Jones divided critics and audiences with her interpretation of Stephen Sondheim‘s tunes. Indeed, her performance of “Send in the Clowns” on the Tonys telecast became a viral sensation for all the wrong reasons.
And Johannson — who had only a featured role onstage — proved to be a diva in real life, refusing to talk to the press after winning the Tony. She returned to the rialto this season in a revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” which was dismissed by critics and audiences alike.
Mindful of the backlash against this flirtation with the West Coast, Tony voters have given most of their awards in the past two years to theater vets over Hollywood names.
Of this year’s five nominees for Best Actress in a Play, two are respected theater actresses: Amy Morton, who reaped a bid for a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and Kristine Nielsen, who was bumped up to lead from featured for her performance in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
The other three are Emmy champs: three-time winner Laurie Metcalf for her work in the short-lived transfer of the off-Broadway hit “The Other Place”; Holland Taylor for “Ann,” her one-woman show about Texas governor Ann Richards; and Cicely Tyson who has not been on Broadway since headlining a flop revival of “The Corn is Green” three decades ago and returns to the rialto in a revival of “The Trip to Bountiful,” playing a part that won Geraldine Page an Oscar in 1985.
Midler’s notices were the equal of any of these ladies.
Perhaps she was hurt by her play being perceived as too inside. While it is full of name-dropping — after all the scene is set in Menger’s Beverly Hills living room as she awaits a call from one-time client Barbra Streisand — it is also full of heart. Credit Midler for making this monologue into a moving piece that both enlivened and entertained.
Being snubbed by the Tonys certainly hasn’t hurt at the box office. The show continues to sell out and Midler basks in a well-earned standing ovation every night.
Let’s hope she returns to the rialto soon. There has been talk of her headlining a revival of the musical “Mame” that won Angela Lansbury the first of her record five Tonys back in 1966.
Until then, the special Tony Midler won in 1973 for her concert at the Palace Theater can keep her company. Take a look at her crowd-pleasing acceptance speech below and make special note of her plea to people to attend live theater wherever they live.