BootLeg Betty

BetteBack October 12, 1980: Midler walks fine line in ‘Divine Madness

Madison Wisconsin State Journal
October 12, 1980


NEW YORK – “I know just how far I can go with the American public, folks,” declares Bette Midler in “Divine Madness” (now at the Stage Door), and a lot of the time she does.

“Divine Madness” presents Miss Midler’s concert act in all its gaudy irrepressible glory. Miss Midler sings songs that don’t necessarily suit her, trots about in outfits no one else could get away with and tells bawdy jokes so sweetly she makes the bawdiness almost beside the point. She gets away with most of this, and more.

Even more impressive than her way with an off-color punch line — which is certainly impressive — is the control in her delivery. Miss Midler knows full well what her audience expects of her, and what the traffic will bear Only a thin line separates her from vulgarity, from maudlin excess, from material that shows her off to poor advantage or gives her self-deprecating humor a nasty edge. And her ability to steer clear of such things is remarkable. “Divine Madness,” as directed by Michael Ritchie, however, captures Miss Midler at very close range. So the lapses, though they are infrequent, are greatly magnified.

Ritchie begins the, film with a lecture to the ushers, delivered by their aging leader in a delightful deadpan.

“We’re pleased to have Betty Midler here,” says he, and he goes on to hope there won’t be another “incident in the audience” like the one that occurred during Vladimir Horowitz’s performance. The details of this incident — 300-pound man has epileptic seizure, ushers are crushed — unfold calmly in Ritchie’ “smile” style. But this is the first and last satirical touch the film offers. Too bad; the scene works very well, and it’s perfectly consistent with the ironic edge of Miss Midler’s act. This is a show, after all, in which the star imitates Princess Anne by counting with one foot as if she were a horse. After that, she announces “It’s so mean, I shouldn’t do that to her. But she’s so rich, what does she care?”

Miss Midler’s musical material is terribly uneven, ranging from more or less ideal songs like “The Rose,” “Big Noise From Winnetka,” “Boogie Woogle Bugle Boy” and “Chapel of Love” to some very odd choices. As the old salt of Tom Waits‘s “Shiver Me Timbers,” Miss Midler is wildly miscast; singing Bruce Springsteen, she’s hopeless. Though no other song in the set comes across this way, “Paradise” sounds as if the singer has a head cold.

And the show varies so frantically from number to number that the between-song patter almost comes as a relief.

Ritchie’s style is generally unobtrusive; the direction calls attention to Itself only when he abandons a close shot of Miss Midler to show a glimpse of her audience, or to view her from a distance. For all of its elaborate staging — the sets and costumes are often spectacular — Miss Midler’s act is an intimate one, and it doesn’t need to be interrupted in this way.

She fares best when allowed to establish a close convivial contact with the viewer — as when she drops the most outrageous of double-entendres, then announces, “Oh, I see you catch my drift,” with a mischievous pride.

Some of those musical numbers that don’t entirely work as music have a stronger selling point in the visual shenanigans of Miss Midler and her three backup singers, the Harlettes — they function as “a Greek chorus,” or so Miss Midler claims.

In a’ medley of “Leader of the Pack” and “The E Street Shuffle,” the performers don’t do much of musical interest, but they wiggle facetiously in punk outfits and manage to make a point of sorts. In other numbers, Miss Midler appears as a nightclub singer In a wheelchair, as a bag lady and as both bride and bridegroom (simultaneously) on top of a wedding cake.

This last costume is the movie’s single most ingenious touch.

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