BootLeg Betty

BetteBack: Divine Miss M not so crazy

Madison Wisconsin State Journal
March 27, 1983


NEW YORK — All spruced up in V-necked cashmere, knit ties and tweed, walking sensibly in short chunky heels and plain cloth coats, couples collect at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, the city’s most elegant hall.

Filing past posters advertising $2 tours, they move with the contentment of middle class and middle age toward their reserved, $30 seats.

But wait! A rising curtain reveals no rows of musicians outfitted in black tie and tails; not even a poised pianist emerges to greet the expectant horde. Instead, a smear of purple, a flash of pink, the rumble of a rock beat — and a diva of another disorder.

Done up in mountains of boudoir pink, black pants and stockings flashing beneath, she Betty Boops her way across stage, growling into the mike, beckoning to the front row seats, singing of love in the back of a Cadillac — then crawling forward on hands and feet.

When, moments later, a raunchy one-liner about a video game elicits laughter appropriate to the size of the hall, Bette Midler will gather herself up to her full 5-feet, peer haughtily out at the almost bifocaled brigade, and pointedly observe: “Either I have crossed over or you have crossed over.”

It is a joke that cuts many ways to reveal one singular truth: The star who rose from the steam of New York’s homosexual baths more than a decade ago, the cult figure who found no costume too sleazy, no songs too silly, no targets too tasteless, now resides somewhere in public appreciation to the right of Mae West and the left of the Fonz. If the Divine Miss M has not (perish the thought) entered the mainstream, she has at least pitched a tent
on its bank.

It happened, perhaps, with “The Rose,” the 1979 movie that produced an Academy Award nomination for Midler and a hauntingly beautiful hit single. Or it happened with last year’s Academy Award ceremony — when Midler, encased in crinkly gold (“And you thought it was impossible to overdress for this occasion”), demolished the entire Best Song category with several carefully chosen •mal mots. Or with the HBO special that brought a islightly less censored Midler into all-American homes.

‘ What it did not happen with was “Jinxed,” the aptly tilled movie of a few months back. Directed by Don IC’Dirty Harry”) Siegel in a manner making it unclear ;whether its genre was comedy or thriller, it disappeared faster than you can say “box-office bomb.”

Before it did, however, both Siegel and “Jinxed” co-star Ken Wahl said a lot of unprintable things about thenleading lady, many of which ended up in print. So in her current show, “De Tour,” which opened last week at Radio City, Midler presents a viciously funny five-minute clip of the film, dubbed and subtitled to provide her side of the story.

Despite the stage slap, she is not eager to recall the Hollywood enterprise.

The result of the movie-making misery was a self-described “nervous breakdown” that led Ms. Midler, for the first time, to a psychiatrist, and from there to the still evolving resolution: “I was beaten up, but not beaten. I did a lot of growing up, and I think I’m stronger for the experience. A lot of women have gone through it — being ganged up on by men — but it was the first time for me. I’m not as fond of men as I used to be.”

Or as trusting — of anybody. “I’m more wary, less open,” says the woman always known for her candor, if not innocence.

So all interviews now come with warnings about her “sensitivity,” and even the star will plead, “Don’t,” when a sensitive subject is broached. On the road, she has surrounded herself with an efficient and loyal crew; on stage, the astounding energy now seems pinned to an eerie calm; The Divine Miss M is less in evidence than a woman wedded to the emotional weariness that lies beneath most of what passes for maturity.

She is, after all, 37 now — and, reversing the tradition, more willing to admit her age than in her younger days.

Ms. Midler always has gone to extraordinary ends to separate her stage character from her self. So, she believes, she avoided the death trap of a John Belushi. Although the world would like to “make me into a plaintive figure,” the singer who has etched her personal sorrow into countless songs is, ironically, much further removed from self-destruction than seemingly saner stars.

In the early ’70s when she recorded “Superstar,” the Divine Miss M would take some haughty stage swipes at Karen Carpenter. Of Ms. Carpenter’s recent death, from heart failure following a long battle with anorexia nervosa, Midler says, “I was staggered by it. I had no idea.”

They had, however, met. “She gave me my Grammy in 1974 — and I think it was all she could do to keep from hitting me with it.

“I had made a lot of cracks about her, but when I met her, I really liked her, and I realized that I had hurt her feelings, and I was brought up short. I stopped the jokes.”

Although she did not know Ms. Carpenter well, Ms. Midler says, “I have a strong insight into her situation. My oldest sister (Judith, who died in a car accident in 1968) was anorexic. She had it from 12 to 14. We called it ‘the Binge’ — this was in the ’50s, and my family knew nothing about it, we had no idea it was so common. It was horrible. I can remember doing things like drilling a hole into the wall to see what she was doing.

“I’m sure Karen was terrified.

That’s what it comes down to — a terror of not being good enough, beautiful enough, adored enough. It’s tough, and I feel really bad about what happened to her.”

As for herself: “I think I’m whole. But it’s a big effort not to freak out, to stay on an even keel. I’m really trying.”

The tour — her first cross-country journey since 1976 — seems to be Midler’s way of getting back her creative energy. The all-white Harleltes have a new look (“space trash,” she calls it), and the show reflects Midler’s desire to go beyond “70s whorishness toward a more painterly concept. It’s the first time I’ve gotten involved in the design of a show.”

Then there is a new Atlantic album, “No Frills,” due in mid-April, which will include several of the songs she sings on stage, and one self written tune, “Jimmy Dean”: “A pretty little song that just came out — something that never happened to me. It’s about loneliness and longing for a hero — which is such bull, but so common.”

What lifts her out of the caution, the weariness, the cynicism, however, is a children’s book she has written, • “The Saga of Baby Divine,” to be published next fan by Crown. “I’m so proud of it,” Midler says. “The kid is so wonderful — so feisty and witty.”

And yes, “She looks sort of like me. Red hair and heels and a very noisy garish diaper.

“Strangely enough, I like writing books better than anything else. I can read and write. Anything else makes me nervous.”

With a love life that is “thriving — and I hope everybody else’s is to” — she is also entertaining ideas of “settling down.”

“But it’s hard to get pregnant, you . have to take your temperature and all of that,” she adds, by way of announcing a second goal. “I have,” she elaborates, “decided I’d be a great mom.”

This kid would be no pampered lovechild of the Divine Miss M. This kid would be the adored, but reality rooted offspring of the surveyor, Ms. Midler, “loved and encouraged and taught how to get along in this world,” she says, “because that’s the one. thing they never teach you.” .

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