Iconic singer-songwriter, comedian, actress, author, producer and philanthropist Bette Midler’s career spans decades, and she just keeps soaring.
The Devine Miss M attracts ever new generations of fans: In her recent Academy Awards performance of “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” â€” a timeless tribute to a buoyant mentor â€” her voice still shimmered, rich and sultry; the audience responded with a thunderous standing ovation. Her 1980 memoir, “A View from A Broad,” was just rereleased; it continues to delight with uproarious chronicles from her first world tour.
So it’s surprising when the uber-talented Midler, via telephone from her Los Angeles hotel back in December, says, “Well mostly I’m learning about acting. It’s a fight every night.”
Midler was in Los Angeles performing in her critically acclaimed one-woman Broadway show, “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers,” about the legendary talent agent whose client list included a dazzling smorgasbord of Hollywood royalty, and whose acerbic style and vitriolic temper commanded respect and incited ire.
“A lot of people hated her,” deadpanned Midler.
It’s a grueling performance, and a little outside her comfort zone. She continued, “I’ve had 40 years of bands, background singers, and now I’m on the stage all by myself. Fortunately I have a terrific script. It’s got energy even though I only sit on the couch for 80 minutes!”
Midler also has a reputation as a tough cookie. Known for her biting wit and blunt commentary, her rise to superstardom has been a tour de force, and she’s frank about the struggles of striving.
“There are barriers put up in front of women all the time, every day of their lives,” she lamented. “But I’ve always been the kind of person who goes around the barriers.”
She isn’t shy about breaking down doors, either, and she emphasizes the power of a sharp mind: “I think you have to really strategize. You have to be alert, have to have some brain power and you can’t take it lying down. You have to fight for your position â€” bring your best game and be prepared to defend yourself.
“I don’t want to say that it’s war, but there’s definitely a battle going on.”
That grit has given way to a staggering number of awards and accolades: Golden Globes, Grammys, Emmys, multiple Academy Award nominations â€” and the list goes on.
But for all her glittering stardom, Midler takes as much pride in her philanthropy as she does her performances. She recently won the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation Jane Jacobs Medal for Lifetime Leadership, for successfully protecting 114 New York City parks and gardens from development, and transforming them into thriving green spaces and playgrounds.
She realizes that her success made it easier to get the job done â€” “I’m a celebrity with a really loud mouth,” she said â€” but she believes everyone has something to offer.
“People should go for their guts. When I came to New York (from Los Angeles) the streets were so dirty and you really didn’t want to be outdoors. I said we shouldn’t be living this way. People should look around for what they really, really love â€” because if they love it they’ll stick with it.”
Soon Midler will take on the role of another icon with a big mouth and a lot of brass: she’s slated to play the role of Mae West in the HBO biopic on the legend. She’s a natural to play the trailblazing West, who broke down barriers, wrote her own rules, and continued to be a scintillating sex symbol long after younger actresses had lost their shine.
Midler chalks her successes up to perseverance and unbridled ambition.
“The idea of giving up is anathema to me â€¦ I really like to work â€” my husband says I’m impossible if I’m not working.”
Asked what’s next, the irrepressible star surprises again: “I think I’ll conquer that lawn chair.” She went on â€” almost convincingly â€” to say she really loved to be in the garden, but quipped, “You know, I’m so embarrassed because people say, well are you a good gardener? And I say, well, no â€¦ I just point to the garden and say, ‘this goes there, that goes here,’ but I do really like it and it puts me in a quiet place.
“Which is why I think I chose (the NYC) parks and gardens â€” I’m so at peace in them.”
See Bette Midler
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Monday
WHERE: Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St.
TICKETS: $37-$84 www.desmoinesperformingarts.org