Sept. 4, 1984
“Maybe we’ve gotten a little too outrageous.”
Come again? Too outrageous for Bette Midler? The self-described “national treasure chest?”
Hers is a career of the outrageous, embodied in the title of her latest venture, “Art or Bust,” an HBO special airing through September. It’s a video version of last summer’s concert tour, which featured, among other tidbits, a song called “Pretty Legs and Great Big Knockers” and a joke centered on Princess Margaret’s private parts.
This is the singer who got her start warbling to towel-clad men in a bathhouse and who Gloria Steinem credits with
returning drag to women. What could she find outrageous?
“That ad campaign for ‘Santa Barbara'” Midler said. “I mean, what kind of people are they? If I was living in the real Santa Barbara right now, I’d be terribly upset. I don’t know, maybe the public has changed. Maybe they really like that.”
ONE REASON they might like it could very well be Bette Midler. In the early 70s, she demonstrated in a string of
concerts and Broadway , performances that women could talk dirty and still be warm and stylish. At a time when a lot of other women were making the case for equality in other ways, she did it with humor and bawdincss, and it worked, so much so that to this day she remains Gloria Steinem’s favorite performer.
Her superstar status and her talent for grabbing headlines has perhaps eclipsed her more serious influences.
Performers are bawdier now, especially women, and she helped it happen. Even Mitzi Gaynor’s act has unmistakable Midler lines in it nowadays.
“IT’S HARD to come up with those jokes,” she said. “You know who gave me most of them for the last tour? You’re not
going to believe it, but it was Henny Youngman. He would call me from Florida and tell me joke after joke, the next one dirtier than the last. Some came from this Frenchman I was dating for a while, dirty jokes he heard for 20 years in France.”
Her jokes are a bit .more daring than genuine Tucker material, but Midler said the earlier comedienne was nevertheless way ahead of her time.
“Someone recently gave me a recording I hadn’t had before, and there’s one line on it, ‘Make him say please, make him say thank you, but don’t give him nothin’ at all,’ which I think is very advanced. There’s another line ahead of its time, too. She says, ‘I’m living alone and I like it.'”
“I THINK humor doesn’t really age. that a good joke is a good joke, whether its from now or from many years ago.”
Despite her public frankness on sexual matters, Midler has always kept a tight lock on her private life. Beside the much publicized romance and breakup with her onetime manager, Aaron Russo, little gossip has made the rounds.
“Believe me, I have a vivid sex life, I just don’t let any of that out,” she said. “I prefer to be like Mae West. No one ever knew what she was up to, and she was as nuts as they came. But she was so discreet. I think that’s the way to be.”
Part of the secret is not getting married, and Midler said she has no intention of altering her single status. “I can’t say I ever even thought about it,” she said. “I’m living alone, and I like it.”
FROM A professional standpoint, Midler is coasting, and in an odd sort of way. She remains a superstar, going everywhere and doing everything, and yet treading water somehow. Her TV special, for example, is state-of-the-art video, a beautiful blend of concert theatrics and special visual effects. Her recent venture into children’s
writing, “The Saga of Baby Divine,” made the best-seller lists. When she toured last summer, she played to sold-out
But the album she was promoting, “No Frills,” went nowhere. And her film career, which went from the Oscar nomination for “The Rose” to the disastrous “Jinxed,” remains in limbo, despite all the talk of this or that project.
“This or that is right,” she said. “I think my next movie should be called ‘This or That.’ I have no contract and no offers. I have maybe half a script. (Playwright) John Guare wrote a brilliant script for me, but the people involved decided not to finance it, that it wasn’t a commercial property. There are some things waiting to burst into bloom, but I don’t like to talk about it, I’m superstitious about that stuff, as if I might jinx myself. Jinx, ugh, my favorite word.”
Did she learn anything from “Jinxed”?
“I REALLY don’t know,” she said. “I think a lot of it depends on who you get involved with. At one point in my life, I thought I was a good judge of character. But that last go-round convinced me I’m as dumb as they come. I
got my comeuppance, didn’t I? Talk about hubris.
“Every judgment about ‘Jinxed’ was bad judgment,” she continued. “It wasn’t a bad script, it had something you just
couldn’t put your .finger on. You couldn’t tell if it was a comedy or not. The choice of director (Don Siegel) didn’t help. By the time I finally said this has got to be funny, it was too late.
“And the question of money became a horrible pressure,” she added. “The problem with Hollywood is that people don’t
know when to say no. We kept going forward when we should have stopped. One thing I learned from that is in an old maxim, that if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage. Nobody had an overview of where we were going. It’s not like Hannibal crossing the Alps. He knew where he was going, and he had the elephants to get there. Our elephants kept wandering off. Gee. that’s a strange metaphor.”
Musically, Midler remains adrift, too, and it’s a curious reversal. Ever since “The Rose,” Midler has been marketing herself as a rock and roll singer. Most of the songs on “No Frills” had a rock slant, with even a
slight hint here and there of New Wave. It simply didn’t sell. “1 was disappointed, but I didn’t die or anything. I just said, ‘Oh, well, they didn’t buy that, let’s see if they’ll buy something else.”