LOS ANGELESâ€” ”No,” said Bette Midler, flashing her familiar, sly grin, ”I’m not going to tell you. It’s the magic of movies.”
The flamboyant entertainer – who has long made comic capital out of her ample figure – was feeling coy when the subject turned to her striking, onscreen transformation from overweight to svelte in the new comedy ”Ruthless People.”
The film, co-starring Danny DeVito and Judge Reinhold and opening in New York on Friday, features Miss Midler as the rambunctious victim of a bungled kidnapping and follows hard on her success in ”Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” for which she also underwent a strenuous exercise regimen to lose weight.
”I’m not very disciplined,” Miss Midler said at her Beverly Hills home. ”I take it off when I have to.”
Yet at the moment, the woman whose sassy, outrageously campy stage routines earned her the soubriquet of the Divine Miss M is quite happy to be putting on weight, since the 40-year-old Miss Midler and her husband of 18 months are expecting their first child in October. By then, she will have completed her third major film in a year, ”Outrageous Fortune,” a women’s ”buddy” picture which will also star Shelley Long.
The prospect of maternity leaves Miss Midler alternately pleased and perplexed. ”Yes, it’s very exciting, but it’s really awful in a way, because it’s kind of invasive,” she said. ”I was shocked when I found out babies don’t always sleep at night, so they keep you up and you get tired. Really. I couldn’t believe it.”
Of the acclaim that has greeted her performance as a bored nouvelle-riche matron in ”Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” she said, ”No one is ever more surprised than I at any success.” ”Down and Out in Beverly Hills” has reignited her stalled film career and established her as a formidable comic player.
She plays a woman even more spoiled in ”Ruthless People,” a product of the trio of directors – Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker – who created the popular spoof ”Airplane!” But in the new film she ends up siding with her good-hearted, if incompetent, kidnappers against her comically diabolical husband (Mr. DeVito).
The sponsoring studio, Walt Disney Pictures, hopes both ”Ruthless People” and ”Outrageous Fortune” will duplicate the success it has already enjoyed with ”Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” The Paul Mazursky comedy was Disney’s first R-rated movie through the studio’s new, adult-oriented Touchstone Films division, and its take of more than $60 million makes it the year’s biggest box-office hit.
Popular since the early 1970’s for her few-holds-barred records and concerts of song, dance and comedy, Miss Midler surprised critics in 1978 – and won a best-actress Oscar nomination – with her film debut in ”The Rose,” a serious portrayal of a self-destructive rock singer, modeled on Janis Joplin.
But the acclaim did not, to her dismay, lead to more dramatic roles. ”When I was with Aaron [ Russo, her manager and boyfriend during most of the 1970’s ] , he didn’t want me to do comedy,” Miss Midler recalled. ”He wanted me to start out as a great dramatic actress. I thought that was a terrific career move, except that I could never follow it [ ‘The Rose’ ] up. Nothing came along for years.” Until ”Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” her only Hollywood work was the 1980 concert film of her Broadway stage show, ”Divine Madness,” and her role as a Las Vegas lounge singer in 1982’s aptly titled ”Jinxed,” which proved memorable only for Miss Midler’s much-publicized battles with her director, Don Siegel, and co-star, Ken Wahl.
”I was in a very vulnerable position then,” she said, ”because I had left Aaron, who had looked after me for seven years. So I threw myself into a project that I never should have gotten mixed up with.
” ‘Jinxed’ was a traumatic experience,” she said, ”but I don’t think it was that bad a picture. He [ director Siegel ] actually cut it quite sensitively. Even though he didn’t like me, he didn’t make me look bad.” Her re-emergence this year as a film comedienne Miss Midler credits to director Mazursky, whom she did not know before he cast her opposite Richard Dreyfuss and Nick Nolte in ”Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”
”I thought I was going to meet some silver-haired Hollywood type, but Paul turned out to be an ex-standup comic, a guy with whom I had instant rapport. He runs a very cheerful set, jolly, in fact, to the point of mania. And that’s the way to make a picture.”
Although her trademark stage persona occasionally flashes in conversation (she beamed when a visitor noted her garish, green-and-yellow painted fingernails), Miss Midler is, she acknowledged, essentially serious by nature and more than a little shy.
”That’s why ‘Down and Out’ was such a relief for me. Paul wants everyone to get in the spirit of the silliness. I can generate that kind of silliness myself, in my shows, but at home I don’t because I’m too beat. So it’s nice when somebody else is the clown and the host for a change.”
Her baby will slow, though not halt, Miss Midler’s film work. ”We didn’t plan it,” she said, speaking of herself and her husband, Martin von Haselberg, a German photographer and performance artist. ”Because I’m 40, it’s under-the-wire time. I expect to be very tired, very worn out and at my wits’ end. So I expect not to be doing a whole lot.”
That does not preclude starting preproduction work on a new film she will produce for Disney with her two women partners in a company called ”All-Girl Productions” (”Our motto,” she laughed, ”is ‘We Hold a Grudge’ ”). She plans to star in the film, a musical about the big-band leader Ina Rae Hutton, who led an all-women ensemble during the 1930’s and 40’s. She would like to cast the film with well-known women musicians, such as the singers Bonnie Raitt and Rickie Lee Jones. And for M-G-M, she plans to make a murder-mystery comedy about a woman detective who becomes a standup comic.
Miss Midler was asked if maternity is likely to mellow her film characters, who talk like stevedores, or her notoriously suggestive standup comedy routines.
”Do you mean am I going to remain vul-gahh and crass?” she retorted, with leering mock indignation. ”Well, I’m going to put my baby in boarding school as soon as possible, in a far corner of England, no, Scotland, near the heather and the Highlands, so my baby will never hear any of this.
”I don’t know,” she sighed. ”I’m going to have to keep doing something, because that’s my livelihood. Joan Rivers’s child seems to be developing O.K., hasn’t turned into a serial killer or anything. And Joan’s much more abrasive than I.”
Which means there will be no cheap motherhood jokes in years to come? ”Oh, my goodness, no, I can’t. Oh no, no, no,” she declared, the innocence in her voice swelling. ”No, everything is not to be put to commerce. Some things are precious.” Miss Midler paused the requisite two beats, then turned with a familiar, sly gleam in her eye. ”Gee, do you think I should?”