BootLeg Betty

BetteBack November 6, 1987: From Bathhouse To Box Office Queen

Santa Fe New Mexican
November 6, 1987


My daughter will have a very traditional upbringing. No television. Lots of books. Piano
lessons, dance lessons. I don’t ever want her to see my work and say, ‘That’s you? How could you do that?

Could this really be the self-proclaimed “last of the truly tacky women” speaking? Yes, the ultratalented, brash and bawdy queen of camp, having made three hit films for Walt Disney Studios, has now become the toast of Hollywood, a Beverly Hills matron, mother and wife. Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, who recently signed her to another threefilm deal, says, “As a performer, Bette Midler is the single biggest asset we have.”

Has she traded In her fabulous four-ietter-wit to walk the squeakyclean path of Wait Disney’s family entertainment machine? Has she, in a word, sold out? Or is the first lady of “trash with flash” leading the Mickey and Minnie crowd up a new golden road? That her hystericaiiy funny vulgar humor hasn’t been tempered is obvious from touches in Outrageous Fortune like her identifying a corpse using anatomical detail not In most textbooks of forensic science.

Yet in the same film, this woman of the wild wardrobe can be seen wearing not a glitzy halter top stretched precariously across possibly the best-known mammaries in moviedom, but rather a relatively tame tailored houndstooth jacket.

More and more. Miss Madness seems to be favoring the stylish rags of Rodeo Drive instead of wild frippery from the Frederick’s of the imagination.

If clothes make the man, how much more do they make the woman? A peek into the closet of Ms. Midler would probably reveal not only a history of hysteria and kitschy taste in the ’70s and ’80s, but with a little luck, the woman, the divine Miss. M herself. So imagine, if you will….

A six-foot-long, mustard-streaked hotdog in a bun? Hanging off it a long dark robe befitting a nun? Do these both belong to the mad woman of Honolulu? Yes. Bette, ever in search of the outrageous and absurd, did indeed don a knee-iength dog with relish in one of her wildly successful stage shows.

Yet that long dark turn-of-the-century gown buttoned tight against immorality is precisely what Bette wore In her true screen debut in 1966, playing a missionary’s wife in Hawaii.

Born on December 1,1945, to working class parents in a modest Honolulu neighborhood, the third daughter of Ruth Midler was named after one of her mother’s favorite movie stars, Bette Davis.

Throughout Bette’s childhood, her mother encouraged her to pursue her eariy ambitions of becoming a star. (Fred, Bette’s father, never approved, and in his entire life he never saw his daughter perform.) Hawaii paid Bette enough to buy a one-way ticket to New York, where she could begin to make her dreams come true.

A hardworking D-cup brassiere to keep Bette’s bust in line (when she chose to). A necessary piece of accoutrement, let’s face it: Bette’s Bust is part of her trademark.

She began creating a stir in the late ’60s at the Continental Baths in New York, a gay establishment forced to open its doors on Saturday nights to the straight public’s demand to see the new sensation. Few knew that they might already have seen her in the hit Broadway musical. Fiddler on the Roof as Tzeitel, the eldest daughter The antique velvet dresses she first wore on Broadway became an early trademark for Bette, along with the torch-song style that would later elevate her to stardom.

In the baths, Bette also began a professional relationship with another future success, Barry Manilow. Barry tapped the ivories at the “tubs” (as Bette called them) and encouraged her to develop her own distinct musical style. Good advice for a young woman with the pizzazz of Garland, the precise phrasing of Streisand and a voice that could handle anything from Piaf to Presley But ’30s and ’40s songs became Bette’s breakthrough material, giving her a chance to lose herself and acquire an alluring vulnerability.

She could let schmaltz be schmaltz, set her insecurities aside and emotionaily explore a melodic line, baring truths with an intensity few singers ever achieve.

The towel-clad crowd at the baths also got the first taste of a great clown in the making. The Callas of Camp tool< Sophie Tucl long drill.” Adept musicianship plus great comedic sense and timing equaled instant success. A star was born.

A giant clam! A blue sequined mermaid suit! King KongI Is this Bette’s closet or a menagerie?

The woman who once said “the most Important thing in the world is to make people laugh” soon got her chance After Johnny Carson befriended her and gave her national exposure (and expose she wouldl), Bette began a series of tours from the mid ’70s through the ’80s that would break every record known to box office. After touring the country in a series of sellouts, she returned once again to play Broadway this time in her own show, for two weeks of SROs and the biggest one-day gross in Broadway history Two years later she broke her own record with her Clams on the Half Shell Revue.

Backed up by her girls “the Harlettes,” Bette went to great lengths to entertain, surprise and delight her audiences—including baring her breasts, if the time was right. Whether it was as Fay Wray in the hand of a giant King Kong or Vicki Eyde the ba-a-ad lounge act from “lost Wages” (Ins Vegas) Bette was now a star and a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment world.

A toy typewriter hot, feathers, a 45-rpm record with a bow to pin to her locks, an airplane and globe chapeau?

Was success going to the Divine One’s head? These and many other ridiculous things perched atop Ms. M’s head as she accepted and presented one award after another: Grammy, Tony Emmy and an Oscar nomination for The Rose. Bette’s first major screen role as the tormented, insecure rock and roll singer was as brilliant as any first performance could be. Who else could have played the self-destructive Joplin-like character?

She sang the songs with the explosive force of a time bomb. Was there any stopping the Divine One now? Though never far from the spotlight, Bette was to suffer the Hollywood Blues when her next picture, Jinxed, was just that. Beset with problems from the beginning, an already crippled United Artists lost 20 million on the project. Suddenly everything was no longer coming up “Rose-s.” Of course, there were moments, like her bestselling book View From a Broad and the Guinness World Book record she set for signing the most autographs in a day She never missed a chance to stay in the
public eye, whether mooning the Harvard Club after being given the Hosty Pudding Award or stealing the Oscar ceremonies by appearin g in a lowcut, shiny gold gown with red and blue silk spangled scarves billowing from the sleeves. (She floored the audience by proclaiming, “I guess you thought it was impossible to overdress for this affair.”

A 5′ 1″, pudgy Jewish girl who didn’t consider herself very pretty, Bette ha d created a mask, a persona strung with all those baubles, bangles an d beads which gave her creative genius freedom to fly. But Jlnxed weighed heavily on her The line to Hollywood was on indefinite hold. A near nervous collapse occurred.

Had she come to the end of the line? Was she all dressed up with no place to gc^ What now? What new costume could she wear?

A simple blue-gray chiffon dress a n d a maternity gown.

In December of 1984, it was love at first sight for Bette an d Martin von Hasselberg, a.k.a. Harry Kipper. A German South American industrialist, he double d as a Kipper Kid, half of a comedy duo who performed in Jockstraps and smeared each other with chocolate and paint. Perhaps just crazy enough to appreciate the private Miss Madness.

Bette was off again to las Vegas, this time in the simple aforementioned wedding gown, to b e married by an Elvis impersonator Clam Shell girl calming down? Hardly Yet, motherhood soon followed an d in the tradition established by her mother Bette name d her own daughter after a favorite performer—Sophie Tucker. But instead of settling down to enjoy the simpler and quieter life she seemed ready for, Bette surprised everybody including herself. She was about to see her dreams come true.

Fox fur, diamon d earrings, platinum watch, and a cream-colored silk chamois dress designed to kill.

Who would have thought that Bette (bleeptem-if-they-can’t-take-a-joke) Midler would be playing a bored Beverly Hills matron? Yet Bette was never more seductive on the screen.

Jiggling up an d down the stairs in tippy-toe high heels, sitting crosslegged an d cooing mantras to her guru, Bette stole the show in what she originally thought was not a major role. A comeback in the Disney stable as a sedate but loony married woman – was middle age making Bette a Midler-of-the-roader? Was the wonderful vulgar spokeswoman of bad taste a n d good comedy about to vanish into the simonized hills of Icila Land?

Not on your life. In a single year, Bette h a d a baby an d three hit movies. A crown and sceptre—not the ones she carried years ago as the Statue of Libido.

No, to Bette Midler goes the crown of the Queen of Comedy The biggest female box office attraction in film in 1986. Cleaned up her act? Watch her have her way with Danny DeVito in Rufhiess People. As she lets out a hilarious string of expletives she tops it by saying sweetly, “They made me say that.” No, Bette Midler isn’t slowing down. She’s just getting started. •

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