January 13, 1989
No bikinis. No blankets. No bingo. “Beaches” is a bosom-buddy movie about a friendship that was destined to be — like surf and turf, M&Ms, Laverne and Shirley, Lucy and Ethel, Cagney and Lacey.
As the buddy movie rule requires, it is a tale of abiding love between disparate souls, a friendship formed against the odds — only here differences are overcome at Bloomingdale’s, not in a squad car.
“Beaches” is a bicoastal crowd-pleaser, a tenderhearted, two-hanky melodrama brightened with Bette Midler‘s sass and sweetened with her songs. Barbara Hershey (formerly Barbara Seagull) lends class to the unlikely equation.
The movie follows CC Bloom (Midler) and Hillary Whitney (Hershey) from Atlantic City, where they meet as 11-year-olds, to the beach house on the Pacific, where they share their final sunset three decades later. In 1957, CC is a torch singer in embryo, a determined child chanteuse (the kid played with pizazz by Mayim Bialik) who already has an act in a cheesy vaudeville show. Her vamped version of “The Glory of Love,” complete with bump, grind and feather boa, would do the Divine Miss M proud.
The finishing-schooled Hillary (young Marcie Leeds), a well-bred San Franciscan, is fascinated by this exotic girl whom she meets sneaking a cigarette under the pier. “Want a drag? It’ll calm your nerves,” says CC, who likewise is taken with Hillary. Blessed with a generous spirit, elegance and brunet beauty, Hillary is a miracle to CC. “Bread and butter,” agree the perfect little odd couple, pledging their fidelity before going their separate ways.
The girls agree to write and theirs is a soul-baring correspondence that continues till they meet again more than a decade later. “Dear WASP queen, I have a can of Mace, a flat and a subscription to Variety,” writes CC. “I guess I’ve made it.” The pen pals become roommates when Hillary joins the New York staff of the ACLU. CC bleaches her hair, and Hillary dyes hers the same color. They giggle retroactively and bolster each other — mostly CC. She’s still a struggling actress, but she’s as certain as a Busby Berkeley showgirl to make the footlight parade.
It’s fortunate, not to mention expected, when along comes John Pierce (John Heard), the dishwater blond director of an experimental theater company, who serves as shared love interest and litmus test of the women’s relationship. CC saw him first, but it’s Hillary he wants. Citing a lack of character, Hillary apologizes when she takes her best friend’s man. “Sexual attraction has nothing to do with character,” scoffs CC, “unless you are Eleanor Roosevelt.”
It’s CC’s humor, and Midler’s brass, that save the episodic “Beaches” from overflowing with suds. CC’s career rises and crashes, Hillary sells out and becomes a docent, husbands come, cads go, babies are born and diseases caught in a predictable screenplay by Mary Agnes Donoghue. An adaptation of the bestseller by Iris Rainer Dart, the story line is “Terms of Endearment” played again with so much zest and sentiment all is forgiven.
Unfortunately, it’s got more endings than Beethoven’s Ninth. Just when you think it’s over, Midler comes back for an encore of “The Glory of Love.” A charismatic warbler from her Sunkist-orange corona to the hem of her wine-velvet gown, Midler steals the show again. Even with new collagen-engorged lips, Hershey can’t take a scene from her. She’s a stretch of empty sand for Midler’s bouncy beach ball.
Midler is not only the star but also a producer of “Beaches,” the premier project of her All Girl Productions, which did hire Garry Marshall, a definite male, as the director. As the brains behind “Laverne and Shirley” and “Mork and Mindy,” Marshall was a natural for a team effort. But “Beaches” most closely recalls Marshall’s “Nothing in Common,” a father-and-son tear-jerker that fit like a loose shirt.
Whatever its failings, “Beaches” speaks to women. It makes girlfriends think of calling girlfriends they haven’t seen in 10, 20, 30 years. You can live without love, but “you’ve got to have friends,” as Midler sings.