BootLeg Betty

BetteBack February 24, 1989: Bette Midler’s divine pursuit of power in Hollywood

Cedar Rapids Gazette
February 24, 1989

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HOLLYWOOD — “I want to do that job,” Bette Midler said blithely. She pointed to a local magazine cover featuring Columbia Pictures president Dawn Steel as one of California’s IO meanest bosses. Midler scowled as though she did not like the headline. “The Queen of Mean,” she said reading the cover line aloud. “I don’t think she’s so mean. But I would do the executive job completely different. I’d be unorthodox.” Midler stopped to reconsider a minute.

“But then I guess I’d be in the David Puttnam position.” Better that Midler be in her own position than that of the dethroned Puttnam, former chief of Columbia pictures. She defines bankable. Five Disney comedies in three years have earned a cumulative $252.2 million in
U.S. grosses for the studio. In Hollywood there is a mostly unspoken elementary-school grading system and — as one Creative Artists agent put it — “Bette is getting a B-plus every day.

Or an A-minus.” In March, she begins shooting a version of the Barbara Stanwyck classic “Stella Dallas” after Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg spent 18 months negotiating with Sam Goldwyn Jr. for the remake rights. Disney pays as much attention to Midler as Ronald Reagan pays to Nancy.

“Every executive on this lot — every day — drives to work, and the first thing on their minds is — you have to believe me — Bette Midler.” Katzenberg was trying to be specific about his star as an asset. The image was striking — all those BMWs curving in on Dopey Drive on the Disney lot with Midler movies on their minds. Katzenberg the businessman was exposing his vulnerability to a creative resource — to a piece of talent.

It is ironic that Midler, of all people, is the ’80s version of the quintessential studio star — the executive’s pet, the bankable favorite. A well-behaved Divine Miss M is casting against type. One thinks of words like “artist” and “volatile.” That she became a movie star does not surprise anyone; that she had to become a well-behaved studio employee to do so is a stunner.

“Do you know how the parent of an only child is fiercely protective? Paternal?” asked John Erman, who will direct “Stella Dallas” on location in Toronto. “At Disney ifs ’Are you sure Bette is being taken care of in this situation?,’ ‘Is this the right costume designer for Bette?,’ ‘Will that cameraman photograph Bette correctly?’ and ‘Remember Bette is from Hawaii and she will be shooting in Canada — is it too cold?’ She is protected by mother lions, and she delivers for them.

Every time. I guess that’s what a star is.”

This accidental Hollywood marriage was born on Oscar Night 1983, when an unemployed Midler stole the telecast — and Katzenberg and Disney CEO Michael Eisner were still at Paramount Studios. The executives talked that night about rediscovering Miss M for the
movies. When the team went to Disney, their first success was “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” and the star was reborn. Katzenberg is grateful for the financial hits that followed: “Ruthless People,” “Outrageous Fortune,” “Big Business” and now “Beaches,” which
even with very mixed reviews has grossed $25.8 million domestically in 50 days in wide release.

THERE ARE ALL KINDS OF misconceptions about Bette Midler, but the major one is that she gave away her power to the powers at Disney.

“She handed her career to Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner,” is the way one agent puts it. “And then the power came back to her.”

Midler opened one interview session with that subject.

“The power, hmm . . .,” she said. “I didn’t give it away, I gave it up. ‘Gave it away’ means I actually gave it to someone, that someone received it. No — I just gave it up.”

And, she agreed, it has come back to her: “I would say that that was true.” Midler is one of those people, like Cher, who show mood swings like most people show charms on a bracelet; she is unworried about Image.

“But I’m much more cautious about the use of power now,” she said. “I’m not interested in misusing it. That would be easy. I’m not even really interested in using it.” Midler made a distinction: “One has to be in charge of where one’s career is going, but that’s personal
power. That’s not getting other people to do what you want. On ‘Beaches’ it was different because I was obliged to say more. But if I had my way, I wouldn’t have said anything. I was obliged to do the job, I did the job. I cared, and I think it shows on the screen, but.
But: “The truth is that it pays not to care,” Midler said plainly. “It’s better if you don’t have your soul on the line. I haven’t found anything that I’m ready to sell my soul for. If I do, I will, but I haven’t yet. Not so far with these people. Although I like them, I’m enjoying myself. I mean, I love the relationship we have.”

There is love, and there is love. What is sometimes missing in Midler’s voice is a kind of passion, and she knows it. On TV interviews, she talks about “just showing up for work” and simultaneously one can see the artist in her waiting to burst out again. Bette Midler
as Lotte Lenya. Bette Midler as Mama Rose in “Gypsy.”

“But I just don’t have the fever now,” she will say, when pressed.

The need for power must come finally from ambition, thwarted maybe or trampled-on, but somehow there.

Twice in interviews Midler became teary talking about her original ambition to be a legend. In front of you she becomes the loneliest, homeliest pre-swan ugly duckling, with all the rough edges showing. So you have to ask her about wanting the power of movie stardom.

“I intended to be a movie star because I thought it was the high end,” she said simply. “I thought it was where the work would survive, that if you had something beautiful and good to offer, it was worth the effort. I still feel that way, but not as strongly. Because I
know how hard it is to make something good and beautiful. With your own personal vision. You almost have to be a giant of some sort.”

Midler was asked to drop a name. “OK, Orson Welles,” she responded in a flash. “A giant who was beaten down by the system, and couldn’t survive. I’m not saying he didn’t contribute to his own demise, but he should have found the way to survive. He should have found the path. He didn’t, he couldn’t. And if he couldn’t, who of us can?”

But Welles did not have the resources of the Disney empire behind him. “But my situation is one I don’t want to jeopardize by beating them with a stick of my ego and my personality. My situation is one that I want to remain calm and polite. So the steps I take are
cautious ones.”

So she is paying strict attention, ignoring the emotional roller-coaster that made “The Rose” such a signature film. “I think a lot about the things I want the studio to do for me. And I know they think a lot about the things they want me to do for them. It’s give-and take.”

What does Disney do for Midler? “They listen,” she said, like it was a gift from God. “They’re obliged to listen to pitches, but they also bend over backwards to see my point of view.”

DISNEY IS THINKING “DRAMA” as a career switch for Midler. The comedies have given her a sure footing, a niche that anyone but Clint Eastwood would envy.

Five hits at one studio. So now there is a comfort zone.

“Beaches” was conceived as Midler’s first Disney drama, and “Stella” is completely dramatic. “Jeffrey said, ‘It’s enough. It’s time for a change. What have you got?’ Well, he knew we had ‘Beaches’ because he bought ‘Beaches.’ And then he said to us, ‘You guys produce it.’ So we hired a writer (Mary Agnes Donoghue) and Jeffrey thought it was good. But we weren’t prepared for this level of enthusiasm. Because ifs so unusual for people to be enthusiastic.”

One day arriving slightly late for an afternoon interview at her All-Girl production office, Midler was almost unrecognizable. The wiry librarian glasses, the shapeless butterscotch sweater, the pleated ’50s sophomore skirt, the quietude of her personality that day. Talia Shire in the original “Rocky.” Offscreen, she has a sense of clothes, or color and textures, not always apparent on the screen. She talks about gaining enormous amounts of weight “between pictures, even now, and then going to exercise class, and everybody’s shocked how fast I take it off.”

But it is not the weight or the schoolgirlish looks — it is the seriousness of Bette Midler that is surprising.

And indeed she seems to sense when a curvy question is coming. The Disney comedies blur in some peoples’ minds — “Big Ruthless Outrageous Fortune in Beverly Hills.” All too often she plays the dominant character — Disney uses her as Howard Hawks used Cary Grant in the ’30s, as a role reversal. Grant played passive to strong heroines, like Katharine Hepburn; Midler plays aggressive to passive co-stars.

But didn’t Midler hesitate — ever — before saying yes to the comedies? “I had hesitation, oh yes I did,” she insisted. “But I was in an I-want-to-work mode. I would have done cameos, I just wanted to get my feet wet again. I did ponder over ‘Ruthless People.’ I thought,
‘Oh God, I can’t do this, it’s so vulgar.’ Then I thought, ‘Oh, the hell with it, who cares? They all think I’m totally vulgar anyway. Why not really go for it?’

I didn’t look good in it at all, and I was definitely confused. I wasn’t all there. Lucky it was a hit. I don’t think I got a lot of guidance on that one.

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