Bette Midler Steals Hollywood
Richard Corliss March 2, 1987
The lady knows how to make an entrance. On New Year’s Eve, 1972, she was borne onstage at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center in a sedan chair with the drapes closed, one leg peeking through to salute the audience; at midnight she returned in a diaper as Baby 1973. She has emerged from a giant mollusk in a Polynesian bikini; walked on in a cunning knee-length frankfurter costume, mustard streaked down her front; raced across the proscenium in a mermaid’s spangled fin and a motorized wheelchair; wowed crowds with her renowned mammary-balloon ballet. So what can she do for a 1987 encore? Strut into her hit movie, Outrageous Fortune, abuse a defenseless pay phone and insist, “Gimme back my bleepin’ quarta!” Hollywood may be far from Broadway, but for Bette Midler it’s just another opening, another show.
She has always put on a great show, but until recently it has been mostly onstage, not onscreen. At the dawn of her solo career 15 years ago, Bette (rhymes with pet, sweat, coquette and martinet but never regret) declared her intention to become a “legend.” She made good on the boast with a song- and-comedy act that elicited raucous laughs and heaving sobs on both sides of the footlights. She was the Callas of Camp, peppering her program with naughty jokes in the spirit of Mae West and Sophie Tucker. Midler’s good-timey raunch made her famous as the Divine Miss M, a creature she once described as embodying “everything you were afraid your little girl would grow up to be – and your little boy.” The image obscured her rightful claim as the most dynamic and poignant singer-actress of her time: a 5-ft. 1-in. Statue of Libido carrying a torch with a blue flame. Her phrasings were as witty as Streisand’s, her dredgings of a tormented soul as profound as Aretha’s, her range wider than all comers’.
Adulation and awards were never a problem. She copped a Grammy as Best New Artist in 1973. Her 1979 LP, The Rose, went platinum. In 1983 she even found a perch on the best-seller lists with her children’s book The Saga of Baby Divine. But what, these days, becomes a legend most? The one little item that eluded Bette Midler: movie stardom. Her galvanizing turn in The Rose, as a soulful thrush on the high wire of drugs, sex and rock ”˜n’ roll, earned the actress raves and an Oscar nomination and . . . precisely no film offers. Her next star role, in the black-and-blue comedy Jinxed (1982), provided the occasion for scuffles, snarky reviews and, for Midler, a nervous breakdown. Jinxed, indeed. It was three years before she made another film.
That was when a performer considered damaged goods teamed up with a studio aching for mainstream success: Bette Midler made three comedies for Walt Disney Studios. Zinnng! A sprinkle of stardust, and here comes the happy ending, one as unlikely as the transformation of a white elephant into a soaring Dumbo. Her first, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, was tenth among 1986’s box-office winners; the next, Ruthless People, ranked eighth; Outrageous Fortune has earned more than $25 million in the first 25 days of release. The cheeky trio made Disney a major movie studio and Midler Hollywood’s top female attraction. Rhapsodizes Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, who recently signed her to a three-picture production deal: “Bette Midler is the single greatest asset as a performer we have.” Asset? You Bette! You’re the company’s hottest female star since Minnie Mouse.
“She has everything she ever wanted,” notes Bruce Vilanch, who writes Bette’s “Soph” jokes, “things she didn’t even realize she wanted and didn’t set out to get.” Two things, anyway: a doting husband as dotty as she is and a three-month-daughter. Of Martin von Haselberg, 38, a commodities trader who has cavorted as a performance artist under the name Harry Kipper, Midler declares, “He sees to the heart of things. He respects and supports what I do. And he leads me, too, when I lose my way.” Now listen to the new mom, 41, on the subject of Sophie (“not for Sophie Tucker”) Frederica (“for my | father Fred”) Alohilani (“Hawaiian for ”˜bright sky,’ which is what I always wish for her”) von Haselberg: “I adore her. Her face swims before me when she’s not there, and I think about her before I go to sleep at night and I dream about her, and I wake up and I can’t wait to see her.” Miss M never delivered two more fervent monologues.
In commemoration of all she has given and, lately, received, the world’s top singer-dancer-comedian-songwriter-actress-author-survivor-thriv er-dynamo- divinity deserves some special prize. The Tony isn’t tony enough. The Nobel Prize wouldn’t be noble enough. And so to you, Bette Midler, the academy of your admirers is pleased to present its Life Achievement Award for the body of your work. And the work of your body.
As chanteuse or bawd, in concerts or movies, Midler has put her body to nonstop work. Harnessing the energy of some Rube Goldberg perpetual-motion machine, prancing on those fine filly legs like the winner of the strumpet’s marathon, Bette uses her body as an inexhaustible source of sight gags. She shimmies it, twists it, upends it to reveal polka-dot bloomers. In 1978 at the London Palladium she flashed the front of it; at Harvard she exposed the rear. She has made a cottage industry of her buxom bosom. In the 1985 album Mud Will Be Flung Tonight, she confesses that she once consulted a postage scale to determine just how heavy her breasts were, and “I won’t tell you how much they weigh, but it cost $87.50 to send ’em to Brazil. Third class.”
Such jokes – delivered, as all her slings are, with a great guileless smile – fulfill the tradition of the defiant female wit, alive with innuendo, that stretches from the Wife of Bath to Belle Barth. They also tend to obscure Midler’s unique talent. Yes, she coos bedroom ballads like Long John Blues; sure, her charts tease five decades of popular music with the wink of parody. But her laser-precise technique is no counterfeit of feeling. It is the art of the Method singer, who approaches a song as an actor does his text: finding the heft of a melodic line, trolling for the truth in a lyric, daring to shift emotional gears without stripping them. She is a demon explorer, possessed by music.
The actress-singer orchestrates her vocal versatility and preternatural empathy to slip inside the spirit of each song. Performing the title tune from The Rose, the lovely mantra of regeneration that has become Bette’s Over the Rainbow, she sings in her own haunting alto. But she can go seductively nasal for E Street Shuffle, chicly bonkers for Twisted, brassy and clinging for her evocations of the low-biz Songstresses Vicki Eydie and Dolores DeLago. Midler’s most powerful number, Stay with Me (best heard on the sound-track album of her 1980 concert film, Divine Madness), is the plea of a woman to her departing lover. Her mood is desperate; her sexual pride has been flayed raw. She can only beg and scream. Bette scorches the soul with this one. In six minutes she wrings out herself and the song, and mops up the audience as well. Her cover versions of all these songs make the originals sound like demo tapes.
For once the bromide may be true: you don’t learn songs like Stay with Me, you have to have lived them. This woman has a right to sing the blues. To hear her story is to find autobiography in every Midler song, and tragedy as the punch line. All that love, drive and desperation in her voice had to come from somewhere. Most of it came from Honolulu.
Fred Midler, a civilian house painter for the Navy, and his wife Ruth moved there from Paterson, N.J., in the late ’30s. Ruth named Bette, the third of her four children, after Bette Davis. “My mother was, oh, stunning,” Bette recalls, “and very hardworking. She sewed beautifully. She made all our clothes for years, until my parents discovered the Salvation Army. We were really poor. We didn’t have a TV or a telephone until the late ’50s. We lived in subsidized housing in the middle of sugarcane fields.” Most of the families in the neighborhood were Samoan, Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese. Bette’s family were the only whites.
“My father was a bit of a tyrant,” Bette recalls. “He would flush the girls’ makeup down the toilet. He’d lock my sister Susan out of the house when she came home too late. He taught my younger brother Daniel, who is brain damaged, to read and write by hammering and screaming at him until he got it. Every afternoon. None of us wanted to be in the house. But Daniel did learn, and it’s made a big difference in his life. It gave him freedom. My father always thought I was a little odd. He never chose to see me perform – except on Johnny Carson. He said I looked like a loose woman. My mother, on the other hand, thought I could do no wrong. One night she sneaked out to see The Rose, and she thought it was wonderful. She died the next year, of liver cancer. She had also had breast cancer, twice. My father died of heart trouble last May. It was too bad. It was just too bad.”
Bette adored her older sisters. Susan is a health-care executive in New York City; Daniel lives with her. Judy, the eldest, was a brilliant, unhappy girl. She came to New York and, Bette says, “in 1968, as she was walking along 44th Street, a car came out of a garage and killed her. I was the only family member in town. I had to go to the morgue and identify the body. I don’t think my mother ever recovered from the shock. It was a very bad time in our lives.”
Ruth was the artistic goad to her girls. She gave them hula lessons and encouraged them to see musicals. Bette’s solo debut came in first grade: Silent Night won her a prize. “After that you couldn’t stop me from singing,” she says. “I’d sing Lullaby of Broadway at the top of my lungs in the tin shower – it had a really good reverb. People used to gather outside to call up requests or yell that I was lousy.” When she was twelve, Bette was taken to see her first stage show, Carousel. “I couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. I fell so in love with it. Everything else in my life receded once I discovered theater, and my mother was all for my starting on this journey and going full speed ahead. When I was the lead in the junior- class play, she brought a bouquet of roses and presented them to me over the footlights.”
Seven years later Ruth’s girl hit New York City. Right away she met Tom Eyen, author of such plays as Sarah B. Divine! and Who Killed My Bald Sister Sophie?, and started working for him, soon graduating to dizzy-bimbo leads. From Eyen she learned about camp. From the East Village Soubrette Black-Eyed Susan, she picked up the retro-chic ’30s look. She bought an old velvet dress and coat and started singing songs from the period. Busy Bette. By day she was auditioning or scavenging for obscure sheet music (truly obscure to Bette: she couldn’t read music). By night she was appearing in the chorus, then as the eldest daughter, in Fiddler on the Roof. After the show she would sing at any club that would have her. And every spare moment she would study records of Bessie Smith, Ruth Etting, Libby Holman and Aretha Franklin, the adored elder sisters of Bette’s vocal style. And when two bigger clubs – the Improvisation and Continental Baths – called, Miss M was ready to become Divine.
“Originally,” she says, “in my velvet dress with my hair pulled back and my eyelashes waxed, I was convinced I was a torch singer. Because the Improv was a comedy club, you had to be a little bit funny, so I added chatter between songs. There I was, singing my ballads and crying the mascara off my eyes, and in the next breath telling whatever lame joke I’d just heard. By the time I got to the Baths, I had 20 minutes of material but needed 50. So I had to wing it. The Baths was gay, gay, gay in a heartfelt way. The guys would check their clothes, get towels and sit on the floor. They thought my show was fab-ulous. So eventually the big brassy broad beat the crap out of the little torch singer and took over.”
Bette’s pianist and arranger was young Barry Manilow, just a few years short of his own, more comfortable stardom. Their first rehearsals were “nothing special, almost dull,” as Manilow recalls them. “I played and she sang. But then we did it in front of an audience. She came downstairs in this turban and an outfit that could have come from my grandmother’s closet. She was a tornado of energy and talent. I was six feet away, and this vision was one of the thunderbolts in my life.” Another fan-Aaron Russo, signed on as Midler’s manager in 1971, while she was still at the Baths, and they briefly were lovers. Their eight-year affiliation was productive and destructive; they were two strong wills making success possible and life miserable. “Aaron began booking me into theaters,” Bette says, “and lo and behold, I was a big success. For our first full revue, we had our backup trio, the Harlettes, and a great band and girls in tap-dancing clothes and the jukebox and the mannequins and King Kong. It just blew me away!” Bette was a Broadway star.
But Russo dreamed bigger still. “From the beginning,” he says now, “I knew the screen could take this little person with the enormous talent and show her off in a big way.” But no project seemed right. So they resurrected Pearl, a script about Janis Joplin, and had it rewritten, Midler says, “as a homage to all those men and women who bit the dust from sheer compulsion.” That was The Rose. “I had a ball! I couldn’t wait each day to strap on that angst bag and chew up that scenery. I thought it was my best work.” Seen today, The Rose looks ragged, with dramatic longueurs randomly interspersed with explosions, but that is part of its surly authenticity. And Midler, deglamourized as Joplin and vulnerable as her own private self, creates a gorgeous image of tenacious stardom as the dying Rose waves away the hands guiding her and, revived by the audience’s electricity, propels herself onstage for her last performance.
A European tour following the filming of The Rose in 1979 provoked one last fight with Russo, and Midler was on her own. She chose a jokey film noir script called Jinxed; she chose the director Don Siegel and her co-star Ken Wahl. The brass at United Artists, then tiptoeing through the rubble of Heaven’s Gate, was turning to Midler to make decisions. And the creative team, vexed at her power, turned on her. There were shoving matches and walkouts. It was a sorry time. In retrospect, Midler notes, “I feel I’ve had my revenge. What goes around comes around.” Translation: Siegel’s and Wahl’s careers have treadmilled, while Bette’s has escalated. But Hollywood seemed not to know what to do with its unconventional star. Says Rose Director Mark Rydell: “She didn’t fail us. The film business failed her.”
Bette, better, best – bested. Jinxed defeated her; De Tour exhausted her. “Bette is easily bruised,” says Tour Director Jerry Blatt. “She couples incredible toughness with great softness. You feel she could creak, crumble at any minute.” And busted: something like a nervous breakdown ensued. “I couldn’t face the world,” she recalls. “I slept all day and cried all night. I was drinking to excess. I was miserable.” Then, as if in a Hollywood musical (not The Rose), love found Bette Midler. “When I was at my lowest point,” Bette says, “Harry called me up out of the blue. This was October of 1984, and in two months we were married” (see box).
Harry-Martin has his own unusual saga. His parents fled Germany for South America upon Hitler’s accession to power. Martin grew up in Germany and London, went boho in the late ’60s and met young Brian Routh at a suburban London drama school. With that meeting, the Kipper Kids were born. In their act, which they have toured, on and mostly off, for 17 years, Martin and Brian play the same character: Harry Kipper, a working-lad with a big chin. Both Harrys work in jockstraps and false noses; they mime show tunes in parody form and smear each other with chocolate and luminescent paint. “The show is very scatological,” Martin notes, “but in a childish way. People love it.”
Bette has never seen Martin as a Kipper, but then he has never seen her as the Divine Miss M. Indeed, he had never heard Bette’s music when they met briefly in 1982, two years before they fell in love. As Harry remembers their first date, it was “just sort of instantaneous. We knew we were meant for each other.” Bette seconds the wisdom of impulse. “We were two people who – he in his sphere and I in mine – had sown quite a few wild oats. But even before our marriage, there was something about Harry and the relationship that made me feel trusting and safe. He is so stabilizing. Now all my friends want to marry Harry Kipper so they can have a fabulous life like mine.”
At the time of the wedding, though, her career was not quite fabulous. “I would whine to Harry,” Bette says. ” ”˜Why can’t I get a job? What’s wrong with me?’ And he asked what I really wanted to do. Singing? Comedy? I realized I didn’t care that much about singing anymore. Nobody else seemed to like it either. But I knew they liked me when I was funny. I said, ”˜I think my best work is my funny work. And if I could, I’d like to be the funniest woman in the world.’ He said, ”˜Go make a comedy album.’ And that was Mud Will Be Flung Tonight.”
The album made ripples and giggles, but in movies Midler was still a could- have-been, a never-was. Then Director Paul Mazursky phoned, and, Bette says, “it was like a call from the gods. It’s like I’ll Cry Tomorrow – it’s so Lillian Roth I can’t stand it!” In Down and Out in Beverly Hills Midler played a fad-mad wife whose latest crush is on a derelict. As the kidnaped wife in Ruthless People, she has fun hitting the abrasive high notes, being splenetic and spiteful one moment, shedding warm tears of self-pity the next. And she gives good time in Outrageous Fortune, playing a floozie on the run with her boyfriend’s other girlfriend. She shakes her patented sass and looks terrific in green nail polish and four-inch heels. She is also typecast in these films: as a two-dimensional harridan who, through camaraderie and mother wit, finds new depth in the third dimension. They do not stretch Bette; they shrink her to farce-size roles.
Midler is a trouper pleased to have joined the big smooth circus. But she is careful to keep stardom in perspective. She calls Beverly Hills a “happy experience. Plus they gave me the underwear my character wore. The furniture was what really slayed me, but I didn’t get that. But I did get the bras.” Nor does she make many distinctions among her three recent hits: “Was it Outrageous Ruthless People in Beverly Hills? The films have certainly indicated a direction to stay in. The whole package is a surprise: to be a box-office success hand in hand with Disney. A real shocker. I mean, Walt Disney never would have hired me.”
Lounging in her Beyond Tasteful Mediterranean-style house above Beverly Hills, the supine Miss M looks and behaves not at all like the Divine One. The Amazonian figure that fills the most capacious theater proves to be a miniature, magnified by stagecraft and star quality. Shopping or seeing a movie, she can easily go unrecognized. Out of the limelight, says Bonnie Bruckheimer-Martell, Bette’s friend and partner in All Girl Productions, “she’s basically shy. She’d never think of wearing anything low cut. She calls herself a librarian.” No dust on this star’s bookshelves. “She’s a cleanliness freak,” notes Bruckheimer-Martell. “She calls herself Harriet Craig, after the Joan Crawford character who was constantly cleaning.” Manilow recalls Bette’s perfectionism, “from neatness at home to the 95th take of a song. Once we were walking on a Chicago beach, deep in conversation. She kept picking up bottles and caps, all this crap in the middle of our heavy talk, dumping it into the garbage pail.”
The new mother is preoccupied with the chain of continuity that gurgles in her lap. Bette has just noticed that Sophie’s ears, like little wings on her bald head, resemble those of Ruth Midler’s as a child. Bette softens and tenses as she talks of never appreciating her mother’s sacrifice. “When my baby was born,” she says, “I was so tired. I kept thinking, ”˜How did she do it? How could she raise four children and still be standing?’ I finally got the message, but it was too late.”
Bette tries to be both tickled and modest about her mainstream celebrity. “I really don’t even feel I deserve all this,” she says earnestly. “I have been a very lucky girl. Now I’m working and doing good work and loving it. I’m not going to say ”˜Woe is me.’ I can’t. I’m too happy that anybody noticed I had any talent at all. But I would make a wonderful Lady Macbeth. I’ll wear a pair of platform shoes or something.” Instead of Shakespeare, though, she is preparing yet another comedy, Big Business, in which she and Lily Tomlin play mismatched sets of identical twins for Ruthless People Director Jim Abrahams. And in the haze of hope, a musical biography of Ina Ray Hutton, ’40s leader of her all-girl band. And maybe a remake of Gypsy, with Bette as Mama Rose. Possibly even a Divine Miss M movie. But for now, no albums or concert tours.
Fettered Bette is better than no Bette at all, we guess. But why should she not do what she does uniquely well? Perhaps because Hollywood just now does not care to see the blowsy, pug-beautiful singer, alone and proud on the screen. Instead it wants a Bette Midler like the woman she plays in Ruthless People: bound and blindfolded and sending out comic danger signals. Illuminating these undemanding comedies uses about one green fingernail’s worth of her gift.
Fans are greedy, possessive creatures who demand too much of their idol: that she stay faithful to the first blinding image of herself, that she stand forever in its wilting light. Bette Midler may figure she has paid her dues as an entertainer and earned a paid vacation in the movies. Why shouldn’t she be happy to trade in the enervating risk of a solo act on the road for the cozy virtues of family, familiarity and the Hollywood version of a steady job? The star that shines can shine on; the star that burns may burn out. And any woman with a right to sing the blues has the privilege to sing a lullaby instead. O.K., divine Mrs. Von H., but do us a little favor. Sing it in public.