The First Ladies of Laughter
By Brad Darrach, David Hutchings
Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin Combine for Combustible Comedy and Real-Life Friendship
June 20, 1988
Bette Midler is the trash queen of the century, a 5’1″ Titan of Tack. Saucer-eyed and gloriously zaftig, the lady has an air raid siren in her larynx, and she has indisputably done more for bad taste than anybody since Nero–remember how she flashed her celebrated magoffs in London’s Palladium and impudently mooned the student body during an award ceremony at Harvard? Low comedy is Bette’s high calling, and she wields her shtik with a raunchy zest that has animated three superhits in succession (Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune) and made her the hottest thing on the Disney lot since Mickey Mouse. Now she’s out in a new Disney comedy called Big Business, and this time she meets her mismatch in co-star Lily Tomlin–with raucous, hilarious results.
Lily’s humor is as sly as Bette’s is broad, and visually the co-stars make a preposterous contrast. At 42, mighty mite Bette comes on like a cross between Mae West and Don Rickles in drag; at 47, lanky, lantern-jawed Lily eerily resembles both Loretta Young and, some say, Secretariat. Ready for this? Bette and Lily play twins–two sets of twins, in fact. Sadie and Rose Ratliff grow up poor in a small town in West Virginia; Sadie and Rose Shelton are raised rich in uptown Manhattan. So how come Sadie looks like Sadie and Rose looks like Rose? Because two sets of identical twins were mixed up at birth by a shortsighted nurse. And how do scriptwriters Dori Pierson and Marc Rubel unravel this cat’s cradle of complications? By piling up more complications, including mistaken identities, corporate infighting and amorous intrigue. All this with a tip of the cap to William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, plus a pair of knock-’em-dead performances by Lily and Bette. Disney, in short, has done it again. Formula farce it may be, but Big Business is a barrel of laughs that will almost certainly turn into a pot of box office gold.
Flashback to October 1987 in the L.A. airport. Bette and Lily are about to start filming, and hopes for a hit are liberally doused with flop sweat. “We think the chemistry between Bette and Lily will work, but we won’t know until we see all the dailies,” says producer Michael Peyser. “Bette is shoot-from-the-hip and Lily is all from the brain.” The ladies agree. “I immerse myself totally in the character and prepare everything beforehand,” says Lily. “I don’t like to think too much,” says Bette.
Actually she hardly seems to work at all. Between takes Bette trots off to her trailer and plays peacefully with her lively, blue-eyed 11-month-old daughter, Sophie Frederica Alohilani von Haselberg. (“Alohilani,” Bette explains happily, “means Bright Sky in Hawaiian.”) When she’s called on-cam-era, she hits her mark, speaks her lines and then trots right back to Sophie. Lily, on the contrary, never stops stalking the set, mumbling speeches, making funky faces and producing weird little animal noises. Just before playing a scene as Rose Shelton, she executes a series of elegant pirouettes. “I do it to make myself dizzy and vague,” she explains, “like Rose.” As she passes by with Sophie in tow, Bette is utterly oblivious to Lily’s contortions. “Come on, puddin’ girl,” she murmurs.
Some weeks later on location at the Disney Ranch in Placerita Canyon, the Ratliff twins are about to cheerlead a pep rally for the folks in Jupiter Hollow, W. Va. Off to one side, Lily is earnestly practicing a clog dance. Onstage, Bette is all gussied up in a curly red wig, purple gingham dress, ruffled petticoat–and black Reeboks. “I hate high heels,” she once explained. “I only wear ’em because they add a few inches and make my legs look good. For a close-up I wear these.” Right now she’s about to film a close-up with a humongous black-and-white cow named Alice, and she’s terrified of the beast. “I know when I start to milk her, she’s gonna kick me,” Bette wails. “I can see it in her eye.”
Martin (a/k/a “Harry”) von Haselberg, Bette’s husband, watches calmly from 20 feet away. A dignified man of 39 with a serious air, he’s wearing a green blazer, green slacks and green shoes and seems comfortably unaware that he looks like the Jolly Green Giant.
Sophie arrives with her nanny, a pleasant young woman named Jane. Lily stops hopping around. “Hello, Sophie,” she says. “Your hat fell off.” She puts it back on Sophie’s head. Sophie snatches it off and throws it on the ground. This time Harry puts it back. Sophie flings it off again. “Make her leave it on, honey,” Bette calls out. “I know she doesn’t want it, but it’s too cold out here.”
“Places, everybody!” an assistant hollers, and the scene begins. “I’m as mad as a wasp,” Lily screeches at a crowd of country bumpkin extras, “and my stinger’s ’bout half out! These…”
With a yelp of terror, Bette staggers back from Alice, who has just kicked over the milk pail. “I knew she was gonna do it!” Bette gasps. Then she grins. “Well, I guess there’s no use crying over spilt milk.”
After lunch Lily and Bette sit and chat about how they’re getting along.
BETTE (briskly): We get on each other’s case. Which is fun.
LILY (casually): We can both take it.
BETTE (with a tough-guy shrug): It comes with being famous.
LILY (smugly): Of course, I got famous before she did.
BETTE (meekly): She’s much more famous than I am. (Pause.) That’s because she’s older.
LILY: I got famous three years before she did.
BETTE: But I caught up.
LILY: Yeah. I kept my eye on her. I said to myself, “This one’s on my tail.” She was sort of a phenomenon.
LILY: How true.
BETTE: A REAL HAM!
Squealing like teenyboppers, these middle-aged millionaires fall all over each other laughing.
Chummier with each passing day, both Bette and Lily offer each other helpful hints. Lily urges Bette to develop more “stage business.” In a scene where Rose Shelton’s shoulder pad keeps slipping down her sleeve, Lily asks Bette to stuff it back in place: “Act like my big sister cleaning me up.”
“No, no,” Bette says, making a face. “I don’t want to fuss with that.”
“Why not try it once?” Lily persists.
Bette tries it, likes it, then does it on-camera.
Bette meanwhile has decided that Lily needs help with mugging, and she offers to enroll her in the Bette Midler Academy of Mugging. “I’m the Founder and Guiding Light,” Bette explains. “We give an introductory course in Basic Mugging. Then you can go on to Advanced Scene Stealing, Mugging with Body Parts, Mugging with Food, Mugging with Sticky Substances, How to Destroy Your Director with Mugging. It’s a rich curriculum.”
Lily eagerly enrolls. “Not many are accepted at this institution,” she confides. “You have to show talent.”
After Lily’s first class, Bette is encouraging. “Chin up. You’ll be teaching summer school before you know it.” Lily one day begins to talk seriously about her talented opposite number. “Obviously she’s a fantastic performer. But there’s a lot more to Bette than the Divine Miss M. There’s this tenderness and frailty and a wonderful kind of dearness that’s truly touching.” Bette’s feelings are indeed so vulnerable that friends often wonder how she has survived her roller coaster career and rackety private life.
She was born in Hawaii and named after Bette Davis, mother Ruth’s favorite actress. Father Fred was an underpaid housepainter with a savage temper. “We were so poor,” Bette remembers, “we couldn’t afford TV or even a telephone.” At 12, Bette was taken to a roadshow of Carousel, and she fell forever in love with the stage. At 19, working as an extra in the film Hawaii, she saved enough money to fly to New York. Chutzpah got her a job in a chorus line.
Fame found her singing in a gay bathhouse for an audience attired in towels. (“They were very discreet,” she remembers. “I only saw one penis peeking out.”) One night the teensy tornado roared from coast to coast on The Tonight Show, and suddenly Midler needed a manager. She found one in Aaron Russo, a terrible-tempered young entrepreneur who became her lover and eventually her Svengali. After eight years in his thrall, she was a superstar in the music business–and an emotional wreck. In 1980, too much booze and the inexplicable collapse of her movie career after The Rose (which won her an Oscar nomination) kicked her into a spin that took three years to bottom out. Two phone calls reversed the spiral: one from Disney, one from a special fan named Martin von Haselberg.
Lily’s story is less scruffy and more quirky. She was born in Detroit, but her folks were poor whites from Kentucky. Father Guy worked in a brass foundry and dearly loved his pint. Mother Lillie Mae was a nurse’s aide. At an early age Mary Jean (as Lily was christened) got hooked on Geritol and worried incessantly that she was coming down with leprosy. In her teens she stayed home from school for days at a time “if my hair didn’t come out right.” She began to act at Wayne State University, took off for New York City when she was 23 and charmed her way onto the Garry Moore Show by taping taps onto the soles of her feet and doing a barefoot tap dance.
Month by month her catalog of characters grew. There were Crystal the Hang Gliding Quadriplegic, Lupe the World’s Oldest Beautician and Edith Ann the Five-and-a-Half-Year-Old Monster (“Sometimes I like to sit on the drain in the bathtub when the water’s running out. It feels inneresting”). But it was “one ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy” Ernestine the Sadistic Telephone Company Representative (“When can we expect the $23.67 you owe us? You don’t understand. This is the Telephone Company. We are not subject to city, state or federal legislation. WE ARE OMNIPOTENT!”) who got the biggest laughs on Laugh-in and made Lily a national heroine.
Yet on the whole her wit was too subtle for TV: “If truth is beauty, how come no one has their hair done at the library?”…”Reality is just a crutch for people who can’t handle drugs”…So she took her characters on tour in a series of sold-out one-woman shows; her latest, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, opened almost three years ago on Broadway and is still intermittently playing on the road. Her movie career began in 1975, when director Robert Altman cast her in Nashville. She got an Oscar nomination for her role as a housewife by love possessed, but after The Late Show (1977), 9 to 5 (1980) and All of Me (1984), all well reviewed, nothing happened until Big Business.
She’s glad it came along. “I think the film is funny. Bette’s wonderful in it. There is something about us that has a similar center, a similar heart. We’re both kind of outrageous but with a down-to-earth core. I like Bette tremendously because she’s out there, bawdy, then sweet and always real.”
Real is the word for Lily too. She says what she thinks and lives what she believes. She’s a passionate feminist, and in 1972, when a fellow guest on The Dick Cavett Show called his wife “the most valuable animal I own,” she stood up and calmly walked out of the studio. Not that she always controls her temper. “When I lose it, I’m loud and embarrassing and very volatile. But I don’t hold grudges.” Work is what makes Lily happy. “I work pretty much all the time,” she says. “It’s what I love.” Usually she collaborates with her best friend, 47-year-old writer Jane Wagner. When they’re not on the road, Lily says, home is “a big old pink stucco house in L.A. that used to belong to W.C. Fields. It’s casual, airy, light, very feminine, a soft house.”
Lily speaks about Jane with great warmth. “We share similar feelings about people and about the world. She’s able to verbalize it and I’m able to physicalize it. She writes satirically but tenderly, and she loves farce and black comedy and broad slapstick. When you put all this together and make an audience laugh and be moved, it’s just glorious.”
“I married a Kraut!” bawls the Divine Miss M. “Every night I get dressed up like Poland and he invades me.” There’s just a touch of truth in this grody little gag. Martin von Haselberg’s father was in fact German. But his mother was Jewish, and Martin was born in Argentina. He has lived all over Europe, traveled the world, made a handsome living as a commodities broker and survived in blissful penury as an avant-garde performance artist. His act–soon to be seen on Cinemax in a heavily censored form–is a gross farrago of self-mutilation and fecal imagery that might make even Bette blush.
But from the day he appeared on her doorstep, Bette declares in wonderment, Harry has been “one of the great ones. He’s the kindest man I’ve ever known. He doesn’t suppress me, doesn’t put me down in front of people. He does a lot of cooking and takes a big burden off my shoulders when I’m working. In the beginning, when we were getting to know each other, it was kind of racking, but now it’s settled into a wonderful companionship and intimacy I’ve never had with anyone else. Marriage never interested me before, but marrying Harry was quite the right thing to do.”
Harry agrees. “Bette’s wonderful to live with,” he once said with a twinkling smile. “With Sophie she does lots of voices and characters and becomes like a baby herself.”
“Life now,” Bette continues serenely, “is the best it’s ever been for me. I love my home. It’s to die for. I’ve got a lot of old furniture with new covers–I like things that have had other lives–and there are lots of flowers in the house because I love color and scent. And I do love being a mother, and my baby enjoys me too. She’s a very happy child and likes a good laugh. Watching her grow is unbelievable. I’ve never experienced anything like this love I have for her. I have to have at least two more babies,” she concludes with emphasis, “to make my life worth living.”
With Bette, emotion is quickly transformed into motion. Not long after she finished shooting Big Business, she found herself pregnant. And not long after that, she had a miscarriage–a subject she can’t bear to discuss. “Sometimes it’s a brutal world,’ ” she says. “It’s good to have a haven.”
It’s the last day of shooting at the Disney Ranch. Bette arrives on the set bearing a large, official-looking document. “Lily Tomlin!” she announces in a loud, serious voice. “As the Founder and Guiding Light of the Bette Midler Academy of Mugging, I’ve watched you grow and become every bit as great a mugger as your mentor. Therefore it gives me great pleasure to award you the degree of Doctor of Mugging. Congratulations, Dr. Tomlin.”
Mugging delightedly, Lily clasps the certificate to her breast and gasps: “Oh thank you, thank you, Founder and Guiding Light! At last I am a Doctor of Mugging! Maybe now,” she adds wistfully, “I might even get another movie!”
–By Brad Darrach, with David Hutchings in Los Angeles and New York