BetteBack Interview June 05, 1988: A Sure Bette, Big Business

Chicago Tribune
A Sure Bette, Big Business
Midler Charges Full-tilt Into Her Latest Role, Big Business
June 05, 1988|By Leslie Rubinstein, Los Angeles Times Syndicate.


I won`t tell you how much my breasts weigh,“ says Bette Midler, “but I consulted a postage scale. It costs $87.50 to send `em to Brazil. Third class.“

She`s the queen of raunch. The controversial, salty hussy who has turned her ample bosom into a cottage industry is now 42 years old.

It`s been a long, tenuous, perhaps improbable trip from a homosexual bathhouse cum cabaret on Broadway and 73rd Street-where, in the `70s, she crooned “Am I blue?“ before a towel-clad audience-to our country`s nightclubs, concert halls, motion pictures and television screens. This summer, we`ll see her with Lily Tomlin in “Big Business,“ scheduled to open in Chicago Friday, a screwball comedy about two sets of identical twins who get mixed up at The Plaza. It is directed by Jim Abrahams.

You can`t take Midler lightly. She arouses love and hate, depending on how she strikes you from day to day, and where the censors do their trimming. More often than not, she has been a feverish, somewhat schizoid entertainer, a singer with a voice swinging on rusted hinges, half-swallowing the microphone with the intensity of her message. Her often vulgar, non-stop patter of acid put-downs and sexual innuendos has amused some audiences, offended others. Slightly over five feet tall, in performance she becomes larger than life.

There she is as the floozie on the run with her lover`s other girlfriend in “Outrageous Fortune,“ one of last year`s films. There she is as the free- spirited kidnapped wife in “Ruthless People,“ the No. 8 box-office draw of 1986. There she is as the dizzy housewife with a crush on a derelict in

Down and Out in Beverly Hills,“ No. 10 box-office draw of 1986. And there she is as the tender, tormented Janis Joplin figure in “The Rose,“ a surprise hit of 1979. Midler was nominated for a best-actress Academy Award and won two Golden Globe awards for that performance. The soundtrack of the film won a Grammy and went platinum, selling more than a half-million LPs.

But no offers came. “I had fabulous reviews for `Rose,` “ she says.

“but I, you might say, died.“ In 1981, the movie “Jinxed“ was a flop.

Midler had a nervous breakdown. “I was defeated,“ she admits. “I couldn`t face the world. I slept all day and cried all night. I was drinking to excess. I was miserable. When I was at my lowest point,“ she continues

“Harry (Martin von Haselberg) called me.“ (He is a commodities trader and performance artist under the name Harry Kipper.) That was October, 1984. In two months, they were married.

“We checked into the wedding suite at Caesar`s Palace in Las Vegas,“

she once told Time magazine, “I was wearing a grayish blue chiffon, it cost a fortune, but I really wanted to impress Harry. My dress was very boom-boom, it had strings of beads hanging down, I made a nice racket walking down the aisle. It was 2 a.m., we got our license and wound up at the Candlelight Wedding Chapel. We put on a soundtrack of Fellini`s `Juliet of the Spirits,` got teary-eyed. The guy who read the ceremony was an Elvis impersonator.“

For the last four years, the actress has been on a roll. “Big Business“ is one of several well-chosen vehicles in sight.

Its plot loosely revolves around the Shelton family, a rich New York couple vacationing in the tiny southern town of Jupiter Hollow, and the Ratliffs, a local family of humble means. Apparently, a myopic nurse mismatches the tots in their hospital nursery cribs. Both sets of twins receive the same names, Rose and Sadie, and one of each is mistakenly turned over to the wrong parents. Years later, we see Sadie Shelton, played by Midler, the aggressive CEO of a successful conglomerate, and her sister, Rose Shelton, played by Tomlin, who is an idealist with no interest in corporate life. The other set of twins is Tomlin as Rose Ratliff, “Miss Guts and Gumption,“ a feisty factory foreman, and Midler as Sadie Ratliff, a quiet big-city sophisticate. They meet, of course, and the histrionics begin.

“It`s not as easy as it sounds,“ says Midler. “We had to make both characters distinct yet similar, so close friends could mistake one for another.“

Says director Abramson, “I just knew the two actresses would have good chemistry-they`d have to in this situation. Their bodies seem to work with one another, there`s a respect.“ They have opposite approaches to their characters, he says, “Lily tends to think through her roles to the nth degree, working out every conceivable motivation. Bette, once she has the character in her head, wings it. You never know what she`ll do from take to take.“

Many photos of The Divine Mother M nowadays show her bouncing her 15-month-old daughter, Sophie Frederica Alohani von Haselberg, on her lap.

“She is not named after Sophie Tucker, contrary to what people might think,“ says Midler. “The Frederica is for my father, Fred, and Alohani is Hawaiian for `Bright Sky.` “ A doting husband and father, Harry is given credit by his wife for her renaissance. His support has been ceaseless, especially during the star`s recent miscarriage.

“The baby`s room is fixed up, it`s yellow and gay. We`re going to keep it as is,“ Midler says, “and wait for another pregnancy.“ Interested in home decorating, Midler opts for sunny, strong colors in her New York loft and the couple`s Spanish-style house in Los Angeles, recently featured in House and Garden.

Such luxury is a long way from her impoverished childhood in Honolulu, where Bette`s father was a civilian house painter for the Navy. “We were real poor,“ she says. “We lived in subsidized housing, didn`t have a telephone until the late `50s.“

The circumstances of her birth have given Midler a series of one-liners about being the only Jewish girl in a Samoan neighborhood. “Most of the families were Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Samoan. It was weird. All my mother wanted was to grow up Jewish somewhere, but there she was, the only white person, and has never got over it.“ One of four children, Bette had an older sister, Judith, who died in a 1968 mishap. Her other sister, Susan, a health- care executive in New York, takes care of their retarded brother, Daniel.

Midler`s relationship with her father was always difficult. “He was a tyrant,“ she has said. “He would flush the girls` makeup down the toilet. He never chose to see me perform except on Johnny Carson. He said I looked like a loose woman. He died in May, 1986. My mother had already died of liver and breast cancer. It was she who named me Bette, after Bette Davis. She adored show business. It was just too bad.“

“Big Business“ will be the first of a rash of “twin plots“ to hit the screen this year. Don Johnson and Anne Archer are reputedly scheduled to team up in “April Fools,“ a story centering on lovers who, on their wedding night, discover they are twins separated at birth. Jeremy Irons and Genevieve Bujold star in the motion picture “Twins,“ directed by Canadian David Cronenberg, due this fall.

Both Abrahams and Cronenberg have used a technique called “motion control“ to create the illusion of twins on screen, and Abrahams has employed the technique used since the 1940s of creating a “split screen.“

The motion-control system used for filming “Big Business“ is a new technology, linking a computer to the camera and making it possible to shoot more realistic and fluid sequences, in which each of two characters played by one actor can appear on the screen at the same time, moving freely, and with the camera moving as well.

The bottom line for directors is to cast actors who can handle the technical subtleties required to portray twins. Abrahams says the bottom line, despite the gag of his script, is that moviegoers have to forget they are watching the same actress twice. “Bette is a joy to work with,“ he says, “she`s inordinately human. Like most stars, she was concerned in `Big Business` we didn`t show her with a double chin. We took that into consideration. One day the camera operator, said, `You have something on your chin.` She moved her face, `Is this O.K.?` “

“No, the other chin,` he said. There was silence on the set. Bette got hysterical, doubled up laughing. She`s beautiful.“

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