Winning Bette/DownAnd Out In Beverly Hills
BY STEPHEN SCHIFF
Crazy, rebellious, foulmouthed Bette Midler has become the most bankable star in Hollywood. What was once outrageously camp is now Disney-mainstream. And so is her lifeâ€”with a dream husband and a dream baby and a dream house. Stephen Schiff visits the Divine One in her Beverly Hills digs.
Bette Midler is a little worried about the decline of Western civilization.
â€œCan you sing any song that won the Academy Award in the last few years?â€ she demands, bending way forward in her chair. â€œYou canâ€™t, right? I mean, there are so many people doing so many things, I donâ€™t think audiences really have a chance to get to know an artist. They come and go so quickly, donâ€™t ya know. I mean, what happened to the Flock of Seagulls, I ask you? What happened to Haircut 100?â€”I was sad to see them go. I mean, I canâ€™t even tell UB40 from U2. And I try and I try.â€ And she breaks into a hooting girlish laugh, and sinks back into her chair.
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Suddenly her face loses its ruddy light; in repose it reminds me of a Modigliani, narrow and pointy-chinned and flat. Sheâ€™s wearing mousy round glasses, and her eyes seem to disappear behind them as she prepares her next pronouncement. â€œI find the culture kind of soulless, you know? I used to love rock â€™nâ€™ roll, but thatâ€™s dead, too, isnâ€™t it? I loved the black rhythm-and-blues artists, and the old stuff is still so vital, so full of passion and color. But even the black people arenâ€™t doing that anymoreâ€”black music is white bread. Whitney Houston is very nice, but basically her stuff is about shopping.â€ A pause. A sigh. And then she perks up. â€œWell, me for demagogue. Iâ€™ll just get up on the podium and Iâ€™ll tell them how to behave.â€ She thrusts her chin out and gives me a mock politicianâ€™s grin: Mussolini goes rock â€™nâ€™ roll.
Whereupon I feel compelled to ask the inevitable question: How do the movies youâ€™ve been doing fit into all this? Another sigh. â€œI wish I knew,â€ she says. â€œI really wish I knew.â€
At forty-two, Bette Midler is the hottest female star in Hollywood. Which pleases her enormously. And doesnâ€™t make her happy.
â€œI love these Disney movies,â€ she says. â€œI do. And I love making them. But theyâ€™re not mine. Iâ€™m just an actress for hire, and Iâ€™m really kind of coasting. Iâ€™m at a dangerous point in my life.â€ This is not the Divine Miss M talking, or Delores DeLago (the Toast of Chicago), or the mealy lounge singer Vicki Eydie, or any of the other bawds and rockers Midler has showered upon us over the years. Happily married and a mother at last, the real Bette Midler is demure, brainy, soft-spokenâ€”and serious. Just now sheâ€™s lounging around her Beverly Hills house in a ponytail (red this week), a bulky checked shirt, and black tights. She looks strikingly fit (having lost forty pounds since November 1986, when her new baby was born) and strikingly free of the Divine Oneâ€™s va-va-va-voom.
Friends call her â€œthe librarianâ€ and talk about seeing her browsing at Hollywoodâ€™s Tower Records (a favorite haunt) in her glasses and jeans, wearing no makeupâ€”and then driving off in a Honda Accord. Which is simply not the way movie stars behave. â€œSheâ€™s sometimes shy,â€ says the songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, an old pal. â€œAnd she can make herself almost invisible in a room. She came to a party that we gave for Elizabeth Taylor, and Bette Davis [her eponym] was there. And Davis said, â€˜I donâ€™t understand how you can be a superstar and go out of the house with so little glamour.â€™ â€
But Midler, whose movie career was moribund three years ago, is a superstar, the crown jewel of the studio where Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck once reigned supreme. For the new, rejuvenated Disney, she has starred in Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Ruthless People (1986), and Outrageous Fortune (1987), each a big hit, and each a bigger hit than the one before it. Sheâ€™s finishing up yet another Disney comedy, Big Business (with Lily Tomlin), and according to Jeffrey Katzenberg, who runs the studio, â€œshe means everything to us. Sheâ€™s the beginning, the middle, and the end.â€ In fact, Katzenberg has signed an exclusive three-picture deal with her, which, as one successful producer laments, has â€œpeople out here banging their heads against the wall. Everybody wants her. Is she bankable? Boy, is she bankable.â€
Yet you sense a double-edged attitude toward her newfound stardom the moment she descends the stairs of her Coldwater Canyon home, her tiny feet pumping, her hands splayed at shoulder level like floppy vestigial wings, a glimmer of amusement in her eyes. She is performing The Walk, the one that emblemizes every lady who ever lunched, the one that propelled her Barbara Whiteman in Down and Out in Beverly Hills: snooty, pampered, persnickety, and irremediably tense. For better or for worse, The Walk has become her trademark. She developed it during her stage shows, honed and refined it for Beverly Hills, and trotted it out in each of her subsequent pictures. And her new audiences eat it upâ€”for them, itâ€™s the height of her artistry. Now she demonstrates it for me, making a brief circle around the living room, her eyes rolling upward in mock disgust. Settling herself in a cushy flower-print chair, she explains that she used those helicopter hands because â€œI imagined that Barbaraâ€™s nails were always wet. She had always just come from a manicure. And the walkâ€”well, you wear those six-inch heels, honey, and you have to tilt forward like that so you donâ€™t keel over.â€ Flashing the ingenuous, beaming grin she reserves for her most sarcastic pronouncements, she cracks, â€œOh! I do so look forward to doing it again!â€
Admittedly, her Barbara Whiteman was a flawless comic invention, a windup Hollywood wife whose phalanx of gurus and diet quacks and pool boys and gardeners were like a palace guard protecting her from the multiorgasmic wanton within. But in Ruthless People, Bette was a mere sight (and sound) gag, popping her eyes in one scene, shrieking imprecations in the next. Outrageous Fortune hid her manic light under endless car chases and shoot-outs, and the camera seemed to keep shoving her aside, the better to peer at prissy Shelley Long. â€œI shouldnâ€™t bite the hand that feeds me,â€ she grumbles, â€œbut I feel that my work for Disney has been all of a piece. And I would like to try another piece, a different piece. I need a challenge.â€
Spending time with Midler is a little like riding in a glass-bottom boatâ€”her face is placid, but so transparent that you can see the emotional currents and eddies churning on the other side of it. Just now the part of her thatâ€™s frustrated about the Disney movies is battling the part thatâ€™s effusively grateful, that still canâ€™t quite believe that sheâ€”crazy, rebellious, foulmouthed Betteâ€”has become the Cosmo Woman: dream husband, dream baby, dream career, dream house; sheâ€™s the mouseburger triumphant. And rail as she may against the sameness of her films and the blandness of the culture in general, sheâ€™s not exactly eager to strike a blow for the Future of Artâ€”not if it will endanger her enchanted present. She draws guiltily on a Marlboro Light. â€œIâ€™ve been burnt, and being burnt changes the way you look at things. Iâ€™ll tell you, the life I have now is so fabulous. I should get down on my knees every night and thank my maker for providing me withâ€¦with all this stuff.â€ She sits back proudly, but another little war seems to be taking place behind her eyes. â€œNot the material stuff,â€ she says quickly. And then, â€œWell, all right, the material stuff too.â€
Her house, for instance, which is very eccentric, and very beautiful. Itâ€™s a Southwest-style adobe manse, and there isnâ€™t much in the way of paintings or artsy furniture: an Aubusson tapestry in the stairwell, a Chinese rug in the foyer, bare brown beams and a spangly tiled fireplace in the living room. Whatâ€™s most remarkable is the decoration Midlerâ€™s friend Nancy Kintisch has painted on the walls and ceilings: sheâ€™s created tiles where there were no tiles, trompe lâ€™oeil curtains and birds and clouds, flashes of pastel that shimmer above the windows, imitating sunlight.
When her husband, Harry Kipper (nÃ© Martin von Haselberg), first saw the house, it was a very different place. Midler had been through a blue period, and â€œit was a house I didnâ€™t think she spent much time in,â€ he says. â€œIt seemed very large and dark, very sparsely furnished, as if it were a place that she just sort of crashed in when she happened to be in Los Angeles. And now itâ€™s this really lovely, bright, colorful home, with a childâ€”and weâ€™re constantly redecorating it.â€ German by nationality, Argentinean by birth, British by accent (schooled in London), Harry is a sometime commodities trader and longtime nutzoid performance artist; he is also stylish, collected, and wickedly funny. Oddly enough, he doesnâ€™t seem to mind having the world think of him as Mr. Bette Midler. â€œI really enjoy enhancing her careerâ€”and sometimes interfering,â€ he says. â€œAnd in case the tabloids are interested, I didnâ€™t marry her for her money. We have a prenuptial agreement that is a far cry from the one that Joan and Peter and Gitte and Sly had. The number involved has three zeros, and the number in front of the three zeros is less than three.â€
But what is it like to be married to Bette Midler? Here Harry waxes eloquent. â€œSheâ€™s very rambunctious and very funnyâ€”the funniest person I know. She sometimes does this sort of sulking, pouting little-girl act that always cracks me up. Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s not meant to crack me up. Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s meant to persuade me to do something against my will, and itâ€™s very effective. Sheâ€™s quite vitriolic too, a real stick of dynamiteâ€”which makes life very exciting. Itâ€™s not that she has a temper, itâ€™s that she doesnâ€™t indulge in a lot of unnecessary diplomacy. But sheâ€™s wonderful to be aroundâ€”very exciting.â€ Harry seems ideally suited to a marriage that may sound to the rest of us more like a highspeed slalom. â€œAlthough I think Betteâ€™s become a lot calmer than she used to be,â€ he says, â€œsheâ€™s extremely stubborn. Fortunately, Iâ€™m a great one for making allowances. Thereâ€™s a wonderful expression from the north of England about â€˜giving your ass away and shitting through your ribs.â€™ I sometimes think if I didnâ€™t do that, the relationship would have exploded into many tiny pieces.â€
Midler may be a hellcat to be married to, but sheâ€™s the most beatific of mothers. All of which becomes clear when Harry enters bearing the baby, Sophie, a preternaturally alert creature with ambitious ears (traceable to Midlerâ€™s mom), bright and close-set eyes, and the air of someone who probably combined the more useful traits of a rocket scientist and the Dalai Lama in an earlier life. Holding Sophie sends Midler straight into the ionosphere. She begins crooning â€œThe Hukilau Songâ€ (â€œOh, weâ€™re going to a hukilau / Huki huki huki huki huki hukilauâ€) and then drops to her hands and knees to join Sophie in a brisk all-fours hula. â€œYeah, I really like her a lot,â€ she says, after Harry has rescued Sophie from this love inferno. â€œI donâ€™t go out much at all anymore, and, you know, Iâ€™ll be in a meeting listening to a writer, and Iâ€™ll be thinking of her, and I wonâ€™t be able to pull myself back to the meeting.â€ She doesnâ€™t want to be a mush-bucket about all this, but bliss is bliss, and Midler has never been so mellow in her life. In fact, sheâ€™s afraid her rapture has turned to opium.
â€œI have something now that has never happened to me before, and thatâ€™s a kind of inertia,â€ she says. â€œFor forty years, Iâ€™ve been gung ho, gung ho, and now I find myself having to consider why it is that Iâ€™m kind of lazy. You know, the movie work I do is not especially challenging or taxing. The temptation is to just say, Well, they pay me a lot of money for this; Iâ€™ll just give them the old nails bit and the funny little walk. Itâ€™s easy. Itâ€™s what people want.â€
Midler knows that her legions of new fans have sampled only the mingiest smidgen of her talent; she knows most of them are scarcely aware of her albums and concert tours, or even of her finest screen performance, the bombs-away incarnation of a skidding rock singer she created for The Rose (1979). Theyâ€™ve never seen the bodacious zany who zips onstage in a power-driven wheelchair, who looses a barrage of lurid wisecracks that would make Sophie Tucker blush, who slams herself and her backup trio, the Harlettes, into high gear with a conviction thatâ€™s almost terrifyingâ€”and doesnâ€™t let up for three vertiginous hours. Onstage, Bette Midler is the most electrifying and multifaceted entertainer of her era. She is much, much more than The Walk.
Begin with The Smile. The teeth gleamâ€”big, horsey teeth that look as though they were made to nibble carrots. The eyes narrow to jolly slits of pleasure; the cheekbones and the chin sparkle and shake. Itâ€™s a baroque wonder, The Smile, with a dazzling array of moving parts. And it immediately implicates the audience. â€œYou know that satisfaction you get when you make a baby smile?â€ says Jerry Blatt, who writes for her and stages her tours. â€œItâ€™s like that. You and that smile have an intimate relationship.â€ Midler makes you feel as though youâ€™ve turned her smile on; she makes you want to keep contributing to it, so that it will keep bouncing its radiance back to you. The Smile is like a switch; it completes a circuit.
And then thereâ€™s The Voice, a big, sweet, throbbing instrument that manages to sound treble and bass at the same timeâ€”not unlike a sob. Midler isnâ€™t the worldâ€™s best singer; she hasnâ€™t much range, and she frequently flubs the pitches she strains forâ€”all of which she readily acknowledges. But hers is the voice of a great singer-actress, lived-in and haunted, with tones that can sweep through a hundred variations of age and class and mood. The voice free-associates among the lyrics, moving the way thoughts and emotions move. It lends her songs what a fine dramatic actress lends her characters: an interior life.
But if The Voice gives her access to tragedy, itâ€™s The Body that gives her access to comedy. Midler has a hilarious toy of a body, all good parts (with the connections between them left out): no neck or waist, but fabulous legs, an ample bottom, a pneumatic chest that has launched so many of her raucous jokes that she has taken to asking her audiences, â€œDo they dump on the pope because all he ever talks about is God?â€ She plays her body like a comic prop, standing before it in wonderment, shaking it and bouncing it and stuffing it into bonkers costumes: mermaidâ€™s tails, giant hot dogs, chicken suits. The arms flail and claw the air, the bosom shimmies to underline the jokes, and the legs clatter past at preposterous speeds; sometimes you can catch an arm churning above them, as though driving them with some invisible windlass. â€œBette can really dance,â€ says her choreographer, Toni Basil, â€œbut I can never give her enough steps. For â€˜In the Mood,â€™ she made me double themâ€”I mean, she just loves fast little steps.â€ Midler seems to be brimming over, as though she couldnâ€™t move fast enough to get the energies whirling inside her out, as though she had to keep selling, keep delivering, keep the circuit between her and the audience smoking.
Looking at videotapes of her raw 1971 performances before a gay, towel-clad crowd at New Yorkâ€™s Continental Baths, one is overwhelmed by her desperate eagerness to please. At the baths, accompanied by a skinny unknown pianist named Barry Manilow, Midler created a cabaret persona called the Divine Miss M, whose trash-talking verve soon vaulted her out of the gay clubs to cult stardom and then beyond: a gold debut album, two sold-out weeks at Broadwayâ€™s Palace Theater, and in 1973 a Grammy hailing her as the Best New Artist of the Year.
Yet when I ask her about those early years, her mood darkens: she canâ€™t look back without a twinge of rue. â€œItâ€™s the AIDS thing,â€ she says. â€œIâ€™m just staggered by it. I really feelâ€”I donâ€™t have any words for it. Iâ€™m just terribly upset.â€ Like nearly everybody in the worlds of music and theater and dance, sheâ€™s lost friends, close friends. And thereâ€™s something more: Midler was the Belle of the Baths, the beaming queen of a universe that some now regard as Where we got the idea that something small could be powerful. C&C Computers and Communications NEC is a registered trademark of NEC Corporation. NEC has no affiliation with Porsche. the plagueâ€™s American spawning ground. â€œNobody knew,â€ she says. â€œI mean, people go out to have fun. And there are a lot of excesses involved in having fun. Sometimes Iâ€™m really sorry that I had a part in it, that I was there.â€
But surely she doesnâ€™t feel guilty. â€œYeah, I guess I do feel a little guilty,â€ she says, her voice going plaintive and wan. â€œI kind of had blinders on. Iâ€™ve had blinders on a lot in my life. I refused to really see a lot of things that went on there, because I thought that they would devastate me. And I was unprepared to carry those pictures in my mind for the rest of my life. I never explored the baths, and I never went anywhere except the dressing room and the stage, and I liked it that way. And I think everybody else liked it that way, too, because nobody wanted to get butted in on by a redheaded nut job with no bra.â€ But why the guilt? She looks at me hard, her chin knotted and quivering. â€œI was helping to make it seem fun.â€
Itâ€™s difficult now to realize how green she must have been then, fresh out of Honolulu, the third daughter of poor Jewish parents transplanted from New Jersey. She had been the only kid at school who didnâ€™t converse in pidgin English, and when she left for New York in the mid-sixtiesâ€”â€œI was dying to get out, just dyingâ€â€”all the show biz she had under her belt was a smattering of little-theater experience, a bit part in the movie Hawaii, and a high-school triumph at the state speech meet. Oh yes, and several years of hula lessons.
Tom Eyen, the playwright, was writing and directing at New Yorkâ€™s avant-garde LaMama theater company. He remembers her as â€œvery sweet, very quiet, very straightforward, very shy. And ambitiousâ€”God! Nothing ever stopped her. She said to me, â€˜Iâ€™m going to be a big star, Tom.â€™ And she really believed it.â€ Midler auditioned for Eyen, and he put her in Miss Nefertiti Regrets and several other campy spectacles. Even then, she was a trouper. â€œOne time a tree fell on her,â€ says Eyen. â€œThere was a huge plastic palm tree, and it started falling, and the whole audience started gasping, and she grabbed that tree and held it up and kept on dancing. She was dauntless.â€
Meanwhile, Midler was rummaging through used-sheet-music stores in Times Square, trying to put together an act. She wasnâ€™t yet what youâ€™d call Divine. In fact, says Eyen, â€œshe was doing, I donâ€™t know, old bayou songs. I went to see her perform, and it was very, um, internal, very serioso real-o. It was all â€˜Joe, Joe, you left me, Joe. Joe, donâ€™t go. Oh, Joe.â€™ There were about three people in the audience and she said, â€˜What do you think?â€™ And I said, â€˜You know, it needs a little moreâ€¦rhythm.â€™ â€
What it needed was a touch of the Divine Miss Mâ€”but Miss Mâ€™s birth was pure serendipity. Midler had landed the role of the eldest daughter in the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. At the time, the showâ€™s hairdresser was an aspiring writer named Bill Hennessy, whose nom de comb was Mr. Gerard. When Bette took to calling him Mr. G, he began calling her Miss M, and when she auditioned to perform at a new entertainment room at the Continental Baths, the owner, Steve Ostrow, asked how she wanted to be billed. Perhaps she didnâ€™t want to use her real nameâ€”not every Broadway nightingale would take pride in gigging at a steam bath. In any case, she replied, â€œOh, just call me the Divine Miss M.â€
Unfortunately, she was prepared to do only her â€œserioso real-oâ€ songsâ€” and of those she had about twenty minutesâ€™ worth. Desperate for new material, she seized on Hennessy and another close chum, a dancer from the Fiddler cast named Ben Gillespie, to help her. â€œHennessy knew everything about movies,â€ says an old friend of Midlerâ€™s. â€œAnd Gillespie knew everything about music.â€ Together they became her pipeline to the gay cultural world.
â€œShe wasnâ€™t really on the gay scene,â€ says a friend from those days. â€œShe wasnâ€™t hanging out with the baths audience or going to gay bars.â€ Yet Midlerâ€™s new style fit right in. Like Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, Midler was an ugly duckling who dared to come on as a swan. As her comedy writer Bruce Vilanch puts it, â€œher whole point of view was â€˜Iâ€™m not standard-issue. None of us is standard-issue. And tonight we celebrate the fact that we are not standard-issue.â€™ â€ Her act caught fire. The next time Eyen saw her, â€œI was completely knocked out. My God, she picked up All the mildness of a facial cleansing cream plus Neutrogena cleanliness. everything she was ever exposed to and put it on high voltage.â€
Some performers seem to have been born knowing exactly who they areâ€”Streisand and Eddie Murphy come to mindâ€”but Midler isnâ€™t one of them. Her career has been the visible manifestation of an inner struggle: the search for an artistic identity. â€œIâ€™ve never met anybody more insecure than Bette,â€ says Barry Manilow, â€œand yet Iâ€™ve never met anybody who takes more chances.â€ And though that sounds like a contradiction, in Midlerâ€™s case it is not. The insecurityâ€”the searchâ€”makes the frenzied chance-taking necessary: in pushing her talents (and her audienceâ€™s sensibility) to their limit, she is reaching for a form big enough to encompass them. Thatâ€™s why her shows mash together sixty years of popular music, why sheâ€™ll segue from Kurt Weill to â€œLeader of the Pack,â€ why she likes juxtaposing five crazy mermaids scooting around in wheelchairs with scenes from Oskar Schlemmerâ€™s austere Triadic Ballet. â€œShe was always the most impatient woman on earth,â€ says Jerry Blatt. â€œShe got funny and then she wanted to be serious. She got serious and then she wanted to be funny. Whatever she is at the moment, sheâ€™s bored with.â€
Midler doesnâ€™t deny it. â€œI was a cabaret artist, and I was slightly ashamed of it, because in those days, in the early seventies, it was really not the thing to be. And it was very hard for me to make my peace with what I really was. I kept wanting to be what somebody else was.â€ Like what? â€œWhat I really wanted to be was a rocker. â€ Never mind that at the baths Midler had devised a new, freewheeling approach to cabaret, that she had changed the medium forever, influencing performers like Peter Allen, the Manhattan Transfer, the Pointer Sisters, Ellen Greene, and Manilow. Never mind that hers was perhaps the most talked-about show in New York City, or that people like Mick Jagger and David Bowie and Elton John were clamoring to meet her. Midler simply didnâ€™t want to be Midler. She was busy listening to Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin. She longed to be a hot soul mama. â€œI didnâ€™t feel I had the voice that Janis had. And I didnâ€™t feel that I was as great a dancer as Tina. But I understood the source of the energy. I have that.â€ And what is that source? â€œItâ€™s just inside of me, in my being. I understood immediately that I could do what they did.â€
She was also beginning to understand the wider implications of her art. â€œI have had long stretches in my life,â€ she says, â€œwhen I thought of myself as an artistâ€”but then Iâ€™ve had long stretches when I thought of myself as a corporation. Anyway, when I thought of myself as an artist, it was mostly when I was doing material that appears superficially to be one thing and is really about something else entirelyâ€”and is surprising therefore. Iâ€™ve often tried to do material that is very cheap, but if delivered in a certain way will seem much more than it actually isâ€”like taking a familiar song and turning it inside out.â€
Even her humor cut two ways. She would heave into her gags with a selfdeprecating panache that seemed to say, â€œDonâ€™t worry, I know this joke is trash. But I think itâ€™s funny, and no oneâ€™s going to blame you if you think so, too.â€ Midlerâ€™s act was like a license to cut loose. She went way beyond the preciousness of camp to a kick-out-the-jams frankness that was liberatingâ€”and endearing. She would weep onstageâ€” sometimes, in fact, she couldnâ€™t help it. â€œIf you really feel like it, you just have to do it,â€ she explains. â€œI think Iâ€™m always on the edge between laughter and tears. Iâ€™m very emotional. Iâ€™m not happy with a performance, even acting, unless I feel I have been through something myself. In other words, I have to have a catharsis in order to be satisfied. And onstage, if you donâ€™t phony it up, if you donâ€™t disguise what youâ€™re feeling, then itâ€™s mesmerizing.â€
Less than two years after her Continental Baths debut, Bette was still living in a modest apartment in Greenwich Village, but she was no longer a cult itemâ€”she was touring the country now, playing places like New Yorkâ€™s Philharmonic Hall. â€œOh, it was that limo life,â€ she says. (Her friends insist she still took the subway.) Through it all, Midler somehow managed to avoid getting sucked into the bleary party world of the early seventies. For one thing, she didnâ€™t like drugs. â€œThe one time she took a snort of coke before a show,â€ says Jerry Blatt, â€œwe were in St. Louis, and that night, right in the middle of the show, she got off the stage, walked into the lobby, and bought herself some popcorn. It was a five-hour performance that nightâ€”I mean, she was up there talking about the Missouri highway slush fund and everything else she could think of. The audience went numb. I donâ€™t think she ever took a snort again.â€
Most of her friends were people she worked withâ€”and Midler often made sure they were too pooped to party. â€œBetteâ€™s a very strong and opinionated woman,â€ says Barry Manilow. â€œAnd we were two egomaniac Jews in one room yelling and screaming till two in the morning. But Bette always has conflicts with people, and Iâ€™ve never known her to be wrong. Sometimes she drove you nuts with her perfectionism, just doing it better and better.â€
More than a perfectionist, she was also something of a clean freakâ€”and still is. Aaron Russo, her manager and, briefly, her lover in those days, remembers â€œwalking down the street with her, and her picking up newspapers and containers and wrappers off the street and putting them in litter boxes as we walked along. She hated dirty streetsâ€” just like a crazy.â€ Russo had discovered her at the Continental Baths. â€œBy the end of the show,â€ he recalls, â€œI was out of my seat screaming, and I knew I wanted to manage her.â€ He did more than that, taking over her life, her decisions, and most significantly her finances. They became a notoriously combative coupleâ€”and kept up the combat even after their coupling days were over. Talking about that era now, Midler sounds a little shell-shocked. â€œEvery day was a battle with Aaron,â€ she says, â€œand I found it hilarious because it was so extreme. He used to take a lot of credit for the stuff I did, and it really got my goat. But I wouldnâ€™t change him. Every now and then I see him, and we have a few laughs.â€ Midler can afford to be blithe about it now, but others didnâ€™t find their relationship so funny. Russo was wildly jealous. â€œShe wasnâ€™t my woman all the time,â€ he says, â€œbut I wanted her to be. And I was the kind of person who had to control everythingâ€”I donâ€™t think I was in my right mind.â€ According to one old friend, â€œAaron Russo made her a wreck. Men like that who try to control women make them insecure so they canâ€™t get along without them. They create fires so they can put them out. They say, â€˜Youâ€™re not good enough, but donâ€™t worryâ€”Iâ€™ll fool them.â€™ â€ According to Bonnie Bruckheimer-Martell, who worked for Russo and now runs Midlerâ€™s film-production company, â€œAaron took care of all her businessâ€” not just managing her career, but his accountant paid her bills. If she had to go anywhere, his office made the arrangementsâ€”everything in her life was done through him. And after seven years of that, she thought she didnâ€™t know how to make a plane reservation.â€
Still, Russo had promised Midler that together they would â€œbuild somethingâ€â€”and together they did. By 1976, her record-breaking Clams on the Half-Shell show had brought her a Tony, and her superb television special, Olâ€™ Red Hair Is Back (featuring, in one segment, Dustin Hoffman at the ivories), an Emmy. The world of High Culture took notice. George Balanchine asked her to sing in a New York City Ballet revival of the Brecht-Weill ballet The Seven Deadly Sins (a project eventually derailed by a musiciansâ€™ strike). And just before she and Russo broke up for good, they made The Rose (1979), a maudlin and slovenly movie in which she gave a blistering, tender, utterly fearless performanceâ€”as a rocker at last. It snagged her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. And then came the crash.
â€œAfter The Rose, I didnâ€™t get one job,â€ she says bitterly. â€œI wasnâ€™t sent any scripts, and I sat there and I didnâ€™t do anything. I asked other people what it was, and they said, (a) people probably thought my performance was just luck, and (b) everyone thought The Rose was my story, and the only story I had to tell.â€ Then, too, Midler had emerged at a moment in Hollywoodâ€™s history when good womenâ€™s roles were in notoriously short supply, even for actresses more conventionally prettyâ€”and far easier to castâ€”than she. No doubt the studios deemed her a box-office risk. And perhaps there was another, more insuperable barrier: perhaps Hollywood believed that the wild-eyed, tantrumy hussy in the movie was Betteâ€”that Bette Midler would prove as crazy and as impossible to work with as the Rose.
Two years later, desperate to make another picture and afraid that she would be forgotten completely if she didnâ€™t, Midler hastily put together a movie called Jinxed (1982). It was a disaster: a trial to make, a critical laugh-ingstock, and a box-office catastrophe. And Midler took it hard.
â€œI think I had a nervous breakdown,â€ she says. â€œI couldnâ€™t eat for months, and I felt as though I had nothing to live for and nothing to offer. Nothing to give.â€ Her boyfriend at the time, a French publicist named Benoit Gautier, was little help; Midlerâ€™s friends say he seemed interested less in her than in using her name to establish an American career. Bette was on the skids. â€œI would just wake up crying,â€ she explains. â€œI would go to sleep crying. I would get on the phone, Iâ€™d cry. Iâ€™d read, Iâ€™d cry. Iâ€™d watch TV, Iâ€™d cry. I just couldnâ€™t stop crying.â€ How did it end? â€œI started to party. And I drank so much that I didnâ€™t really notice it anymore.â€ Touring had always been her preferred antidote, and the 1983 De Tour, her best show ever (and her last to date), was a triumph. But playing outside Detroit on an excruciatingly hot summer day, Midler suddenly felt faint and collapsed in mid-performance. â€œIt really freaked her out,â€ says Jerry Blatt. â€œIt was the first time that she had lost control onstage, and she was full of dreadâ€”dread of the nameless variety.â€
Bette was at ground zero. She had tried to be a rock singer, only to discover that she was really a cabaret artist. She had tried to be a dramatic actress, only to discover that no one thought of her that way. She had tried to gain a reputation in the movie community for working hard; instead, she was thought to be â€œdifficult.â€ And then one day in the fall of 1984, a man she had met briefly two years before called and asked her to an Eric Bogosian concert. Two months later, she and Harry Kipper hied themselves off to sunny Las Vegas, where they were marriedâ€”by a justice of the peace who told them he moonlighted as an Elvis impersonator.
â€œHarry called me when I was, â€˜Oh my God, my life is over,â€™ â€ says Midler. â€œHe just seemed like a breath of fresh air. And thatâ€™s what he turned out to be.â€ Talking about Harry, she unconsciously reaches up and poufs her hair; you can see sheâ€™s still smitten. â€œIt was all pretty fast, pretty wild, pretty scary,â€ she says. â€œBut, you know, I had made up my mind that it was the right thing to do. And when itâ€™s right, itâ€™s right.â€
Harry doesnâ€™t claim credit for Midlerâ€™s newfound success, but it was he who coaxed her into taking the next step. â€œHe really showed me the way out,â€ says Midler, â€œwhich was through comedyâ€”instead of trying to make another Rose or trying to be a Top 40 rock star, which obviously I donâ€™t have a chance of being. I didnâ€™t see that at first, because I wanted to be a great dramatic actress. I wanted to be in pictures where I was serious.â€ Even after Midler had made her delirious comedy album, Mud Will Be Flung Tonight!, she was dubious about the jokey movies Disney was offering her. â€œBillie Burke, who was ravishingly beautiful when she was young, once said, â€˜Thereâ€™s no pain like the pain when you turn forty and have to be funny.â€™ I read that when I was young and I never forgot it. But Harry helped me believe that if I made myself popular in the comedies that I would eventually come around and get a chance to get into serious acting, through the back door.â€
And so she has. Her own company, All Girl Productions (â€œOur motto is â€˜We Hold a Grudgeâ€™ â€), is preparing a series of â€œseriousâ€ moviesâ€”mostly musicalsâ€”for Midler, and Disney has given the first of them, Remember Me, the green light; production starts in February. Beyond that, All Girl is planning a picture about the forties bandleader Ina Ray Hutton. And then, with the producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, a dream project: Bette Midler as the great cabaret artist Lotte Lenya.
â€œI do think now that Iâ€™ll be allowed to be big and chew some scenery and play wonderful characters, but Iâ€™m going to have to develop those projects by myself. And the worst part is getting the brain to go again after slowing down and having a baby,â€ she says. â€œEverything has been pushed over to the side of my brain, and sheâ€™s at the center. So now Iâ€™m having to find a goal that will kick me in the butt again. Thatâ€™s really what having a career is about: having a goal, getting there, and then immediately going beyond that. I donâ€™t want to rest on whatever motheaten laurels I have.â€
Looking at her now, in her airy living room, one searches in vain for the revved-up powerhouse whose beam can light a stadium. And yet thereâ€™s something about the quality of her alertness, the quickness of her rhythms; behind the eyes, one senses the old restlessness. Midler may be wife, mother, and movie star, but sheâ€™s still searching.