Santa Fe New Mexican
February 1, 1990
LOS ANGELES â€” “Oh, I can’t go on!” Bette Midler exclaimed in mock despair in the middle of an interview.
She seemed to be her usual kidding self, but her eyes were misting, and she called for a tissue.
What caused the sudden surge, of emotion?
It happened when she was asked if her own mother had made sacrifices similar to those of Midler in her new film, Stella, based on the twice-filmed tear-jerker Stella Dallas.
â€¢- The co-production of Touchstone Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn has been updated and altered to fit 1990s audiences, but the basic plot is the same: A single mother agrees to send the daughter she loves to live with the girl’s wealthy father.
“My mother is the inspiration for my characterization of Stella,” Midler said. “My mother was indomitable; she had great will and great strength. That’s what 1 tried to bring to this character. She has no self-pity; she just gets on with it. My mother was just like that.
“I tend to be on the maudlin side. I tend to say, ‘Why is this happening to me? Why? Why? Why?’ To Stella and rny mother thnt never crosses their minds. They don’t sail through life; they get through it, at all costs.
“My mother was not at all a stage mother. She raised four children. She never worked in the real world; she was a homemaker who worked really hard. She kept four children pressed and cleaned and ironed. She was a great mom; she taught me to read when I was about 4 years old.
“My parents had no money. We all had a sense of humor and a healthy respect for other people. We learned kindness, we learned all the good things: to work hard, to compromise, to get along, to respect other people’s property and other people’s achievements. I couldn’t ask for a better set of parents.
“My father was not affectionate. He never praised me too highly so that I would get a swollen head. 1 should thank him for that every day of my life, because I have a certain amount of humility and I take everything with a grain of salt, all success and all failure.”
Her assessment of her father has mellowed; she used to remark that he “was one of those poo-poohers â€” ‘You’ll never amount to a hill of beans.’ ” Both her parents have died.
It was on the matter of sacrifices that the actress started to emotionally break up. She quipped her way out of it and switched to other matters. Such as why she chose Sfella, a role the late Barbara Stanwyck made famous in 1937.
“Even though people remember it as just this side of melodrama or being a tearjerker, it’s not that to me. It’s a. serious, straightforward examination of a single mother’s life in these times.
“In Barbara Stanwyck’s version, Stella was a party gal, a conniver. Even though she did put her daughter first, she was taking theÂ girl’s father to the cleaners. Basically, she didn’t love him, but she set her cap to marry him. It was more of picture about class.
“All those aspects of her character were left by the wayside in our picture. She’s not a schemer. She gets pregnant but she doesn’tÂ marry because she knows they would never have a real marriage. She lets him go.”
Despite the heavy dramatics of Stella, she considers The Rose her biggest challenge.
“The Rose had more bravura scenes,” Midler said. “That remains my favorite picture to this day. That’s no disrespect to my directors and co-stars in later years. I’ve had great directors, and many of them have become good friends.
“But The Rose was my first picture. It was a charmed experience, and I had a wonderful crew and co-workers. You never forget the first one.”
Midler (named for Bette Davis) grew up on Oahu in Hawaii, where her parents, had relocated from New Jersey. She endured taunts as the only Jew in her school and found refuge in splashy MGM musicals.
“Million Dollar Mermaid was my favorite,” she said. “I’m like an Esther Williams fanatic.
She was in her own special world at MGM, and it made quite an impression on me.”
After studying theater at the University of Hawaii, she assaulted New York but could find work only as a hat check girl, glove seller and go-go dancer. Her luck changed after chorus work in Fiddler on the Roof. and her bombastic personality made her a huge hit in clubs and concerts.
Despite her Academy Award nomination for The Rose, Hollywood didn’t seem to know what to do with her. Jinxed was the only film offer, and it lived up to its title. In her own words, her film career “went down the toilet.”
The turning point came when she married her husband, promoter Martin von Haselberg.
“He brought a kind of stability and grace into my life when I didn’t have them,” she said. “He’s very protective, but he’s also very amusing and he has great kindness. He helps me organize my thoughts in a way that I never did before.
“We were not married very long when the Down and Out in Beverly Hills script came in. It was not a starring part and it was a low salary, and it was presented to rne in such a way that it hurt me and made me think 1 wasn’t worth anything. He told me 1 should -do it.”
After Down and Out, Ruthless People. Outrageous Fortune and Big Business, she is now treated with great respect by Touchstone Pictures and has her own production company at the Disney studio. Her first production was Beaches.
“That was another dream of mine: to be able to work at Disney.” she said, “i/grew up on the Disney cartoon characters, and 1 always wanted to be part of their world.”