When The Light’s On, Midler’s On She Knows How To Get Laughs – Or Tears
By Carrie Rickey, Inquirer Movie Critic
POSTED: February 07, 1990
HOLMDEL, N.J. â€” Bette Midler‘s beaming face is being beamed onto a telescreen from Beverly
Hills. You are in an AT&T teleconference room 3,000 miles away. This is a Hollywood interview, Jetsons-style.
You thought Bette Midler was zaftig, so naturally you are surprised that she is flat as a TV screen.
You knew the 44-year-old star of Stella was small, but did you know that she was only 20 inches, measured diagonally?
“It’s like what we used to read about in Junior Scholastic when we were in fifth grade – picturephones!” giggles Midler. Like a child who has just unwrapped an elaborate electronic gift, she is not sure whether she should work at it or play with it.
In the spirit of a Trinitron huckster, Bette Midler offers a color check: ”My hair is red. My eyes are green. My suit is navy blue.”
Something is wrong with this picture. It’s not the hues that require adjustment; it’s the action. Midler, the closest thing Hollywood has to a perpetual-motion machine, is at rest. And therefore unrecognizable.
You ask Midler if she will do her flamingo flutter, that inimitable, high- heeled teeter. Unfortunately, the teleconference cameras are immobile, so she cannot demonstrate it in full body. But she offers step-by-step instructions.
Do try this one at home, kids.
“First you plant your arms at your sides. Then you stick your hands out at right angles to your arms. Then, you skitter.”
She stands to demonstrate, and her torso enters into the camera’s sight. See Bette wriggle, herkimer-jerkimer. It is an amble not unlike that of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp. At the expense of resembling a scampering cockroach, you mimic her. “Yes, that’s how my daughter, Sophie, does it,” Midler says approvingly, with a toss of strawberry curls visible again on the screen.
Despite the interview’s technological handicaps, Midler tickles the tele- conferee.
She knows how to make you laugh. She has done it in cabarets, on stage and on screen in a string of successful comedies for Disney’s Touchstone division, movies in which she comes on like Minnie Mouse armed with laughing gas.
And, as she proved in her knockout 1979 screen debut The Rose, again in Beaches (1989) and in the new release Stella (which, despite critical drubbing, earned $4.3 million last weekend), Midler also knows how to make you weep. In the Stella Dallas remake, where Midler’s blue-collar single mom gives her child up to her blue-blood dad, the actress elicits buckets of tears.
For her, is there as much pleasure in making people cry as there is in making them laugh?
“The reward is the same,” she says with a Cheshire cat smile. “I’m happy I have the ability to do both. And I’m glad I have the range to do both.”
Having made maternal-sacrifice Stella on the heels of terminal-illness Beaches, is Midler in her blue period? Does she feel kinship with Woody Allen (her co-star in Paul Mazursky’s forthcoming Scenes From a Mall), who a decade ago turned to making more dramatic films after his comedy hits?
“I wish I were going through a blue period!” asserts Midler, putting exclamation points between syllables, and italics all around. “I wish I were that contemplative!”
With haimish humor, Midler explains her criteria for making a movie: ”Listen, If I’m thin enough, if my hair and makeup are OK, then I’m there. Do you think I think about this stuff?” she demands cheerily.
Her motivation, she insists, is instinctual rather than intellectual.
“I didn’t choose Stella; Stella chose me. When I read Stella, I was moved by it. It got me where I lived. If your instincts tell you to take it, you take it! I guess I’m sentimental. I like sentiment.” Midler describes Stella as “a story about sacrifice, the kinda story we’ve been told for 20 years we shouldn’t make” because “it isn’t a me-first story; it’s a you-first story.”
The woman who single-handedly revived the four-hankie weeper also has plans to revive the movie musical with biographies of swing-era bandleader Ina Rae Hutton and German songstress Lotte Lenya.
Despite her lack of pretension about her projects, it’s clear that Midler is thinking about “this stuff.” Does she see her mission as breathing new life into dead genres?
“Other people make melodramas; they just don’t call ’em that,” she says without any defensiveness. “They’re more pompous than I am. Driving Miss Daisy. Steel Magnolias. They’re melodramas, but no one calls them that because melodrama is kind of a slur.”
So far in her screen career, Midler has specialized in weepers (The Rose, Stella, Beaches), female-buddy movies (Outrageous Fortune, Big Business, Beaches again) and rich-bitch comedies (Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People). Not surprisingly for this unconventional actress, she has yet to star in a conventional love story.
“Really interesting material is the stories you don’t expect,” she says of her movie choices. Anyone can do a love story, is the inference. “I’m not sure that people want to see romances. Besides, romance isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Whaddaya call a romance – 9 1/2 Weeks?” she demands in mock-horror.
Might another reason be that there’s no male star in Hollywood who would not be eclipsed by her light?
“Nah!” is the immediate response.
Ask with whom she’d like to co-star and the gracious Midler gives a safe industry response: “I like ’em all.”
But isn’t there one special star with whom she’s like to share the screen?
“I wanna work with Sylvester Stallone!” she exclaims.
An interesting response from the woman who was considered for the part of Adrian in the original Rocky. Whether she turned down the part or was turned down – can you imagine Midler in the ice-skating sequence? – isn’t known. And she’s not telling.
“Sylvester is my dream date,” Midler enthuses. “Look at him: He’s gorgeous; he’s lots of laughs; he’s richer than God; he wears clothes like an old-time movie star.” Even on the telescreen, it’s easier to imagine more effective chemistry between Midler and Stallone than Sly had with that other dynamo warbler, Dolly Parton, his Rhinestone romantic interest.
Like her would-be co-star, Stallone, and her forthcoming co-star, Allen, does Midler have any desire to direct a movie?
While Midler’s All Girl Productions has developed properties for her to star in – such as Beaches and 14 Girls on a Bus (the working title for the Hutton story) – she has yet to be as major a force behind the screen as she is on it.
“Direct?” she asks with a sigh. Thinking aloud, Midler observes, “Studio pictures are OK; they make you jump out of your seat and drop your popcorn. But those aren’t the kind of pictures I want to make.”
“The more indie pictures I see, the more I wanna direct. I loved Withnail & I, Drugstore Cowboy. . . . The more you see those kind of pictures, the more encouraged you are to direct.”
At this point, an electronic voice delivers a two-minute warning. Midler shudders, exclaiming, “This is like 1984.” Suddenly – slightly earlier than scheduled – the face on the telescreen flicks off.
All’s well that ends Orwell?