BetteBack November 23, 1991: Midler brings the musical back

Medicine Hat News
November 23, 1991


BEVERLY HILLS, Cal. – The audience at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is sitting in rapt silence as the scene on the big movie screen.

The time is the Second World War, the place an airbase near London where visiting American performers are entertaining the troops.

A wartime blackout has plunged the place into darkness.

But Bette Midler, in the role of a feisty vocalist named Dixie Leonard, is undeterred by this problem.

She moves into a soft, caressing rendition of P.S. I Love You, her presence illuminated by dozens of flashlights held by the soldiers.

The emotional impact is palpable, and at the end of the scene, there’s applause from a 1991 audience whose numbers include some of the most powerful people in Hollywood – from studio bosses to top stars.

Handkerchiefs are visible by the time the story (which covers 50 years in the lives of two entertainers) reaches the Vietnam War.

Here, Midler delivers an extraordinary rendition of The Beatles’ In This Life to a weary and cynical group of GI’s trapped in the most unpopular conflict in America’s history.

Midler hasn’t watched the movie with the rest of the guests.

“I couldn’t have stood it,” she confesses later. “I would have been sick to my stomach. The tension and stress would have been too great.”

Instead, she’s been “practicing” back stage for her personal appearance at the end of the show.

And when she does come on stage and launches into a snappy rendition of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, the audience erupts into a standing ovation.

But how will a wider public respond to For The Boys when it opens Nov. 29 The question preoccupies Midler the following evening as she talks about a project that has been on her agenda for seven years.

“I just have my fingers crossed,” she says. “I do hope this attracts more than one kind of audience. I hope I get them in out of curiosity, because I know they’ll leave feeling more than satisfied. In fact, I think they’ll be thrilled.”

Midler is tired. This is her final interview after a long day with the media.

She can’t wait to get home to husband and daughter. But when she talks about For The Boys, and how she sees it as a vital step in bringing back the movie musical, the weariness drops away.

In person, close up, she’s surprisingly diminutive.

“The biggest misconception people have about me is that I’m seven feet tall!” she says with a throaty chuckle. Yet, in the quiet of a hotel suite, she reveals the same strong presence and force of personality that she does in performance.

“I’m pretty much what you see on stage. People know that I read, that I’m interested in the world, in the environment, in human emotion. All my work is pretty revelatory. I don’t hide a lot when I work on stage and I think that’s one of the reasons people are interested
in me.

“And I don’t think I’ve changed. I really feel I’m the same person who got off that bus in New York in 1965.”

But at 45, Midler’s range of commitments has broadened.

There is her passionate work on behalf of AIDS victims – her response to the number of good friends she has lost to the aftliction over the years.

There is the devoted wife and mother who says she’s positively reactionary when it comes to daughter Sophie’s upbringing.

“We don’t care about our children at all,” she snorts.

“We let them run around with no discipline. We let them park their carcasses in front of the television. We don’t teach them to read.

“Well that’s not what I want for my child. I want her to have a real childhood, with real cookies in the oven, corny as that may sound.

I want her to love nature and breathe fresh air. I don’t want her to see hundreds of thousands of people die on her television set before she’s 20.

“AND she doesn’t wear tart clothes. I have such a resentment of mothers dressing up their children to look like little versions of themselves. It’s totally insane. Can’t they wait for a while before putting the spandex and the lycra on these kids. These aren’t children. They’re little grown-ups. Don’t these parents LIKE kids?”

But beyond this, there is the assured executive, businesslike and professional in her neat linen suit, eyes alert behind the no-nonsense glasses.

talking forthri^tly about her company, All Girl Productions, and the mandate she envisages for it.

“We’d like to do all kinds of pictures, but I guess the main interest I have is in reviving the musical. That is something I would really enjoy.”

The $40-million For The Boys marks a bold step in this direction.

Midler stars as Dixie Leonard and James Caan as Eddie Sparks, members of a popular music and comedy team whose turbulent relationship is traced from the 1940s to &e present.

Midler ages to 84 and Caan to 91 in the film, directed by Mark Rydell (the man who made M idler’s cult favorite, The Rose) and scripted by Marshall Brickman, Neal Jimenez and Lindy Laub.

“I enjoyed aging,” Midler says. “It’s very liberating. I’ve never before been in a picture where I played a part and looked so different from myself.

I think I make a great old lady!”

The film’s main focus is the team’s involvement as troop entertainers in three separate conflicts – the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam.

And through use of music and dramatic situation, it reflects changing attitudes toward war – from the simple idealism of 50 years ago to the grimmer realities of today.

This makes For The Boys more than just a nostalgia piece.

20th Century Fox chairman Joe Roth has conceded that it has an anti-war theme, telling the Los Angeles Times that it “traces the way we felt as a country about World War Two, the Korean War and Vietnam . . . in the end there is nothing really good to be said about any war.”

The Times suggests it’s a big risk to release an anti-war film in the year of the yellow ribbon celebrations following the Gulf conflict It also says it’s a gamble to do a big-budget musical.

Midler’s answer to that one is that she likes taking gambles.

However, she adds that to define it as just a “musical” limits its purpose.

“I think it’s an entertainment.

It encompasses everything. It’s got laughter, tears, and a very strong idea at the heart of it. It’s got music, dance and sweep. I’m very proud of it.”

Furthermore – and this is a concern of major importance to Midler – it’s an original screenplay.

“It’s very, very hard to find good original material. That’s why it’s taken seven years to do this film.

“People these days cannot write from scratch. They can adapt a novel or a play. They can even create something from a newspaper clipping. But when it comes to sitting down with no previous source material and saying these are the characters, let’s find a home for them – well they can’t do it.”

But there are exceptions – among them Laub and Jimenez, who laid the groundwork of For The Boys, and Brickman, who contributed important rewriting and finetuning.

“This is what I want to do,” Midler told her writers. “I want to have two partners, two people who work in show business. I want to follow them through three wars. I want there to be a child somewhere. I want it to be about war and what it’s like for a woman to lose everything she loves to a war she doesn’t understand.”

And that’s the film that eventually emerged.

But Midler also saw this story line as a viable framework for solid musical numbers.

Musicals, she concedes, have gone out of fashion since the glory days of the 1940s and 1950s.

“But there must be a way in which they can work again. “We’re going to have to do it gently – not because of the audience but because of people in the industry who are so anti this sort of thing,

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