BetteBack November 27, 1991: Interview – Divine Miss Maudlin; The New Serious Bette, Weeping the Country

The Washington Post
Divine Miss Maudlin; The New Serious Bette, Weeping the Country
November 27, 1991 | Rita Kempley


Bette Midler is down, but not out, in Beverly Hills. It’s the day after the gala premiere of “For the Boys,” and the plucky actress-singer-producer is weary from the hype, somber even. She suggests just skipping the interview, “then you go home and make it up.” But truth is stranger than fiction, and Midler is better at re-creating herself. The Midler of the moment has changed her tune from Divine Miss to Bette noire.

Peering through her rimless glasses, she looks more like a professor of medieval literature than the Boogie Woogie Bugle Gal she plays in her new film. But then she never really was the bawdy chanteuse of the Continental Baths: “I had you fooled, huh? I bet you like her better than me, huh?” Midler may be one of the 100 most powerful people in Hollywood, but she still worries about being loved for herself.

“I have a pretty serious character. I like to laugh, but there’s not a lot to laugh about – don’t you find?” says Midler, who has watched more than 50 friends die of AIDS. Then there’s the environment, God and daughter Sophie’s future to worry about. Midler is supposed to be back to belting ’em out in “For the Boys,” but she still seems influenced by the weepy melodramas “Stella” and “Beaches.”

“I am grateful for moments of joy. I {was} really happy to stand in front of all those junketeers and industry bigwigs and to say that we made this,” she says of her epic musical about USO entertainers. “We were very proud of what we did. I mean it’s big, it has thousands of extras, it’s got tons of effects. But it’s not so big that it lost its heart. It’s very intimate actually.”

Cookies, the size of frisbees, arrive at Midler’s request. Urged to dig in, she pouts, “Oh, you just want to see me blimp up.” She and her husband “looove food” but she looks trim despite her gourmandise. “I’m a girdle girl,” she explains.

Actually she’s shed pounds of late, by eating the vegetables she and her husband, Martin von Haselberg, grow at home. “We have compost heaps scattered around our teeny weeny little Green Acres. I am a compost maven. I have this recycling madness, this fever. I don’t throw anything away. We have playing cards made out of Ritz cracker boxes, I swear to God.”

Midler wants her 5-year-old to grow up “digging in the yard. I want my child to love the earth, to be able to call the birds if she wants to. I don’t want her to get dressed up in spandex, tease her hair and put eye makeup on at age 6. I don’t want my child to be a little version of me. I love my kid. I can’t wait to have some more.

“Yes, another baby at my age!” (She’ll be 46 next week). “Oh, if I can do it I will be a hero to some group of old ladies trying to have a baby. W’dya think? You ought to do it. Boy, it sure makes you tired and stupid, though. I want to have a baseball team by the time I’m 59. I read that this Pakistani woman in London recently gave birth to a boy; she’s 59. Of course, she was Pakistani – they made sure you knew that because it’s not quite the thing for a British woman to have a baby at 59.” She pauses.

“I don’t want to talk about childbirth. We have to talk about this movie. What d’ja think of Jimmy Caan? Wasn’t he fabulous?”

Caan is Midler’s leading man, the other half of a USO song-and-dance team that becomes legend. “For the Boys,” which reunites Midler with Mark Rydell, who directed her 1979 Oscar-nominated performance in “The Rose,” chronicles their travails on and off stage, but she observes, “The movie is really an examination of the way men feel about war and the way women feel about war. Women try to be supportive, but in their hearts they hate it and no matter how good a war is, they still don’t want their children to go. The government never asks the women who provide the fodder for the government, `Do you mind if we take your children?’ Because if they did they’d say, `{Expletive} no, you’re not going to take my son.’

“I think women are just the greatest creatures,” she continues. “They instinctively understand everything. They know their role, they know what the planet means, they’re not careless. They’re the best creatures and all the way up until high school they’re smarter than the boys. So what I want to know is what happens when they’re 12 that the guys suddenly take over?” Ruthless Gossip

Midler has chosen the only straight-back chair in the antiseptically plush hotel room. She sits there primly in her green cashmere pantsuit, crossed legs ending in alarmingly high heels. Funny, she doesn’t look insatiable. This is no doubt thanks to her 1984 marriage to von Haselberg, a onetime commodities broker and performance artist now attending film school.

In 1979, she told The Washington Post she would be happy if she had $20 million and was married to a witty, intelligent man who was good in bed. “That sounds like the kind of thing I would say,” she says. Asked if she has achieved those goals, she feigns shock. “Are you asking me if my husband is good in bed? My husband’s great in bed,” she chortles. “You bad thing. I’m not going to talk any more about this, this is not my kind of conversation – my new kind of conversation. Everybody’s walking around spilling their guts and I just think it’s so tacky.”

Like Geraldo? “Yeah, and like I used to be. But I ain’t no more. I don’t think I would ever talk about my boyfriends anyway. I think {tell-all stuff} is grotesque. I’m interested in how people fought their own personal wars, but I’m really not interested in their sex lives. I don’t think I’m interested in their sex lives. I might be.”

As recently as the December issue of Vanity Fair, she called Rivera’s account of a month-long fling with her “a small thing” and “interview rape.” She mentioned the affair again at a benefit in her honor at AIDS Project Los Angeles, then quickly became serious about a subject that has preoccupied her from the outset. “These are very rough times,” she says. “I do the best I can. I do a lot of benefits {for AIDS}. I enjoy them. I like to see old friends, you know, I like to see the people who are left.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing that Magic Johnson came out and said what he had to say,” she continues. “But I think everyone pretending that it didn’t exist the last 10 years was absolutely criminal. I mean how could the government allow that to happen? If it had been 129,000 little white children {who died}, you can bet they would have raised a stink. You say to yourself, `Is that how the government’s going to treat me if I don’t fall into the category they cherish?’ Who are the people they like? Business people? White business people? What kind of a suit do you have to wear to get by? It’s just absolutely astonishing that nobody came forward,” says Midler, removing her glasses to dry her tears.

“I’m just always crying. I get very overwrought. Yes, it’s a sad life… . Now don’t you start,” she warns her visitor. “Wait, I’ll get you a Kleenex. Let’s have a sob then. It is a hell of a world, isn’t it? Let’s try to think of something cheery.”

It doesn’t take long.

“Well, I did sing and dance again,” she says of the exuberant series of vintage numbers she performs in the film. “That was a real thrill for me because we worked with the most wonderful arrangers on this music … and we did the tracks over at Capitol Records where Frank Sinatra used to record. So everybody from Capitol came down and so did people from our group. You couldn’t get a seat at those sessions, and not a dry eye in the house. I slayed ’em – if I do say so myself.” The Saga of Baby Divine

Born in Honolulu in 1945, Midler shared a poor home with two sisters and a brother who was retarded. Originally from New Jersey, the Midlers lived in the rural Aiea near the naval base that employed her father as a house painter. Named for Bette Davis by her mother, an avid movie fan, Midler felt alienated as a member of the only Jewish family in the largely Samoan community. She found a way to belong early on, when she won a prize in first grade for her rendition of “Silent Night,” no less.

Her childhood, she says, “was fairly grim, but I had a pretty good time. I never had a birthday party. Nobody in my family had a birthday party, ever. We would get $2 in a card and that was our birthday. In this town, the birthday parties, the entertainers and the goddamn clowns and the cakes and the balloons and the Shetland ponies … I’m telling you, I could just lose it.”

Midler grew up to incorporate a couple of raunchy hula numbers in her Divine Miss M acts, but she left Hawaii as soon as she could – ironically it was to go on location in Los Angeles for a small part in 1966’s “Hawaii.” Afterward she moved to New York City and joined the chorus of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which led to a three-year run in the role of Tevye’s eldest daughter. But Broadway was fickle and there were no more offers for a while.

After a little therapy and a lot of go-go dancing, Midler became outrageous in the pursuit of her fortune. In the early ’70s, she took her brass act to the mostly gay audiences at the Continental Baths. Her first album, “The Divine Miss M,” was released to “reviews that could have been written by her mother,” observed the New York Times.

Since then, her diverse talents have earned her an Emmy, three Grammys, a Tony and two Golden Globes among other awards. After belly-flopping big-time with the movie “Jinxed!,” she wrote two books, “The Saga of Baby Divine” and “A View From a Broad,” and recorded a comedy album before beginning her fruitful association with Walt Disney Studios in the 1984. Since then, Disney has grossed some $300 million on Midler films from the boisterous “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” to “Big Business.”

For a while she supplanted Snow White as Disney’s figurehead. (“I thought you were gonna say Minnie Mouse,” she says.) Though still allied with Disney, Midler develops projects through her own company, All Girl Productions, responsible for “Beaches,” “Stella” and “Scenes From a Mall,” a romance that misguidedly paired her with Woody Allen. “For the Boys” is the first of her films in seven years sans the Disney logo. “But we’re still in business, we still like each other, we’re still speaking.”

An article in Vanity Fair quotes one of Disney’s screenwriters as saying the big cheeses “sit around and comment on {Midler’s} appearance and how nobody wants to see her in a romance.”

“I don’t know if they ever said that,” says Midler, who contends she never reads anything that’s written about her. “Anyway, I don’t like to do romance. I’m interested in things that are bigger than romance. I think romance is what keeps everybody down. There’s a place in everyone’s life for it and I know that people long for it, but I think it’s a cheat, because there are other themes that are more powerful.

“Women are supposed to do romances, not important, metaphysical {films} that deal with questions of morality and intellect.” She pauses. “They didn’t think I should do romances? I can do romances. {But} I think you must have a certain kind of stature. I don’t think there’s a single person working today that can pull off {a romance}, not in the old sense. Not when you look at Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant together.”

“Pretty Woman” stars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere “were utterly adorable together, but that wasn’t romance. That was a fantasy. That was a selfish little boy with a tawdry little girl. They weren’t grown-up people, they were just two children. Ingrid and Cary, that’s grown-up… .

“Let’s get back to this movie… . Wasn’t George Segal {who plays a blacklisted writer} really, really wonderful? This guy really knows how to work the camera. He’s a real pro and he always managed to get into the frame. In a scene that he wasn’t even in, he would be in that scene,” she laughs. More Views From a Broad

Midler has opinions on everything from the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas (“I couldn’t sleep, it was just horrific”) to the sorry state of Hollywood. “Everybody {in the industry} is having a rough time because the people in charge are not so sure what stories they want to tell and they don’t really know anything about stories. They’re not people who read, and a lot of people in charge don’t have very good taste.”

She attributes this along with other of the world’s ills to television. “It’s on 24 hours a day and because the standard of work is so dreadful that’s what people are used to. The people in charge now, that was their steady diet,” she frets. “The ’70s. That was really the last gasp of the serious filmmaker. After that it’s been nothing but crap, crap, crap, shoot-’em-ups, too many cop-buddy movies, too many horror movies, too many `Terminator’ movies, too much of the same macho garbage… . Do I sound awful? Do I sound very, you know, like, recidivist, or reactionary?”

Oh, who cares?

What does she think of her box office competition – Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” for instance? “I don’t believe he likes women. I think he thinks they’re like a race apart or something, otherwise why would he torture and destroy them in all his pictures… . I think his work technically is absolutely extraordinary, but it is quite nonhuman in a way.”

And, she adds, there’s a psycho under every bush. “A homicidal maniac used to be like a real rare thing. Nowadays it feels there’s one next door and {he’ll} be here in a minute. So who wants to go to the movies to watch that? I want to go and see some sequins.” On Song and Prayers

On New Year’s Eve in 1972, Bette Midler opened her sold-out show at Lincoln Center wearing nothing but diapers and a sash that read “1973.” The other night at the “For the Boys” premiere she was almost her old self in bilious green and purple spandex. “I’m trussed up like a spring goose,” she quipped to an approving audience. “I have introduced some songs that have turned simple songwriters into simple songwriters with German cars,” she said before performing several numbers from the film.

“It felt good,” says Midler, who doesn’t entertain live as much as she used to. “And it really gets my goat because I’ve turned into quite a good singer. I’m not that great a singer, I have a small range, but I got better – I don’t know why. I think I stopped smoking or something. My ear got better, I guess because I started paying more attention to the sound and less attention to what I was putting out in front of the audience.

“It’s much harder than acting,” she says. Although “recording is just torture. You obsess over every note and every track and every instrument and it’s like being in a dark – this is why I would never be a director – you are in a dark room for months on end and all you have is takeout food. I just couldn’t stand the process of making records, and I think it showed that I was in despair.”

A torch singer in practice, she prefers vintage music over newer forms, but she dismisses no form out of hand. “I think when you’re young you tend to put yourself in a box musically because you don’t want to be any different from your friends. When you grow up you see that your friends were morons in the first place and you look around to see what else there is.”

Midler still sings like a fallen angel. But she is, she says, rather religious. It has to do with being a parent. “My father was an atheist, but I love God. My husband was raised an atheist, too, German atheist. We don’t practice any formal religion. I’m raising my kid definitely to believe in God. But we talk about all the gods. We’re very interested in the gods as a group.”

Speak of the devil. The door opens a crack as Midler’s husband Martin and her partner Bonnie Bruckheimer slip in. She has said she married him only because there was nothing to watch on TV. “No,” she corrects, “it was time for us to settle down. That was it. I met the right man. I knew right away. Oops, this is the one. Look at that hair,” she says fondly of his graying Bart Simpson cut.

“Actually,” he says, “she never returns a phone call, but she called me back. She said, `I’ll call you back in five minutes.’ It took four or five hours but she did call.”

“I never call anybody back. People could be out in the desert just waiting for that call. Never do it. Well, you know I’m not attached to a lot of people. I’m attached to him. And her,” she refers to Bruckheimer. “I’d like to include you, but I hardly know you.”

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