November 30, 1991
Since her astonishing debut in “The Rose,” the full realization of Bette Midler‘s rare talent has eluded capture on the screen. HerÂ performances have been marked by a nervy freneticism (“Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Ruthless People“), allowing little of her puckish nature to be seen. The lachrymose “Beaches” captured some of her flavor and allowed her to sing, “Stella” was a major mistake; self-pity is not in her repertoire.
At last “For the Boys,” directed by Mark Rydell (“The Rose”), presents Midler in her full-blown glory. It is the best slam-bang entertainment of the year.
The saga is told in flashback, a timeworn device that works because of the narrative’s sprawl.
The aged entertainer Dixie Leonard (Midler) is called for at her modest Hollywood apartment by television underling (Arye Gross), who is responsible for delivering her to a special saluting her longtime partner, Eddie Sparks (James Caan).
“I’m not going,” she announces.
The desperate Gross encourages her to reminisce about her career, and the story begins.
It is the wartime ’40s, and the young singer reports to a unit entertaining U.S. troops in England. Sparks, a radio star, is repelled by her off-color jokes, but the GIs love her. A team is born.
Sparks has a wife and daughters, and Dixie is married to a soldier, so there is no romance between them. They continue their uneasy partnership after the war, starring on television in a domestic sitcom and entertaining in the Korean War. When Eddie fires his longtime agent (George Segal) because of The industry blacklist, Dixie upbraids him and leaves the act.
The Vietnam War comes. Dixie agrees to join Eddie in their third war tour, largely because she can see her soldier son (ChristopherÂ Rydell). Tragic events bring the final break of Dixie and Eddie.
Mark Rydell, himself an actor and entertainer, captures each era with amazing accuracy. The raw energy of entertaining near battlefronts, the helter-skelter of early television are lovingly documented. Especially noteworthy is the aging makeup by Caglione and Drexler, Inc.
Bette Midler achieves the heights in “For the Boys.” She never sang better, and she segues from raucous to tender with the greatest of ease. Caan has a more difficult task. Obviously a Bob Hope clone, Eddie Sparks never shines as a performer, so you don’t know what made him a star.
But Caan does well with a complex role and is especially effective in the later years.