New York Times
November 22, 1991
The hardest thing Bette Midler has to do in “For the Boys,” the big, sweeping multi-hanky musical in which she plays a U.S.O. entertainer named Dixie Leonard, is to pretend to be shy. When in 1942 Dixie is first approached to tour with an established star named Eddie Sparks (James Caan), she is all butterflies. Can she perform before a large crowd? Will she get over her jitters? The film may dwell on these questions, but its audience knows full well that Dixie Leonard, being a lot like Ms. Midler, can bring down the house even if she’s playing an open-air arena in a war zone.
That’s the point, of course. “For the Boys,” which is opening today at the Ziegfeld, is a custom-tailored showcase for Ms. Midler’s talents, and it offers her a role in which screen character and offstage persona are powerfully intertwined. In the 1940’s, a period toward which Ms. Midler has always shown an affinity, an actress with a personality this strong would always have fused her own larger-than-life image with that of whomever she was playing. Today that happens less often, but Ms. Midler has wisely taken the bull by the horns. Acting as one of her own producers, she has seen to it that “For the Boys” offers her an appealing, frank, always pivotal leading role, one that no one else could have played.
“For the Boys,” directed by Mark Rydell, is at its best when concentrating on Dixie, which it does most of the time. First seen in elaborate makeup as a tough-talking, embittered old broad, she feigns infirmity but still manages to convey great reserves of grandmotherly zip. This makes a strong contrast with the film’s next sequence, in which the elderly Dixie remembers her first encounter with Eddie Sparks. Looking rosy, young and vital, Ms. Midler is an instant crowd-pleaser. And when she takes the stage with Eddie and walks off with the show, she takes command of the movie as well.
“For the Boys” follows Eddie and Dixie through 50 years of what is essentially a rocky friendship and stormy business relationship, but not much more. This is surprising in view of the film’s extravagantly romantic style and its portentous sense that some crucial development between Dixie and Eddie may be in the offing. In fact, the real emphasis is on Dixie as the mother of Danny, who is a small boy in the 1940’s scenes and a soldier by the time the film gets to Vietnam. In a way, “For the Boys” makes a clever choice in presenting Ms. Midler more as a noble, long-suffering mother figure with a flair for wisecracks than as a garden-variety romantic heroine.
But even allowing for its lack of romantic chemistry (despite a fleeting one-night encounter that has Dixie back to her same old scathing remarks in the morning), the film has trouble with its central relationship, in part because James Caan never makes Eddie the magnetic figure he is supposed to be. Never credible as a famous song-and-dance man (although he displays more than enough temper and vanity for a star’s role) and looking more like a world-weary carnival barker, Mr. Caan’s Eddie is too easily upstaged by his partner and not enough of a foil. The screenplay, by Marshall Brickman, Neal Jimenez and Lindy Laub, never seems entirely certain of what it wants to see happening between them.
Dixie works better in big, sometimes shamelessly sentimental tableaux than she does in intimate settings anyhow. This film’s most touching moments generally occur either on Christmas or when Dixie and Eddie bring their act to war-torn places, first to North Africa, where Dixie is tearfully reunited with her husband and serenades him with “Come Rain or Come Shine” before a large, appreciative military crowd.
Manipulative as this is, it presents Ms. Midler with some remarkable opportunities for heartstring-pulling, which she does especially well during the film’s wrenching Vietnam chapter. Many other films have covered this territory, and done it better. But when Ms. Midler performs an eerily delicate, anthemlike rendition of “In My Life” to a group of soldiers who have come face-to-face with their own mortality, she adds something new. It’s a moment that lingers long after the film is over.
Ms. Midler’s performance, even in a role as patently flattering and theatrical as this one, has an edge of candor that keeps her seeming very real. “For the Boys” is also deft in recapitulating various cultural landmarks of its time frame, from the ways in which pinups have changed through different wars to the progress of network television and its conventions. The film’s brief, sardonic looks at television are often clever, and it even attempts a scene in which Dixie champions a blacklisted associate (who has been fired while wearing a Santa Claus suit at Christmas). “Me! Who always thought Karl was the sixth Marx brother, after Zeppo!” she complains after being punished by her network for this outburst.
Also in “For the Boys” are George Segal as the uncle who helps give Dixie her start, Arye Gross as the nice young man who coaxes her onto television one last time, Dori Brenner as an early colleague and Christopher Rydell as the grown-up Danny and such ringers as Melissa Manchester and Bud Yorkin in small roles. The cast is big and helpful, but the star is always at center stage.