November 29, 1991
Sprawling over five decades and three wars in a swift 2 1/2 hours, “For the Boys” is a movie whose reach exceeds its grasp. But these days, any movie that actually strives for something besides box-office bucks should be commended. At once sentimental and cynical, “For the Boys” has heart and guts, all the period polish $30 million can buy and a Movie Star-scale performance by Bette Midler, who has been trying to bring this moving story to the screen for years.
Midler plays Dixie Leonard, a girl singer (that’s what they called them then) in an Andrews Sisters-style trio. She’s tapped for an overseas USO Christmas show thanks to her uncle Art, who happens to be shtick-writer for premier song-and-dance man Eddie Sparks (James Caan). So Dixie wings her way to London, and the moment her platform pump touches the runway, she’s hustled onstage with Eddie. They take an instant dislike to each other offstage, but they share a catch-fire comic chemistry under the lights, and the boys go wild for Dixie’s red hair and blue comebacks.
They’re indisputably an act, in spite of Eddie’s initial insecurity and misgivings, and soon they’re bigger than Burns and Allen, on the radio, then TV, and always on the USO stage whenever we have boys Over There who need some cheering up. Eddie maintains his starry-eyed sense of patriotism and romance, but as the “theater of war” devolves from the unambivalent, well-managed stage of WWII to the dark, disillusioned chaos of Vietnam, Dixie pays a high emotional price for her unwitting involvement in the propaganda machine.
Directed by Mark Rydell, who guided her Oscar-nominated film debut in “The Rose,” Midler portrays Dixie as major talent, good mother and faithful wife, and the unwaveringly larger-than-life character emerges more as paragon than person. But it’s a delight to see Midler flaunting her flair for ’40s camp again (if the doughboys at the London USO were costumed in towels, it could be a scene from the Divine Miss M‘s early days at the Continental Baths), and the movie is studded with fine, full-voiced singing — Midler’s “Stuff Like That There” is show-stoppingly sassy, and her poignant reading of the Beatles‘ “In My Life” to a bunch of jaded grunts in Vietnam creates warm chills.
You’d have to be nuts to try to compete with Midler’s outsized performance, and Caan wisely underplays, so his Eddie comes across as imperfect, canny, cranky, likable — human. The work of both actors, however, is undermined by ghastly overdone aging makeup that makes them resemble the Animatronic stars of the “Dinosaurs.”