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BetteBack January 8, 1994: Bette Midler’s record in films mixes wonderful with disappointing

Winnipeg Free Press
January 8, 1994

FOR THE BOYS, Bette Midler, 1991
FOR THE BOYS, Bette Midler, 1991

NEW ON video this week is Hocus Pocus, starring Bette Midler as one of a trio of mischievous witches. Midler herself has publicly disowned this film (what?). If you’d like to see her in something that does justice to her talents, here’s a survey of her earlier pictures that are available on video.

Midler’s most familiar screen image is the tough talking character who harbors sensitive feelings underneath her hard-boiled facade, She developed this personality in such pictures as Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Ruthless People (1986), and Outrageous Fortune (1987).

Brassy and vulnerable She gives good accounts of herself in all three films (though her part in Ruthless People is so small that she doesn’t have the chance to register fully). Midler’s at her best in the highly entertaining Down and Out, bringing vulnerability as well as
brass to her portrayal of Richard Dreyfuss’s neglected wife.

In Outrageous Fortune, Midler’s street-wise character plays well against Shelley Long‘s pretentious sophisticate, though the plot of this comedy thriller runs out of steam long before the film is over.

Bette Midler’s other comic screen performances include the aptly named Jinxed (1982), which was plagued by production difficulties and disputes between cast and director (and wound up on screen as a soggy mess), and Big Business (1988), a silly, labored attempt at an old-fashioned screwball farce, in which Midler and Lily Tomlin play two sets of identical twins.

Midler’s efforts with more serious material date back to her screen debut. Patterned on the wild, tragic life of rock music diva Janis Joplin, The Rose (1979) is a strong, insightful look at the backstage world of show business.

Midler brings energy and insight to her performance; an Oscar nomination for best actress was the result.

Nearly a decade—and the lighter films mentioned above — passed before Bette Midler once again put herself in a drama.

Beaches (1988) follows the 30-year friendship between two friends, Midler and Barbara Hershey.

Most critics trashed it for presenting this story in superficial, soap opera fashion.

New York magazine’s verdict was typical: “cheerfully and implacably terrible.” That didn’t stop it from becoming one of the most popular films of the year.

Midler tried drama again with Stella (1990), portraying a woman who sacrifices everything for her daughter’s happiness. It, too suffered a critical drubbing, and this time there was little consolation in terms of ticket sales.

“Is this the vehicle that Bette Midler thinks will reclaim her serious actress status?” wailed the Los Angeles Times. “If so, she’s greatly misunderstood her gifts, which stand in raucous, subversive contrast to everything this sudsie weeper represents.”

For the Boys (1991) brought Midler her second Oscar nomination. It once again examines a long-term relationship between her character and a close acquaintance—Midler plays a big band singer and James Caan portrays a Bob Hope-like fellow entertainer.

MIDLER’S STRENGTHS Were once again short-changed, however, This lengthy, episodic film contains too little comedy and music and too much melodrama. It was a costly flop.

Just last month, Bette Midler made one of her rare television appearances, starring in an expensive version of the stage musical Gypsy. If you missed it, or would like to see it again, it’s due to hit video stores in February.

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