The Toronto Star
Steambath’s Divine Miss M Really Sleazes With Ease
February 27, 1973
By William Littler
So you weren’t at Massey Hall last night? Well, my dears, as the Divine Miss M would say, you missed it. It? Say rather Bette Midler, the 27-year-old steam-bath serenader who may just be on the road to becoming one of the best singing comediennes since Franny Brice.
She walked – no, she slank like a cocktail waitress toward closing time, onto the stage, her legs covered by baggy blue pants, a cheesy blouse taking care of the rest. A white-petalled posie, a dogwood blossom, perhaps sat like a botanist’s merit badge on her carrot hair. Beautiful? That isn’t the word.
“My friends call me the last of the trashy, tacky women,” she announced when the cheers of a rabid 2,800-member, sell-out audience finally died down. “What do we do? We do trash with class, sleaze with ease.”
Her audience roared its approval. The men with the painted faces and feathered eyebrows, the girls with their Bette Midler, war-surplus fur coats, yes and even those of us for whom Halloween comes but once a year, sat back to savor once more the musical dregs of late croon to early rock.
For this is Miss M’s territory. She remembers the almost forgotten, lovingly polishes the brass that tinkled into the gutter alongside Tin Pan Alley. And occasionally, when the lights get low, she brings back some of the gold, too – Bessie Smith, the Andrews Sisters (“those girls were so hot they could raise their
eyebrows in unison!”)
But hers is not simply an act of nostalgic recreation, an attempt to enthrone trivia. There are two Bette Midler’s stalking the stage at the same time; one of them singing a reasonable facsimile of real blues, real torch songs and real rock, the other putting them into the context of satire
NOT GREAT CANARY
The first Bette Midler may not be a great canary but she has learned from the great canaries. Moreover, she possesses the almost dangerously selfless ability to summon recourses of energy no one could reasonably expect of a 5-foot-1 Jewish girl from Paterson, New Jersey.
She doesn’t just sing, she explodes. Remember Leader of The Pack? Well, she resurrected it last night. Her hand tore the mike from it’s stand, her arms flailed back and forth and with a pair of guitars, drummer and pianist engaging her on, she recreated the whole mindless aura of motorcycle romance.
But that second Bette Midler was at work at the same time. Before the song came the come-on, the setting of the scene. Miss M showed us the face of youth in the Eisenhower years, poking fun at her and our affection for the palpably worthless. “This is the one you pored all that stuff into your systems to hear.” she laughed.
She laughed a lot. Not as an outsider, sneering, but as someone who actually enjoys what she knows to be cheap. It’s the knowledge that it is cheap that gives her approach to it a hilarious sense of the ridiculous.
Indeed, she controls her audience. She uses her image of sleaziness the way Jack Benny uses his stinginess, to evoker a conditioned response. It’s a put-on and everybody is in on it.
The fact that Miss M began her career as a freak phenomenon, a campy celebrity for the Gay Lib crowd, is no reason to undervalue the lady’s very real talents. Her banter, hand-on-hip poses and accompanying vocal trio, the Harlettes (who look like tired taxi-dancers in off-the-bosom gowns), are means toward the end of entertainment.
And they work. In six years of regular attendance at Massey Hall I have seen only one other performer, the Greek musician Mikis Theodorakis, elicit such a sustained and wildly enthusiastic response.
At the end, the whole house stood cheering. People crowded to the edge of the stage, offering love tokens, outstretched hands. No, it wasn’t quite a Judy Garland finale. There didn’t seem to be the tears. The Divine Miss M doesn’t commit acts of vocal self-destruction to win sympathy. She enjoys herself.