Truly Tacky Bette Midler – And How She Got That Way
August 29, 1973
“The big time show business soar of that big voice evokes a sense of deja vu that recalls every great performance one has ever seen. I feel that inescapable flush of warmth move over me, that shower of goose bumped recognition that makes one more flight over the old rainbow seem perhaps as possible as the next NASA journey to the noon.”
~ Ed McCormack in Rolling Stone
“The trouble is,” Bette Midler is saying, “people don’t have dreams anymore.”
Just off a flight from Baltimore, first stop on a three-month tour that will take her to her childhood home in Hawaii, we are talking about women’s lib and Bette’s flair for breaking all the how-women-should-look-and-act rules.
“I identify with HUMAN liberation,” she says. “I’ve never been too badly off as far as my own liberation is concerned. But I’d like all kinds of people to be a little happier.
“I don’t know that women’s lib is the answer. Sexual liberation is crap, bullshit. What’s important is the freedom to have the kind of job you want, to do whatever you want regardless of what age or race or sex you are.
“Freedom to have your dreams come true.
“Freedom to have dreams period. That’s what it’s really about.”
Impatient to get to her Edwardsville motel for a swim and some sleep (“And will we be able to actually SEE the drug war from there?” she wants to know), Bette thumbs through a magazine, spotting an article about “somebody else who calls herself divine.” She chuckles. “We all KNOW there is only ONE. Often imitated, but nevah duplicated.”
Except for her male entourage, she could be the Jewish girl across the street just home from college. A bit changed, but only on the outside. Still clowning to cover up her shyness. Still looking, as one writer put it, like a girl who doesn’t get asked out on Saturday night. And still the kind of person you’d like for a best friend.
Bette (pronounced “bet”) Midler, then? Kinky henna hair, no eyebrows, eyes that narrow to slits when she smiles, which is often. A Streisand nose, pale pear-shaped face. No makeup. Stubby fingernails with chipping crimson polish. A plastic heart dangling above exposed and ample boobs spilling from a white pantsuit. An enormous beaded and fringed shoulder bag that delights airport inspectors. And platform sandals elevating her height of 5 feet 1.
But ah, The Divine Miss M, Bette’s stage alter ego, is something else. Miss M is outlandish and gorgeous, sensual and vulgar, vulnerable and in control.
“The last of the truly tacky women,” she undulates onstage at the Mississippi River Festival like a stripper, teasing the audience with two enormous feather fans. Scarlet lips and heavily shadowed eyes. Artificial roses in her hair and at the cleavage of her purple satin shirt. Skin-tight black satin trousers.
“Oh, ya got ta have friiiieeeeeeeee-ends / Th’ feelin’s oh so strong,” she begins, shimmying into a 2 1/2-hour show that will take our feelings on a roller coaster ride.
“Most of you,” she warns, “have never seen The Divine Miss M in per-SON. WeII, she will take your mind off it all, off all the trouble it takes to stay alive.
“We do trash with flash…. Sleaze with ease….
“These three debutantes from Clayton town,” she gestures toward an equally tacky trio in prom dresses, “are the Harlettes. They’re real sluts.”
And Miss M doesn’t forget what Bette Midler knows about people’s need for dreams. She has them. That big Broadway voice that can dissolve from raucous to breathless in one measure takes them through 40 years of music.
But Midler does not parody: She moves right into those past decades, puts her finger on their essence and serves them up fresh for the ’70s. “Hubba-Hubba” (“that’s early 40s for hot shit,” she explains), “In the Mood,” “Skylark,” “Am I Blue?,” “Delta Dawn,” “Do You Want to Dance,” and what she calls her “Philadelphia Medley” – ’50s numbers from American Bandstand.
She refuses to describe her style. “I let other people do it for me.” She is not, however, wallowing in nostalgia: “I just do musical sounds I like.”
Her act is loosely enough structured that she can “play it by how I feel.” She “nevah” lets an audience go “until they’re happy.”
She raps, in that exaggerated New York-Jewish accent, about Granite City’s filthy air, about being in St. Louis “on the murky Mississippi. I know it’s the pits, honey.”
“Nixon called me up the other day. He wants to get the Sparkle Plenty girls in show biz. ‘Trish and Julie?’ I asked. `No,’ he said, ‘Haldeman and Ehrlichman.’ Actually Tricia and Julie do have an act – they lip synch to Donny Osmond records.”
Miss M wheels on a sober faced man in the front row. “The reason you don’t get it sir,” she howls, “is you don’t GET it!”
Suddenly the house lights go on and Miss M falls into the arms of her burly manager, Aaron Russo. She will be back however, “Miss M works her buns off,” she reminds us.
Minutes later she slithers out in a ratty fur neckpiece and a slit-to-the-thigh sequined gown that will drop off during a frenetic “Higher and Higher,” leaving Miss M to finish in a revealing satiny lavender chemise and ankle strap platforms.
The pace changes abruptly, but we are with her: “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Hello in There” (a lovely sad song about old age and loneliness), “Superstar,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Chapel of Love” (“the happiest rock and roll song of 1964” complete with shooby do ending), and midway through, her big hit, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
“Ya see? She didn’t let you down,” Bette tells a wild audience of more than 4,000 during a stomping, standing ovation.
Hawaii. An unlikely beginning for The Divine Miss M. The daughter of an adventurous New Jersey housepainter and a housewife whose heroine was Bette Davis, she grew up on movie musicals.
“I guess I was very inward when I was young. You wouldn’t believe it, but I was very shy, stayed by myself, read a lot, lived very much in my head … in my daydreams.
“Then one day I learned that I could be popular by making people laugh. I became a clown to win people’s acceptance and I think that’s when I decided that I wanted to be in show business…. By the time I was in my senior year of high school I was completely stage-struck and had made up my mind that eventually I would come to New York.”
Money from a job in a pineapple cannery and a bit part in the film “Hawaii” got her as far as the Big City’s dilapidated Broadway Central hotel in 1965. And the girl who dreamed of becoming a great dramatic actress wound up selling gloves at Stern’s department store.
Her first musical role was off-Broadway in a Tom Eyan play at the Cafe LaMama, “Miss Nerfiti Regrets.’ And finally, after a solid year of making the rounds, she landed her first Broadway job in the chorus of Fiddler on the Roof, and eventually took over the role of Tzeitl one of Tevye’s daughters.
Bored after three years with the show, she switched to rock musicals and began singing after work in a little Bowery bar called Hilly’s. That led to gigs in other clubs like the Improvisation, where she met Barry Manilow, now her musical director, arranger and pianist.
(Manilow incidentally, after a string of commercials including “You deserve a break today” for McDonalds, now has his own album out.)
And eventually, through a call from her acting teacher to Continental Baths owner Steve Ostrow, to the famous Tubs at Broadway and 73rd, gay baths featuring live entertainment, a pool, saunas, orgy rooms and ever a V.D. clinic.
Bette thinks her enormous initial appeal for the homosexual set, much like the late Judy Garland’s, stems from those 2 Â½ years at the baths, that the boys consider her one of their finds. Her underground reputation spread “by word of mouth. They all heard about it from there and in ‘After Dark,’ ” a gay magazine.
Others say it has more to do with her camp costumes, her wry and bitchy humor, her empathy with society’s outsiders, and her burlesque of female sexuality – she bumps and grinds like a stripper, swaggers like a cowboy, straddles microphones like a rock star and writhes like a siren.
Somewhere along the line too, she quit trying – and failing miserably – to do something she isn’t: The advertising world’s dream woman.
“When I decided that I didn’t want to look the way they wanted me to, that I would look exactly the opposite and do it just the opposite of the way they were telling me to do it … that’s when the success started happening,” she remembers.
“I was trying to get jobs in the theater, but I just didn’t fit into the mold. I can show you reams of pictures of myself I used to have in my portfolio. All these girls do it, come from far and near, truss themselves up, push themselves out, get their hair cut and dyed – thousands of dollars spent trying to push themselves into that mold.
“I made myself so sad because I couldn’t fit,” until she let go of that particular dream. Recognized in herself “a nice person, a whole person, an individual.”
Two tours, televisionland and Vegas, and a second album, “Bette Midler,” have not changed that essential person. She still lives in Greenwich Village, schleps with the same old friends, recently began music lessons.
Her ear catches – and remembers – everything (including the names of five people she met 15 minutes ago).
Next? Well, a TV newsman asks her about Bette Midler a year from now.
The deadpan reply: “Sanitation commissioner of New York City.”
He looks puzzled.
“Honey, it’s fill-thy,” she grins into the camera. “They need me.”
“And can’t you just see those shiny garbage trucks” – eyes closed, hands spread, she clearly can – “all saying ‘The Divine Miss M’?”