Bette Midler’s 15 greatest film performances, ranked worst to best

Golden Derby
Bette Midler’s 15 greatest film performances, ranked worst to best
By Robert Pius, Chris Beachum
December 1, 2018

Bette Midler at the Tony's

Mister D: Well, as long as they had the correct #1 I knew I would be a happy gay cis-gender – white privileged man (is that correct for me? I can’t keep up) My pronouns are: “Just call me any old thing” because frankly, I won’t get offended (not after all the verbally abusive men I have personally slept with. But ya’ll ain’t interested in that! I loved what they said about this Number One performance because it’s true. I would have ranked some higher, and some lower, but that’s just my opinion. I would have found some way to get “And Then She Found Me” and her wonderful cameo of Doris in “Get Shorty” in there. I won’t tell you which ones I’d pull out. Anyway, this was fun. I enjoyed it. Oh, and thank the Lord, Divine Madness made the list. You never see concert movies much on these, and truthfully, I’d probably put it higher.

Midler was born in Honolulu, Hawaii but left during her sophomore year of college to pursue a career in New York on the stage. She was soon cast as one of the daughters in the long-running production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and stayed with the show for three years. Midler has said she felt she had made it at this point in her life and didn’t really even dream of having more of a career. That all changed when she started performing a nightclub act in a gay bathhouse that became a sensation in New York and lead her to a concert and recording career. Her first album was released soon after and earned her a Best New Artist Grammy Award in 1973.

Midler began receiving film offers at this time but her manager and boyfriend, Aaron Russo, felt she should hold out and make her film debut in a role geared towards her talents. She turned down a number of supporting roles in films, including Sylvester Stallone’s wife Adrian in “Rocky.” Midler eventually found the perfect debut film role as the title character of “The Rose,” which earned her an Oscar nomination as Best Actress.

On December 1, 2018, Bette Midler will celebrate her 73rd birthday. Midler has had one of the most varied and successful careers in show business encompassing success on stage, screen and in the recording industry. She shows no signs of slowing down either since she has just completed one of her most successful ventures ever, starring for a year on Broadway in the revival of the musical “Hello Dolly!” That performance earned her a Tony Award as Best Actress in Musical. She has also won three Emmys, three Grammys, and three Golden Globes over the course of her career. One of the Emmys came for her much loved classic television moment when she sang on the second to last episode of Johnny Carson’s tenure as host of “The Tonight Show.”

Her film career has been a bit of a rocky one marked by huge successes and then periods without much film success at all. She has made a few mistakes along the way, most notably turning down the lead role in “Misery” that won Kathy Bates an Oscar. But she has always been able to return to her concert act when movie roles were not forthcoming.

To celebrate the Divine Miss M’s birthday, tour our photo gallery above featuring her 15 greatest film performances, ranked worst to best. Our list includes “The Rose,” “Ruthless People,” “Beaches,” “Hocus Pocus,” “For the Boys” and more. Which one do you think is in our #1 slot?

Bette Midler movies: 15 greatest films ranked from worst to best: Bette Midler in Jinxed

15. JINXED (1982)
Director: Don Siegel. Writers: Frank D. Gilroy, David Newman. Starring Ken Wahl, Rip Torn, Jack Elam.

Midler’s second starring role in film was in this comedy set in the world of professional blackjack players. Midler plays a lounge singer and the role seemed to be a perfect match for her talents but unfortunately the film became more known for its off screen conflicts than what was onscreen. Midler and co-star Ken Wahl strongly clashed on the set and unfortunately the battle went public. By the time the film was released it was already considered damaged goods and audience missed out on a film that despite the turmoil actually had some humorous moments to it.

Bette Midler and Billy Crystal in "Parental Guidance"

Director: Andy Fickman. Writers: Lisa Addario, Joe Syracuse. Starring Billy Crystal, Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott.

Midler teamed with Billy Crystal as grandparents who take care of their grandchildren for a bit and try to correct some of the problems the kids have due to their high strung parents. The film provides Midler with more low key role than the usual outrageous characters she played in films.

Bette Midler In "HocusPocus"

13. HOCUS POCUS (1993)
Director: Kenny Ortega. Writers: Mick Garris, Neil Cuthbert. Starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Thora Birch.

“Hocus Pocus” was a box office and critical flop when it was released. Midler had a long running successful partnership with Disney studios but this film was one of the last of that partnership. The film has had a resurgence in recent years due to Halloween airings on cable TV. The movie tells the story of three witches who are resurrected after being killed in the Salem witch trials. Despite the subject matter the film is an out and out comedy which provides Midler a chance to ham it up to a great extent.

Bette Midler In "Stella"

12. STELLA (1990)
Director: John Erman. Writer: Robert Getchell. Starring John Goodman, Trini Alvarado, Marsha Mason.

“Stella” is based on the 1937 classic film “Stella Dallas” that earned star Barbara Stanwyck an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. Both films tell the story of a working class mother who fears her station in life will ruin her daughters chances to marry into a wealthier family. She turns away the daughter for what she thinks is her own good and then famously stands in the rain watching her daughter get married thru a window. The original film was a sentimental hit in the thirties but in the eighties the mother’s rejection of her own daughter didn’t play as well and Midler’s version of the story was not well received by audiences or critics.

Bette Midler in "Scenes From A Mall"

Director: Paul Mazursky. Writers: Roger L. Simon, Paul Mazursky. Starring Woody Allen, Bill Irwin, Paul Mazursky.

The teaming of Woody Allen and Bette Midler in a film from Paul Mazursky who had revived Midler’s career with “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” was a highly anticipated event. The end results turned out to be somewhat disappointing but the film still has its moments. Allen and Midler of course are sharp with their comic interaction and the film itself has became a nice time capsule of the pre-Amazon nineties when malls were the hearts of their cities.

Bette Midler in "The Stepford Wives

Director: Frank Oz. Writer: Paul Rudnick. Starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close.

The original 1975 version of “The Stepford Wives” was a brilliant thriller which fascinatingly dealt with the rise of feminism and the threat that posed to men who wanted a stay at home wife. This remake changed the tone of the film and made it a comedy but things just didn’t click. Midler has her moments and some strong one liners but she and most of the cast (except for Glenn Close who pulls all the stops out in her final scenes) are done in by the strange tone of the film.

Bette Midler in "Big Business"

9. BIG BUSINESS (1988)
Director: Jim Abrahams. Writers: Dori Pierson, Marc Reid Rubel. Starring Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, Michael Gross.

“Big Business” teamed Midler with another popular comedienne Lily Tomlin in a slapstick story where each of the actresses play duel roles. Tomlin and Midler each play members of a set of twins who were mixed up at birth. The one pair are sophisticated city dwellers while the other two live in a rural setting. Midler and Tomlin work well together and Midler gets some big comic moments including milking a cow on stage in a musical number.

Bette Midler in The First Wives Club

Director: Hugh Wilson. Writer: Robert Harling. Starring Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Maggie Smith.

Midler’s film career hit a big slump in the mid-nineties but this film that teamed her with an all-star cast and particularly Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton sent her back to the top of the box office charts. Hawn, Keaton, and Midler all play wealthy Manhattan housewives whose husbands leave them. The three women unite to heal their wounds. The film has a timely cameo at the end from Ivanna Trump who advises the women not to get even but instead to get EVERYTHING!

Bette Midler is Divine Madness

Director: Michael Ritchie. Writers: Jerry Blatt, Bette Midler, Bruce Vilanch. Starring Jocelyn Brown, Ula Hedwig, Diva Gray.

Shortly after her film debut had electrified audiences in “The Rose” Midler released this concert film which even managed to earn her a Golden Globe Nomination as Best Actress in Musical or Comedy. The film shows movie audiences the concert performer in Midler which many people may not have experienced before. The film features Midler in both comic and dramatic song and skit presentations. The first twenty minutes or so of the film are especially riveting as Midler proves to be a comic dynamo who just takes the stage with a comic ferocity few performers are capable of unleashing.

Bette Midler in For The Boys

6. FOR THE BOYS (1991)
Director: Mark Rydell. Writers: Marshall Brickman, Neal Jimenez, Lindy Laub. Starring James Caan, George Segal, Patrick O’Neal.

Midler received her second Best Actress Oscar nomination and won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for this film about a USO singer but the film’s failure at the box office was a great disappointment to her. Even in her Golden Globe acceptance speech Midler seems wistfully sad instead of honored by the award.

Bette Midler in Outrageous Fortune

Director: Arthur Hiller. Writer: Leslie Dixon. Starring Shelley Long, Peter Coyote, Robert Prosky.

Midler was on a comic streak in the mid-eighties with three top grossing films within two years. This film pairs her with Shelley Long who was had just finished her run on “Cheers.” The two both play actresses in love with the same man who team up to find him when he disappears. Long plays the more serious classically trained actress while Midler is the less respectable of the two whose big credit is a film called “Ninja Vixens.” Long and Midler apparently were not as great a team off screen as they were on and Midler can be seen on youtube confessing to Oprah how hard working with Long was. The battles even carried over to the film’s billing where the unique situation was created to have Midler receive top billing on one side of the Mississippi River and Long top billing on the other.

Bette Midler in "Beaches"

4. BEACHES (1988)
Director: Garry Marshall. Writer: Mary Agnes Donoghue. Starring Barbara Hershey, John Heard, Spalding Gray.

One of Midler’s most popular films is this sentimental tale of two childhood friends who face life’s ups and downs together. Midler plays an actress not too different from herself while Barbara Hershey is her friend whose life takes a tragic turn. The soundtrack album for the film revived Midler’s dormant recording career and the song “Wind Beneath My Wings” earned her the Grammy Award as Best Record of the Year.

Bette Midler in "Down And Out In Beverly Hills

Director: Paul Mazursky. Writers: Paul Mazursky, Leon Capetanos. Starring Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss, Little Richard.

It had been four years since Midler made a film when she was approached by director Paul Mazursky to take the female lead in this remake of the classic French film “Boudou Saved From Drowning.” Both her male co-stars (Richard Dreyfuss and Nick Nolte) were suffering career slumps at the time too so expectations weren’t high for the film but it proved to be a surprise success. Midler plays a Beverly Hills housewife whose family’s life is changed when a homeless man (Nolte) tries to drown himself in their pool.

Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker. Writer: Dale Launer. Starring Danny DeVito, Judge Reinhold, Anita Morris.

The early buzz on “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and Madonna’s dropping out of the film at the last minute gave Midler one of her most successful films in this variation on the classic O Henry story “The Ransom of Red Chief.” The film tells the story of two inept kidnappers who seek revenge on a business tycoon that did them wrong by kidnapping his wife. The wife is so obnoxious that the tycoon doesn’t want her back leaving the kidnappers stuck with her. The three eventually become friends and unite against the husband who has swindled all of them.

Bette Midler in "The Rose"

  1. THE ROSE (1979)
    Director: Mark Rydell. Writers: Bo Goldman, Bill Kerby. Starring Alan Bates, Frederic Forrest, Harry Dean Stanton.

Midler had been offered films earlier in her music career but turned them all down until she found a vehicle she thought appropriate. (She most notably turned down the role of Adrian in “Rocky” and the role played by Stockard Channing in Mike Nichol’s “The Fortune.”) Waiting proved to be a smart move since by choosing “The Rose” as her first feature Midler managed to make one of the most acclaimed and dynamic film debuts in film history. This thinly veiled biopic of Janis Joplin earned Midler an Oscar nomination as Best Actress, two Golden Globes as Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical and Best New Star of the Year-Female and a Grammy for Best Pop Female Vocal Performance for the film’s title song. Midler gives a ferocious performance as the self-destructive rock star being pushed to the edge by the demands of fame.

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