Bette Midler on Wanting to Star in ‘The White Lotus,’ Why She Turned Down ‘Sister Act’ and Being Honored at the CDGAs
By Marc Malkin
Feb 21, 2023
Bette Midler had her first professional wardrobe fitting when she made her Broadway debut in 1967 playing Tzeitel in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I remember the clothes had layers and layers so that they had weight and so they moved when you danced,” the two-time Oscar nominee recalls on this week’s episode of the “Just for Variety” podcast. “They would curl themselves around your feet. It was so beautiful.”
Since then, Midler has been transformed on stage and screen by countless costumes. “I’ve worn them all,” she says. “I have been an old lady, a young lady, a witch, a mermaid, a showgirl, a stripper, a bad lounge singer. I’ve run the gamut. And I have to say, it’s been a blast.”
Her decades-long work with costume designers will be celebrated Feb. 27 when she’s presented with the Distinguished Collaborator Award at the Costume Designers Guild Awards in Beverly Hills. Below, Midler speaks with Variety about performing at the Continental Baths, wanting to star in “The White Lotus” and why she won’t run for office.
Do you own any of your costumes or wardrobe?
I kept everything, but I sold a lot of it a few years ago at Julien’s Auctions because the storage became overwhelming. I didn’t know where any of it was. Now I’m getting ready to do another auction. As much as I love this stuff, I don’t think I’m going to wear it again. Someone else should have it. They should get as much joy out of it as I did. I own the wardrobe to “The Rose,” but I will probably give that to an institution.
When you were playing New York’s legendary gay bathhouse the Continental Baths in the early ’70s, did you worry about what you were going to wear?
Actually, you did because that was a very discerning audience. You’d be surprised. They were wearing bathrobes, but they were very discerning. They were the crème de la crème. That was quite a generation we had there. So, of course, I worried. I was in rags, but they were stylish.
Can you take me back to that first performance at the Continental Baths?
I got this job through a teacher of mine at the HB Studio [Herbert Berghof Studio] named Robert Elston. I hadn’t seen him in years. He called me out of the blue and he said, “My friend has a nightclub in the basement of a hotel, and he’d like for you to be the performer.” It paid $300 for two nights, which was more money than I’d ever seen in my life. So my hairdresser, a wonderful man named Bill Hennessy — or Mr. G, as I called him — told me it was a gay bathhouse. I said, “What the heck’s that? You better come with me because I’m clueless.” They had a barbershop in the middle of the floor. Why they had a barbershop in the middle of the floor, I have no idea. But there was a barber chair and mirrors. I’ll never forget it. The owner and host, Steven Ostrow, poked his head in and said, “How shall I introduce you?” I said, “Just tell them that I’m divine.” He also heard Bill calling me Ms. M, so he said, “Here’s the divine Ms. M.”
You wrote a memoir, “A View From a Broad,” in 1980 and rereleased it a few years ago. Will you write another one?
I’ve been asked. I think it’s very nice but I’m kind of private. I mean, I live my life on the stage, and if you see my shows, you know who I am and you know my stories. I don’t feel that there’s really a need to. I know that a lot of people have a lot to say, but I’m not one of them. I’d like to write maybe an advice book or a book of manners, how to behave in the plugged-in world, what’s done and what’s not done. But I don’t think that’s really in the cards.
Will we ever see a Bette Midler biopic?
My daughter [actor Sophie Von Haselberg] and I are two peas in a pod, so if she wants to, she can have it. But I don’t think that’s what she’s aiming for.
What did you say when Sophie said she wanted to get in the business?
When she was very young, I think I was going through some kind of mental stress, which I do from time to time and I said to her, “If you ever go into show business, I’ll kill you.” And she remembered that her entire life and I think it informed her, and she took it very, very seriously. She did a few shows when she was a kid, but she never expressed a need or a want or a desire to go into the business. And so when she came home from China one year — she spent a year in China doing work for a PR company — she said, “I’ve decided I’m going to go back to school.” I said, “Oh, are you going to get a Ph.D.? What do you want to do?” She said, “I want to become an actress.” My mouth fell open because I said, “But you were never in any plays.” She just lost it because she reminded me that I had said that. You have to be really careful. Words do have consequences. They can hurt and they can destroy fragile dreams. So of course, I learned a good lesson, but it was way too late for that. Still, she went to drama school. She’s had a fabulous time. She works all the time. I couldn’t be prouder.
If Bette Midler had taken the lead role in Misery. Great job with this!
Was there a role that got away?
They got away or I turned them down! They came to me with “Sister Act” and I said, “My fans don’t want to see me in a wimple.” Can you believe that? How off the wall is that? How crazy is that? Jeffrey Katzenberg called me every day, “Please, please.” I stood my ground because I really was afraid of the costume. Isn’t that amazing? I can wear anything but a nun’s habit?
Wow is right. Whoopi wore it all the way to the bank. So God bless her. And she was perfect for it. And then there was “Misery.” I just couldn’t. It was too violent. The character was so not funny, so without any qualities of redemption. She cut off his foot. Come on. Who does that?
Mister D: And I have been waiting and waiting to hear her say exactly like this…perfect and true about what is going on…lame and stupid politicians, but I’d have to correct her that it reaches into corporatism and technocracy
With all your political work and activism, has anyone ever come to you and said, “Run for office?”
Oh no. I’m not smart enough. And the difference between me and the people who actually hold office is that I’m smart enough to know that I’m not smart enough to be in governance, to be in lawmaking. Some of these people, you don’t have any idea why in the name of god they got into politics. They’re so lame and they’re so stupid. And they don’t really give a shit about their constituents. They’re mostly there for a cash grab. I really do believe that. I never thought that way when I was a kid. Oh my god, this country. Oh my god, my country ’tis of thee, I loved it so much. But I tell you later, it makes absolutely no sense that we are being governed by people who are so clueless. I’m sorry. That’s it. I have nothing more to say.
When was the last time you cried while watching a movie?
Good question. I probably cried at “Beaches.”
I show it once a week. No, I’m teasing. I did cry at a book, “The School for Good Mothers.” I just bawled like a baby. I hadn’t cried over a book like that in a long, long time.
What TV shows are you watching?
“Poker Face” is a lot of fun, and so is “The White Lotus.”
Would you want to be on “White Lotus”?
Oh, please! Of course. In a New York minute.
What do you like about it?
It’s a big sendup. Mike White pokes fun at the worst kind of people, the truly entitled and rich people behaving badly. Everybody likes to see them get their comeuppance. I really enjoy that. It’s the great saga of the haves and the have-nots, which is eternal. I do tend to watch the stuff that’s — I don’t want to say hopeful — but I do like to laugh. I love to laugh, but there’s just not enough laughter. So I really do look for the stuff that makes me laugh.
This interview has been edited and condensed. You can hear it in its entirety on “Just for Variety” above or wherever you find you favorite podcasts.