The Australian Women’s Weekly
Bette Midler Goes To Hollywood
7 March 1979
Her hair is such a mad maze that when it recently caught fire in an encounter with a lighted candle, no one noticed the difference afterward. Her nose crooks at its tip like the prow of the Concorde. She stands little more than 152cm (five feet) tall, and her voice – which sounds as if it swings on rusted hinges – can close on a vowel and place it on a frequency otherwise exclusive to the yapping of small dogs.
She is Bette Midler, and she wants to become “a legend.” When she told her new manager Aaron Russo that life goal in 1972, in one sense she was only suggesting a sideways promotion; she had, after all, been calling herself “the Divine One” for two years.
But, in a larger sense, she dreamed of an improbable elevation. Her appearance was somewhat less than heavenly. Also she was at the time operating on the slimmest base of popular appeal for someone intent on becoming mythological – her adoring audiences were largely homosexual.
While she has made a number of records, played leading nightclubs, done two television specials and starred in her own national (and overseas) touring shows since then, she has never fully escaped the image of the rhinestone-corseted “trash with flash.”
Performing, Midler skitters in front of the band with incredible vim.
The time is now at hand to move from divinity to legend, and the place where this may occur, (where else?) is Hollywood. Midler’s first motion picture is a big-budget ($A10.3 million) film for 20th Century-Fox called: “The Rose,” based on the life of Janis Joplin.
Midler is in virtually every frame and she is being paid $576,500 plus a healthy percentage of the profits for her effort, a huge sum for a first outing before the cameras and an indication of the enthusiasm Hollywood will muster these days for promising female talent.
United Artists has already signed her to a second picture, this one a comedy with no singing, and she will get $980,000 for that.
A parallel often drawn is with Barbra Streisand. Both share the image of goslings who became glamorous, and who place great emphasis on staging their songs. One Los Angeles publica tion, giddy over the possibility of a new Hollywood star war, reported that the two had met at an Equal Rights Amendment party and had fallen into a face-slapping match over Palestine. Actually, the two women met for the only time at a Grammy Awards ceremony.
Midler, who agonizes over her looks, has trimmed herself from 54kg to 45kg and has tinted her once-orange hair honey. (Its real colour is brown.)
Midler fans married to the old cheeky stage persona will not recognize their heroine. Her character in “The Rose” is in no way a send-up. Patterned as a composite of a number of ’60s rock stars, but modelled most notably on Janis Joplin, Rose is much more literal, sincere, vulnerable and sexy than the characters in Midler shows.
Also, the vulgarity exceeds anything that Midler has ever attempted.
Studio viewers, watching the dailies as the 14-week shooting schedule came to an end last (northern) summer, had little doubt that Midler can be a compeling screen actress. She has worked hard, and has been particularly Im- pressive in shedding artifice and projecting feelings with convincing honesty. lt is that kind of truthfulness that film stars strive for; sham is quickly detected by a movie camera.
Alan Bates, Midler’s co-star in the film, said: “She’s a natural actress. She tries things a hundred different ways, has a tremendous sense of when something’s right or wrong.”
Midler comes in three different sizes. Standing by herself in the gloaming of backstage, intent on her work, she strikes one as a tiny, frail creature, a foal on untested legs. “I have walked into her dressing room and not known she was there,” said director Mark Rydell.
When she strides onto a concert stage, something of a metaphysical marvel occurs. Her small engine begins turning out an impossible amount of energy. She is large and loud, shaking her head with a vigour that sends the curls dancing around her temples like poppies in a high wind. She stands at stage centre, hands on hips, chest thrust forward like a galleon’s proud bowsprit, then she skitters back and forth in front of the band like a sandpiper dodging sea spume on a beach. Her cheeks generate colours beyond a cosmetician’s touch, her eyes delight in being where she is and ask everyone watching to join in the fun, and the smile Is a gorgeous thing that makes her, although she will never believe it, quite beautiful.
Finally, up close, Midler seems to adjust to her company. You don’t have the sense of looking down at someone, and you’re also not addressing the strapper you’ve just seen on stage. She is confident, quickly conversational, willing to listen and prompt with a grin. Her humour, despite what you might anticipate, is not verbal. She does tell funny stories, but what you laugh over is not the narration, which leaps from cliche to cliche, but the vocal inflections and accents, the oscillating eyes and wares of the physical comedienne.
Hollywood personalities confronted by interviewers make a lunge for profundity by mentioning books they are reading. True to form, Midler dropped the names of Saki, Evelyn Waugh and W. Somerset Maugham.
She said her favourite activity after a rock concert is “to come quietly home and read. I’d rather just go home with Charles Dickens or something.” Midler snuggling up to David Copperfield is hard to picture.
More posturing greeted a request she talk about the possibility of becoming a movie star. She answered the question: “it’s so easy, it’s sooooo easy. You don’t have to get up there for four hours every night and sweat like a pig. They sort of come and get you when they need you.
“I’ve also discovered in doing this film that people really do respect me. In rock-and-roll, if you’re not on the charts every minute of the day, you really feel you’re a failure, and it’s not like that in acting. If you do the scene well and they see the dailies, they’ll come to you and say: ‘You know, that’s a good piece of work you did.’
“And people respect me because I’m full of ideas. There are a lot of people here with lots of experience in making movies, and they really respect me because I’m not making it with the gaffer and not making it with the soundman, though he’s cute, and they know I really love what I do. I’m ready for the work.”
She would have got her shot earlier if it hadn’t been for the career master plan of Aaron Russo, her manager since the contemplation-of-legend conversation.
The Talia Shire role in “Rocky,” the Jessica Lange role in “King Kong,” the Barbara Harris role in “Nashville,” film biographies of Sophie Tucker, Dorothy Parker and Texas GuiÃ±an, the ill-fated “Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood” were all under active consideration. Russo said no to all of them.
“I wanted her first film to be a role that only Bette Midler could play,” said Russo, pacing his Fox back-lot office. “I mean, who else could play ‘The Rose’?”
Asked what aspect of the central character most closely approximated herself, Midler said: “Rose wants to be looked at, while at the same time she doesn’t want to be looked at because she knows she’s not that attractive. There’s lots I’ve drawn on from myself.”
Russo, 35-year-old son of the owner of a Manhattan lingerie firm, has been harnessing his star’s energy for the past six years.
He has become the most important person in the 32-year-old life of Bette Midler, daughter of a house painter from Honolulu by way of Paterson, New Jersey. The relationship reminds one of other fabled tough- guy-singer collaborations like Sid Luft and Judy Garland, Marty Melcher and Doris Day and the contemporary example, Jeff Wald and Helen Reddy.
Russo looks heavy. He has become so overweight in recent years that when he walks he must carry his arms away from his torso like a Western gunfighter about to draw.
He and Midler – lovers for the first six months of their association – fight noisily and physically. This has led a lot of people to think that she will leave him. The prediction doesn’t take into account the complementary nature of their relationship. “Many people think our relationship is unhealthy,” conceded Midler. “As a matter of fact, most of them do. But Aaron thinks I’m the greatest and he did when nobody else did.
“I can quarrel with Aaron’s methods. I fight with him all the time. But some of our work has been very good work.
“We play pretty terrible games, but it’s a good relationship.”
Russo gave his side. “I’m not holding her by a paper,” he said, showing empty palms, “lt’s been six years without a contract. A lot of people do not understand our relation ship. I love the woman so much. I think our ties are so strong. She would be broken if we split and so would I.
“When we were lovers, there was a lot of shrieking and yelling in business that had nothing to do with business, lt was very difficult to end the personal relationship and keep the business one intact, but we did it. I need her approval, and she needs mine.”
Midler left Hawaii for New York in 1965, using the earnings from being an extra in the George Roy Hill film “Hawaii.” She landed a chorus spot in “Fiddler on the Roof” and eventually graduated to the role of Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel.
A teacher at her acting studio told her that the Continental Baths, a popular homosexuals’ haunt, wanted to book entertainment, and thus began her attention-getting performances there.
She returns to Hawaii once each year. Her father selected it, she says, as the place farthest away from his domineering mother in New Jersey.
Perhaps her greatest lasting dis appointment has been the neglect her father has shown for her career. He has never seen her perform live. “He finally saw me on the NBC special, and he said it wasn’t so bad. ‘lt wasn’t so bad,’ that’s what he said.
“They’ve actually been more supportive recently. They’re so far away, you know. My mother loves my success. She thinks show business is the greatest thing on earth.”
lt was her mother who named her after Bette Davis and who pronounced it with one syllable because she thought that was the way Davis said it. “She’s seen me live plenty, but my pop hasn’t because – well – he doesn’t like any bad language. He once said, ‘son of a bitch.’ Once, when someone stole his car. I hever forgot it.”
At the moment, Midler is back in Hollywood, having just completed a tour of England, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Australia.
Once the post-production work on “The Rose” is finished, she’ll begin shooting her next film, a comedy with the current working title of “Strike and Hyde” (A zany comedy with Miss Midler as a Hawaiian woman named Leslie Strike, who goes to Las Vegas to become a comic. There she meets a New York psychiatrist named Norman Hyde, who has come to Las Vegas to lecture Gamblers Anonymous about his new book, The Self Destructive Ape. She falls in love with him, while his wife, seeing her marriage failing, runs off with a black lounge singer.) and a storyline as bizarre as the zaniest fantasies from the stage acts.
No sooner will that romp be on celluloid than Midler will be busy starting to promote “The Rose.” There appear to be no rest stops on the road to Legend.
Russo’s goal is one that will be realized quite literally by her appearance on a movie screen. He wants to make her “larger than life.”
– WARREN HOPE