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Author: Denise Flaim
Date: 07-18-1994

Best Bette: Bold And Brassy

TODAY AND TOMORROW, Bette Midler pitches her tent at Nassau Coliseum, in the heart of what the red-headed queen of camp just last year called "Satan's little theme park" and "the sex and violence capital of the world." With a mouth like that, why does Long Island love her?

Here's a woman who hit the big time singing for a bunch of gay men in the Continental Baths, and she still gets enfolded, for two nights in a row, in the bosom of suburbia?

Truth to tell, it's hard not to love the Divine Miss M, a striking but not beautiful creature with almond-shaped eyes and a vigorously lipsticked mouth. Vampy and maternal, brassy and sentimental, Midler is both genuine and glitzy, proof that we needn't be perfect to be adored, that an ugly duckling can become a swan by willing positive reflections from the pond. Midler's unlikeliness is what endears her to us, and gives us hope in our own imperfections: She's a big mouth who never offends, a child of public housing who made herself a multimillionaire, a saucy provocateur who goes home to a husband and a daughter, a celebrity who's not a phony. So Long Islanders who aren't tabloid-headline adulterers or serial killers don't take her ribbing to heart.

Wherever she goes, Midler tweaks "every single city's own ridiculousness": making immigration cracks in South Florida, calling grits "buttered kitty litter" in Charlotte, N. C., and greeting Denver audiences with a lusty, "The Rockies . . . meet the Twins!" - referring, of course, to her own famed peaks. We must like a little dig in the ribs, because, despite the potshots, Midler's arrival in the land of cookie-cutter Capes has been eagerly anticipated. The Coliseum is virtually sold out, with only a scattering of seats left at press time. The show is so hot here that Midler didn't need to get on the phone to promote it, the way she did in Florida, Colorado and (of course) New Jersey. She has captivated suburban mall-walkers as handily as she did the boys in the baths.

Just ask Lorraine Fillmann, 47, of East Moriches, who looks enough like Bette that autograph-hunters follow her into the ladies' room. "People love her, let me tell you," says Fillmann. "I didn't know about her until about seven years ago. I was at a funeral, and the son of the deceased leaned over and said, `You know, you look like Bette Midler,' and he smiled. And I thought, "If that woman's name can make someone smile in their hour of grief, I've got to find out who she is.' "

So who is she? For those who discovered her in the campy '70s, Midler is the over-the-top diva who can wring the wriggle out of " Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" like water from a dish towel, then segue to a favorite story about women walking down 42nd Street with fried eggs on their heads. But then she swam into the mainstream on the "Tonight" show (tellingly, she was the last performer to serenade Johnny on his farewell episode in 1992). Still others encountered her after she had been "Disney-ized" in the late '80s, exhausting their Kleenex supply at "Beaches," belly-laughing at "Ruthless People," and making karaoke fodder out of sappy ballads like "The Wind Beneath My Wings."

My own first encounter with Midler occurred somewhere in the middle of all that, in the paneled living room of a high school acquaintance, with Hummels on the tables and a shag rug on the floor. A group of us Catholic-school sophomores rented "The Rose," and Midler's Joplinesque rock star spoke to our adolescent rebellion and a dreamy desire to break out of Queens. We identified with Rose's hard-edged yet bluesy sound, her clothes (we tripped around in gauze skirts and leather hats with feather-tipped roach-clip flourishes), her fascination with drugs (though we ourselves never inhaled). For a while after that, I associated Midler with Rose's powerful shriek, with the movie's mournful title song, with a blue streak of language that was more shocking than clever. But as I grew and changed, I found her many other sides, just as a favorite book offers new insights to a maturing reader.

Midler the entertainer constantly transformed herself, and I saw the playfulness. There is, for example, Delores DeLago, "the toast of Chicago," a lounge-mermaid in a wheelchair. ("The tail is what really takes it out of ya," Midler has explained.) Or else Midler channels the ghost of Sophie Tucker as an excuse to recount vaudeville groaners. And it works - for all ages and many genders. "I'm mad about Bette Midler," says Bertha Zeller of Manhattan, whose daughter, Alice Jacoby of Roslyn, bought tickets to the Coliseum show for her 74th birthday. "She exudes life, warmth, earthiness. I identify with her, because I'm sort of that way. She just epitomizes creativity. "I even like her better than Barbra," says Zeller, "but don't tell anybody." Yet it's a natural comparison, and the similarity doesn't stop at their vaulting voices or unconventional beauty.

"I think there's a vulnerability that makes Bette Midler's performances so sensitive, and I think that's why you can compare her with Streisand," says Linda Brown, 49, of Merrick. "But Bette seems more human." That's probably because the two deal with their vulnerability in opposite ways. An obsessive collector and perfectionist, Streisand internalizes her fear, becoming a delicate rose with talon-length fingernails. But Midler, who grew up in a pressed-cane "paper house" in Hawaii, embraced that flimsiness in life as well. On stage, tottering dangerously at the edge of improvisation on her platform heels, Midler defies fear by confronting it. "Hit `random,' " she told Denver audiences earlier this month, "and any old thing comes out!" Midler also thumbs her (substantial) nose at standard esthetics. But though she milks her decolletage for all it's worth - this, after all, is a woman who has decorated her stage with mammary-shaped balloons, complete with nipples - her real appeal lies above the neck. "I love her face. There's something so perfectly imperfect about her," explains Brown of Merrick. "Even when she isn't chubby and chunky, you know she's starving herself, and it's a real struggle to get there."

Midler's secret weapon? She projects that everywoman air along with the trappings of a modern-day Mae West, blurring lines of sex, race and age with a devastating simper. "She's always playing with the audience, flirting with them, even if she's not speaking," says Brown. "That smile - it's like she's putting everyone on and loving every minute of it. Even if she says something straight, it always has a double meaning behind it." Midler's renowned raunch appeals to septuagenarian Zeller. In fact, "that's why I like her," she explains. "She isn't disgustingly lewd. It's always a double entendre; you have to think about it."

But according to Midler, most ticket-holders don't think about it. "Audiences have lowered their expectations," she told a Florida newspaper in May. "Things have changed so that you don't ever have to sing in tune. It's over. It'll never be the way it was. It's the tenor of the times." It could be that expectations have receded, in response to pop stars who dole out their energy like dieters with a calorie allotment. But when they come for Midler, audiences are seeking showmanship that harkens back to that almost mythical golden age of entertainment.

In "For the Boys," which was a box-office bomb, Midler saved the day with her Andrews Sisters repertoire, a hand on her hip and a ditty in her duffel bag. That's what draws the fans, from Manhattan to Manhasset: big bad ol' Bette hubba-hubbaing on the front lines of our humdrum lives.
Denise Flaim, Best Bette: Bold And Brassy. , Newsday, 07-18-1994, pp B03.