Films, TV, and Theatre


The Divine Bette Midler (June 28, 2005)

Stars: Bette Midler, Toni Basil, Barry Manilow, Bruce Vilanch, Danny DeVito, Marc Shaiman,
Marta Heflin, Martin Von Hasselberg, and many more!

Writer: John Scheinfeld
Consultant: Darrell Redmond! :-)
Director: John Scheinfeld

Bette Gets Bio’d
by Steve Warren

The pre-Stonewall generation had Judy Garland; the soundtrack of Stonewallers’ lives starred Bette Midler, the first mainstream performer to acknowledge the role of openly gay men in jumpstarting her career.
Bette got the deluxe treatment last year on A&E’s Biography with a two-hour show ( under 90 minutes without commercials ) which is now getting a commercial release as The Divine Bette Midler.

Unpreviewed extras include full versions of some of the musical numbers excerpted on the show and expanded interviews from which sound bites were taken.

The ‘70s come back to life in footage shot during “The Divine Miss M’s” appearances at New York’s Continental Baths and her relevant raunchiness is captured, even if a few words were bleeped for basic cable.

Since marrying her “Kraut,” Martin von Hasselberg, in 1984, Midler has toned down her act somewhat, becoming a respectable wife and mother. Her biggest hits have been sappy ballads, “The Wind Beneath My Wings” and “From a Distance,” and her activism has focused on environmental efforts like literally cleaning up New York. She’s made more bad movies ( Isn’t She Great, Hocus Pocus ) than good ones ( The First Wives Club, Ruthless People ) .

In other words, post-Stonewall gays might well wonder why they should care about this aging diva. The Divine Bette Midler could hardly answer that question better if it had been made for exclusively gay audiences. Many of the friends and associates who join Midler in commenting on her life are openly gay: Bruce Vilanch, Marc Shaiman, Craig Zadan, Jann Wenner. And then there’s Barry Manilow ... .

Although the familiar Biography format is followed, Bette’s is more upbeat than most. There are the requisite down times—deaths in the family, career lulls—but these are treated more as asides than focal points as the show moves from one career high to another.

The story begins with Bette’s birth on Dec. 1, 1945, in Honolulu. As a girl she experiences some discrimination as the only Jewish girl in her school ( “I was very studious because that’s all there was to do—if you didn’t surf” ) but she combats it by becoming class clown. With the money she makes working as an extra in the movie Hawaii she heads for New York. ( Vilanch: “She didn’t blossom until she came to New York and met a lot of gay guys ... .” )

She spends three years in Fiddler on the Roof, moving from the chorus to a major role, and does some progressive shows off-Broadway, including playing a nymphomaniac in the rock musical Salvation.

The 1970s is the key decade for Midler, from developing her act at the baths ( with Manilow on piano ) through her Oscar-nominated movie debut in The Rose. She gets a contract with Atlantic Records, although it takes a year and some false starts before they can capture her personality; and she starts touring with shows that aren’t mere concerts but a mixture of torchy ballads, outrageous humor, lavish production numbers and styles and techniques resurrected from vaudeville and burlesque.

Although Bette had recently completed her successful Kiss My Brass tour, this show was timed to promote her remake of The Stepford Wives and ends with that as if it was going to be a significant achievement for her.

One of the most distinctive and versatile performers of the 20th century, Bette Midler was also one of the most beloved of at least one generation of gays. The Divine Bette Midler is a welcome reminder of the greatness and the sheer fun she brought us.

The Rainbow Network
DVD: Divine Bette Midler Review
By Chris S. Witwer
01 July 2005

I was in a used book store in the nineties when I first came across James Spada’s awesome photo-filled book, The Divine Bette Midler. The Spada book includes images from Bette’s entire career - photos of Bette in the bath houses, pictures of her with a very young and unknown Barry Manilow, scenes from The Rose, images of the Harlettes, childhood photos, and one phenomenal shot of Miss M at one of the earliest Gay Liberation Rallies.

The book is an absolute treasure, and I haven’t let it go even as I’ve sold all of my possessions – twice - to move cross country. It’s THE Midler must-have.

Or it was. Now, THE Midler must-have is Shout! Factory’s DVD production by the same name: The Divine Bette Midler. The DVD includes most of the same photos as the original book, and much of the same history, though much more in depth.

For anyone who’s ever wanted to meet Bette in person, or to get close to her onstage, or to go back in time to live (or re-live) her bathhouse performances, this DVD is for you. It’s a biography, not a concert - though performance footage is sprinkled throughout, including bathhouse footage (see the extras on the DVD); coverage of her most memorable appearances with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show; and personal photos of Bette from childhood to marriage and beyond.

The Divine Bette Midler DVD includes recent, late-career interviews with Barry Manilow, Bette’s husband Martin von Haselberg, writer Bruce Vilanch, Danny DeVito, Glenn Close, and the famed former Atlantic Records’ head Ahmet Ertegun.

Manilow’s interview describes his musical start as Bette’s piano player in the New York bath house shows and how difficult it was to even consider the “scratchings” she gave him to be readable music. He goes on to describe playing Carnegie Hall with her, comparing her entrance onstage that night to the arrival of a hurricane.

The DVD contains footage of more than 17 musical performances including ‘One More For The Road’ on Johnny Carson’s final Tonight Show appearance, ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’, ‘From A Distance’, bath house jokes, mermaid costumes, those unforgettable choreographer wheelchairs, and the even more unforgettable Harlettes.

Rare footage from The Divine Miss M’s remarkable career includes special moments from her Kiss My Brass tour, updated photos of Bette and her beautiful daughter, and a tremendously tear-jerking piece about her performance in NYC after 9/11, singing ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ to the people of New York. You have to see it to believe it - that a song could be so perfect for a performer, a city, and a time - it’s emotional, it’s magical, and it’s beautiful.

The Divine Bette Midler originally aired on A&E Biography in 2004. Bonuses features include one-of-a-kind deleted scenes and expanded interviews. The program looks and sounds like an A&E special - professional and well-produced, but unfortunately lacking much footage of Bette’s early gay rights activism.

Ms. Midler has been a loudly supportive voice since the gay rights movement learned to speak, and she deserves our undying adoration and appreciation for that alone. But then, of course, we love her for everything else she’s been, and everything she is.

Bette is, in a word - divine. So is The Divine Bette Midler DVD.