Midler, Bette (1945—)

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Midler, Bette (1945—)

One of the brightest and most versatile performers of the last decades of the twentieth century, Bette Midler has conquered every entertainment medium: movies, television, recordings, and the concert stage. Candid, intelligent, and supremely talented, Midler, who burst upon the scene with her ability to shock and provoke, eventually assumed her place as one of America's most beloved entertainers.

Named after actress Bette Davis by a star-stuck mother, Midler was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. A white, Jewish outsider in a mostly Asian environment, Midler caught the performing bug in high school, which helped to overcome some of her social anxieties. After filming a bit part in George Roy Hill's Hawaii in 1965, Midler left her far-flung home for New York City—where she quickly landed a role in the chorus—and later a supporting role, in the Broadway sensation, Fiddler on the Roof. She remained in the show for three years, all the while honing an inventive stage act composed of torch songs, upbeat novelty numbers, and risque chatter; her raunchy stage persona, "The Divine Miss M," emerged from engagements at a number of popular New York nightspots. Of all her performances during this fecund early period, she is perhaps best remembered for her legendary two year run at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse. Word-of-mouth about this newcomer—part Judy Garland, part Mae West—was strong enough to attract a noticeable straight following to this unlikely venue of towel-clad patrons.

The early 1970s brought continued interest in her career as Midler drew critical accolades for her first album, The Divine Miss M, and for concerts at New York's Carnegie Hall and Palace Theater. To many, her mix of soulful ballads and campy humor was irresistible; she was not above flashing her breasts and delivering outrageous sexual banter—an example: "Did you hear Dick Nixon bought a copy of Deep Throat? He's seen it 10 or 12 times. He wanted to get it down Pat." Her wonderfully irreverent wit never obscured her genuine musical craft, as she branded her signature on songs such as "Do You Wanna Dance?" and "Friends." Guided by the management of her sometime lover Aaron Russo, Midler turned down a number of high-profile movie projects during this time (including King Kong, Nashville, and Rocky), but her Clams on the Half-Shell Review proved a triumph on Broadway in 1975, and her 1977 television special, 'Ol Red Hair is Back, earned her an Emmy Award.

The Rose (1979), a thinly disguised biography of Janis Joplin, was Midler's film debut, catapulting her to a new level of stardom. In it she was able to display both her musical talents and considerable dramatic ability; for what New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael called a "passionate, skilled performance," Midler earned an expanded following and an Oscar nomination. She capitalized on that accomplishment with the release of Divine Madness (1980), a filmed version of her stage show of the same name, and soundtrack albums for both movies followed. The title track to The Rose became Midler's trademark song, a favorite to her fans.

Despite her achievement in The Rose, which was a box-office as well as a critical success, the fledgling film actress was "snubbed by the movie industry," according to Midler biographer George Mair. The reasons remain mysterious, for the similarly heralded movie debut a decade earlier of another unconventional upstart, Barbra Streisand, had garnered the actress her choice of roles and lucrative contracts. Not so for Midler, who admitted, "I was nominated for an Oscar, but the fact is that I never got another offer." The failure of the caper comedy Jinxed (1982)—a dubious project, but the only one Midler could get off the ground during this troubled time—sent the performer into an emotional and professional tailspin. Her late 1982 return to the concert stage in "De Tour"—to cheering crowds—acted to heal some of those wounds.

Decidedly under-appreciated, but ever-resourceful, Midler was able to revive her movie career with a string of profitable Disney comedies in the mid-1980s, of which Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), directed by Paul Mazursky, was the subtlest and most interesting. Ruthless People (1986) and Outrageous Fortune (1987) were rather broad, but showed Midler at her comic best. To movie critics, it seemed she could do no wrong: in her review of Big Business (1988), Pauline Kael found Midler's skills comparable to Chaplin's. The comforts of marriage (to Martin Von Hasleberg) and motherhood came along with commercial success, and Midler's newfound stability in Hollywood enabled her to form her own production company. She wielded considerable control over the making of such films as Beaches (1988) and For the Boys (1990), although she never found a vehicle approaching the artistic merit of The Rose. Her comeback in films spurred a renewed appreciation for Midler's singing, and pop ballads such as "The Wind Beneath My Wings" (from Beaches) and "From a Distance" enhanced her reputation as a unique song stylist. The mid-1990s found Midler's career to be thriving, with her much-admired television remake of the musical, Gypsy (1993), the surprise box-office bonanza of The First Wives' Club (1996), and sold-out concert dates, most notably at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Though her career evolved in a rather more conventional fashion than many would have guessed, Midler's ability to delight audiences has never waned.

—Drew Limsky

Further Reading:

Kael, Pauline. For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies. New York, Dutton, 1994.

Mair, George. Bette: An Intimate Biography of Bette Midler. Secaucus, New Jersey, Carol Pub. Group, 1995.

Midler, Bette. A View from a Broad. New York, Simon &Schuster, 1980.

Waldman, Allison. The Bette Midler Scrapbook. Secaucus, New Jersey, Carol Pub. Group, 1997.