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Bette Midler's ''Bettography''

Bette Midler’s ”Bettography” — We look back at the actress-singer career in music, movies, video, and print

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From raunchy stage performer known for her ”Trash With Flash” to dramatic actress to author, Bette Midler’s versatility has yielded many triumphs — and some magnificent failures, too. Here’s a guide to help separate the thorns from The Rose.

ON RECORD

The Divine Miss M (1972)
Produced with help from Barry Manilow, the album not only won her a Grammy as best new artist but crystallized the Divine Miss M persona — a lonely, misfit funny girl on ”Friends” and the aching ”Delta Dawn,” gleefully possessed by her own gargantuan talent on the rambunctious ”Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” She may not always hit the notes, but she always hits on some truth. A

Bette Midler (1973)
Her second album, which also went gold, established her as the 1970s’ premiere pop diva. She gives a nice, boozy flow to ”Drinking Again” and lets loose with a big-eyed rendition of ”In the Mood.” A

Songs of the New Depression (1976)
Sounds like Bette stayed out too late at Studio 54. A disco version of ”Strangers in the Night”? Yes, it was the ’70s, but that’s no excuse. D

Broken Blossom (1977)
She plumbs the depths of Eddy Arnold’s ”You Don’t Know Me,” lifts ”La Vie en Rose” from Edith Piaf, has almost too much fun on Billy Joel’s ”Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” and earns squatter’s rights on every one. A

Thighs and Whispers(1979)
”Married Men” — with Luther Vandross on background vocals — became a Top 40 hit, but her rendition of James Taylor’s ”Millworker” may be Midler’s finest moment. A widowed mom sits at her factory sewing machine ”waiting for a daydream to take me through the morning.” Her subtle inflections convey the quiet courage that only comes from defeat. A

No Frills (1983)
She needed a hit after the movie Jinxed!, and this spawned two: the harmony-rich ”Favorite Waste of Time” and ”Beast of Burden,” a good-natured ode to masochism by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. B

Mud Will Be Flung Tonight(1985)
Watching Midler in concert, you always want still more Sophie Tucker jokes, more patter, more spicy observations on celebrity life. This recording of her stand-up act delivers. On Prince: ”When there’s a sex symbol, I like to know the sex of the symbol.” A

Some People’s Lives (1990)
Relaxed and in control, Midler shakes her head at war and famine in the enigmatic hit ”From a Distance” and tears you apart with ”Since You Stayed Here” and ”He Was Too Good to Me.” She doesn’t wrap herself up in the emotion of a song the way she used to, melody be hanged. The sound of a bad girl moving gracefully into middle age, Lives received four Grammy nominations. B+

For the Boys (1991)
We’ve come to expect Bette to reinvent the ’40s big-band standards; on this soundtrack album she just seems respectful. But there are some thrilling vocal gymnastics on ”Stuff Like That There” and a beautifully understated version of the Beatles’ ”In My Life.” B

IN MOVIES

The Rose (1979)
As a ferocious rock star burning out fast, Midler lets sad glimmers of light peek through a fog of drugs, booze, anger, and frustration. The performance, which earned her an Oscar nomination, is one of the most audacious screen debuts in history. ASoundtrack album: A-

Jinxed! (1982)
The name says it all. A lounge singer (Midler) and her lover (Ken Wahl) want to bump off her husband (Rip Torn), but the performers’ efforts were ruined by feuds between them and director Don Siegel. C-

Down and Out of Beverly Hills(1986)
As a pampered bourgeoise in Paul Mazursky’s film, Midler goes a little crazy — she swoons over a bum (Nick Nolte) whom her nervous husband (Richard Dreyfuss) saves from suicide — but her rowdiness is more restrained and riper than usual. A

Ruthless People (1986)
Midler brings the housewife-from-hell to its zenith as a brutal Bel Air heiress who is kidnapped — her nasty little husband, Danny DeVito, doesn’t care — and threatens her sweet, well-meaning kidnappers (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater) with ”chain-saw enemas.” Great fun — Dynasty set in Pee-wee’s Playhouse. B+

Outrageous Fortune (1987)
Most Midler movies are one-woman shows. But in this buddy movie, she and Shelley Long — as zany actresses trying to track down the missing lover they unwittingly shared — have a bouncy comic chemistry. B

Big Business (1988)
Standard mistaken-identity stuff but Midler has never been better. She and Lily Tomlin play two sets of twins, mismatched at birth, who all end up at the Plaza Hotel. ”Chaplin did this sort of thing,” wrote Pauline Kael, impressively, ”and he didn’t do it better.” B

Beaches (1988)
Love Story in drag. Midler is a bigger-than-life Jewish star. Barbara Hershey is an uptight WASP who gets heart disease and teaches lifelong friend Midler to be a better person. C Soundtrack album: C-

Stella (1990)
What ever was she thinking? Midler tries way too hard to outdo Barbara Stanwyck’s 1937 extravagant, weepy Stella Dallas, about a poor woman who gives up her little girl. Let’s not talk about it. F

Scenes From a Mall (1991)
For fans of Midler and Woody Allen, who play a wealthy L.A. couple whose marriage comes undone during a day at the mall, this supposed comedy is a disappointment. Director Paul Mazursky is on his home turf, but his mind is somewhere else. C-

ON VIDEO

The Bette Midler Show (1976)
She’d just come off a smash Broadway show, Clams on the Half Shell, when this concert was filmed (and recorded for the Live at Last double album). Backed by her trio, the Harlettes, doughy-faced Midler sings about getting the clap in Rio, jiggles around in outrageous bloomers, and tells a sincere, poignant story about a woman walking down the street with a fried egg on her head. When she says, ”This is really a show about shoes,” it actually makes sense. A Live At Last: A

Divine Madness! (1980)
And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for — Midler in that mermaid costume, propelling around in a wheelchair, sprouting legs (”Wait’ll Jerry Lewis hears about this!”), and zipping offstage whilst belting out the last note of ”My Way.” The rest of the time, her tiny high-heeled feet flit like hummingbird’s wings as she tells jokes and sings rock ballads. It’s uneven. But it’s a good ”Auld Lang Syne” to the ’70s. B+ Soundtrack album: B

Art or Bust (1984)
She starts by singing the definitive version of ”Don’t Look Down” in a big, boxy, red minidress, then out comes the mermaid costume again. Ignore the Devoesque choreography and savor her singing ”Chattanooga Choo Choo” in a New York bathhouse, circa 1971, and flirting with the audience during a United Jewish Appeal Telethon: ”Thank you, thank you, and kiss my tuchis.” B

IN PRINT

View From a Broad (1980)
With this memoir of her 1979 world tour through England, France, Germany, and Australia (her ”monumental schlepp”), Midler proves herself as innovative a writer as she is a performer. Her most inspired words are the imaginary headlines she prints when she recounts her many brushes with death, each with the subhead, ”Began Career at Continental Baths.” A

The Saga of Baby Divine (1983)
Under the cover of this lavishly illustrated best-selling children’s book, Midler tells in verse what is presumably her own story — Baby Divine enters the world with henna-red hair and high heels, crying ”More,” dances out of her cradle, wrestles with the monster Anxiety, and learns to love life. A

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