”Oh, my goodness, me! This night is finally here! Big wigs, celebrities, high life, low life, and junketeers!”
Print cannot do justice to the way Bette Midler delivers a line. Radiating attitude like a flashing neon sign, she’s at once sincere and sarcastic, ingratiating and impudent, both the flirtatious ingenue and the imperious grande dame. Eclectically outfitted in a strawberry-blond ’60s beehive and an emerald green ’50s cocktail dress slit to reveal toreador pants. Midler skitters across the stage of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theatre.
The premiere of For the Boys — in which Midler plays a sort of song-and-dance version of Mother Courage, buoying the troops through three harrowing wars — has just ended, but Midler won’t let the packed house go. Her audience includes a suit-rack full of executives from Twentieth Century Fox and a gossip column’s worth of bold-faced names like Richard Gere and Alec Baldwin, and Midler is keeping them in their seats for a live encore. Backed by an 18-piece orchestra, she has just joyously wiggled her way through ”Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” one of her signature tunes ever since her legendary shows at New York’s all-male Continental Baths in the early ’70s. Next she introduces her Boys costar, James Caan, for a soft-shoe duet of ”Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (a number cut from the film); finally she turns warmly emotional with her Grammy-winning single ”Wind Beneath My Wings.” Through it all, she keeps up that trademark patter, tailoring her lines to the knowing audience and paying particular attention to the press that has flown in from around the nation.
”Do you like your hotel rooms?” she coos to the writers she hopes will carry her Boys message to the heartland. ”Do you all have cable? I’ll be by later to fluff up your pillows.”
The line gets a big laugh, because fluffing their pillows is about the only thing Midler hasn’t done to promote this movie. For the Boys was made to order for Midler — it was produced by her company, All Girl Productions — and its success is a personal mission for her. In addition to the usual gauntlet of print interviews, she invited Barbara Walters for a stroll through the gardens of her Coldwater Canyon home and belted out four numbers on The Tonight Show. And here she is working the stage like a trouper, as if to remind the Hollywood elite — one more time — of her many, sometimes contradictory, talents.
And yet, it hasn’t worked. Despite her efforts, For the Boys, which was launched on over 1,300 screens, captured less than $6 million over the critical five-day Thanksgiving weekend. Like Robert Redford’s Havana last year, this big-budget drama geared to grown-up audiences had failed to draw in the crowds during the competitive holiday season.
Sitting in All Girl Productions’ modest offices on the Disney lot — ”our little hovel,” she calls it — Midler suggests that Hollywood has never known quite what to make of her.
”I don’t know how I’m perceived,” she says. ”I’m not on anybody’s list of the greatest singers around. I’m not on the list of great comics. And when it comes to the list of the great leading ladies, I’m never even mentioned.” And yet her mix of talents positions her squarely in the tradition of the all-around entertainers that Hollywood once showcased so well.
Midler’s first success was as the Divine Miss M, a gloriously camp act mixing big-band tunes, rock numbers, and dishy wisecracks, which brought her a best-selling album in 1972. But when Midler, still in her late 20s, began contemplating the move to movies, she knew that Miss M’s flamboyance would never survive the closer scrutiny of the camera. ”Basically, what I was doing was a character that has always had a place in show business, and that’s the Broad,” she says. ”People always love a broad — someone with a sense of humor, someone with a fairly wicked tongue, someone who can belt out a song, someone who takes no guff. When I came up, there wasn’t anyone like that. The last one, I’d have to say, was Sophie Tucker.
”In pictures, it’s hard to find a part for that character, because that character has to admit to a certain amount of life experience. She’s usually cast as an older person. Because if it’s a very young person playing that part, then you’re a slut.”
So when Midler made her starring screen debut, in The Rose (1979), it was in a role more closely attuned to her own generation — that of a self-destructive rock & roll singer.
”I loved her so much,” Midler says with genuine affection of the Janis Joplin-inspired character that brought her her first, and to date only, Oscar nomination. ”I was so sorry that she died. I wished she could have gone on.”
But following up on the success proved difficult. Midler remembers Divine Madness, her 1980 concert film, as ”horrible. I had left my manager. I was destitute. And it was not a pleasant experience.” The next one, Jinxed!, the 1982 black comedy that cast her as a murderous Las Vegas lounge singer, was even more of a botch. Without the careful nurturing that the old studios once lavished on idiosyncratic personalities like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, Midler was beginning to look like a one-shot wonder.
And then Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), in which director Paul Mazursky cast Midler as a nouveau riche housewife, brought just the sort of security she needed. Disney, which released the film, saw long-term potential in her brassy charm and signed her as its house comedienne.
But though she’s found a congenial home on the Disney lot, where she is committed to three more movies, Midler is tired of reading that she owes everything to the Disney Career Resuscitation Plan. ”It’s getting a little tiresome,” she acknowledges. ”It’s assumed this mythic proportion. I’ve complained about it to both (Walt Disney Co. chairman) Michael (Eisner) and (Walt Disney Studios chairman) Jeffrey (Katzenberg), and they always assure me that it will never happen again, but it invariably happens. It had a freshness in the beginning, but now it seems kind of conniving.”
Actually, there are those who question just how good Disney has been for Midler. Mark Rydell, who fought to cast her in The Rose and who directed For the Boys, thinks Disney has never gotten a grip on Midler’s talents: ”In The Rose, Bette demonstrated to anyone who cared to watch that she was an actress of some importance,” Rydell says. ”Since then, I don’t think she has been given material that is equal to her gifts. In my estimation, with the exception of the Mazursky picture (Down and Out), very little of what she’s done since has been really top quality.”
On the windswept crest of a desolate hilltop 30 miles north of Los Angeles one April day, Rydell is coaching several hundred extras at a replica of a Vietnam firebase. Dixie Leonard, the singer Midler plays, has reluctantly agreed to rejoin Caan’s Eddie Sparks for one final, front line tour, but by this point she is a 60ish skeptic, weary of flag-waving and suspicious of calls to honor. ”The humanity you all have is what I need,” Rydell tells the crowd. ”Let her hypnotize you guys. It’s not hard when Bette sings. Give yourself over to it.” Midler makes her way to the improvised stage, tosses off a few timeworn jokes, and then, singing with a prerecorded musical track, slips into a wistful version of the Beatles’ ”In My Life.” The extras are indeed mesmerized: They’re supposed to remain pensively silent as she finishes and instead they burst into applause, blowing the take altogether.
That Midler has Dixie’s moves down pat shouldn’t come as any surprise. In many ways the part is a throwback to her days as the brassy Miss M. Midler and her producing partners, Bonnie Bruckheimer and Margaret South, spent more than six years developing the musical epic. ”Bette has such a huge range,” testifies South, ”that you need a big picture, with a big scope, to use everything that she can do.”
When Midler first proposed the idea to Disney, though, the studio passed, leery of a period musical that might look like ancient history to younger moviegoers. Fox took on the risk of mounting the $40 million film. ”I think it was very brave of Fox,” says Caan. ”What’s so fresh about it for me is the fact that it’s an old-fashioned movie.”
Unfortunately, Fox’s bravery doesn’t appear to be paying off. For the Boys has received high marks from moviegoers who’ve actually seen it: Cinemascore, which surveys audience response, reports that the movie rates a resounding A- from its viewers. By comparison, The Addams Family, a Thanksgiving-weekend smash with nearly $28 million, scored a lackluster B. The problem is that For the Boys has also attracted an older audience — only 15 percent of the ticket buyers during its opening weekend were under the age of 25 — and older audiences don’t rush to the theaters in the same big numbers that younger moviegoers do. Observes Neal Jimenez, who cowrote the movie’s early drafts with his partner, Lindy Laub, ”I keep hearing from a lot of my friends that their parents have seen it.”
Opinions vary as to what might have been done differently. Nervously approaching the movie’s release, Fox executives had urged Rydell to trim the movie’s 2-hour-40-minute length, but he resisted. Jimenez argues that the harder-edged version he wrote, which ended with Dixie delivering a fiery speech amid the wreckage of Vietnam, might have played better than the sentimental reunion that writer Marshall Brickman added to the final screenplay.
The movie’s disappointing reception only makes its star’s future that much more uncertain. ”This is a really strange time for me,” Midler confessed on the eve of its opening. ”The studio doesn’t have anything for me to do. I don’t really have any sense at all about what’s coming. I don’t have much of a plan. I’m a big believer in serendipity.”
Certainly, that belief has paid off in her personal life, which began to settle down seven years ago when, after a six-week courtship, she married Martin Von Haselberg, a commodities trader and part-time performance artist. With the arrival five years ago of their daughter, Sophie, Midler happily settled into a comfortable domesticity. ”I love my house and my garden. I love to sew and I bake. It keeps my feet on the ground. I really need that,” she says. ”And I have a great husband. When he’s working, I pick up the slack, and when I’m working, he picks up the slack”
For the Boys may yet earn Midler vindication: She’s a top contender for an Oscar nomination. And the film’s soundtrack album is in the Top 40. Still, the movie’s commercial reception could make it harder for her to move forward with any of the other musical biographies (bandleader Ina Ray Hutton, German songstress Lotte Lenya) that she’s been developing.
Midler’s even trying to find a project that might team her with Barbra Streisand. One possibility: A film version of James Kirkwood’s Diary of a Mad Playwright, a backstage account of touring a play with two feuding actresses. Though the press keeps insisting on pitting For the Boys against Streisand’s upcoming The Prince of Tides, Midler dismisses the subtly sexist notion that the two of them are necessarily cutthroat competitors. ”About a year ago, we had lunch and chatted,” Midler confides. ”I said, ‘You know, you ought to sing and be funny. You’re so funny and you sing so great.’ And she sort of kicked the rug and said, ‘Well, if you find something, you let me know.”’
At her All Girls Productions, Midler used to joke that the company motto was ”We hold a grudge!” But as she has weathered the travails of maintaining a career and as her own home life has grown ever more satisfying, Midler has mellowed. She now says of her production company, ”We just keep plodding along.” Since her subversive sense of humor is always lurking nearby, Midler can’t help but laugh, ”It builds character,” she says. ”It builds character.”