Behind the controversy over Bette Midler's film and the former USO singer

Her husband says that Martha Raye, the 75-year-old comedian affectionately known as Ol’ Big Mouth, was reduced to ”crying and heaving” when she sat through a matinee of For the Boys in a Westwood, Calif., theater on a recent Sunday. She wasn’t overcome by the movie’s emotional content, he says, but by her conviction that Bette Midler had stolen her life story.

”I’m advising Martha to sue,” says Mark Harris, 42, who married Raye — now using a wheelchair as a result of several recent strokes — in Las Vegas on Sept. 25. Currently arguing his case in the media, Harris says, ”We’re going to be shopping for the best high-profile lawyer we can find.”

There are certainly similarities between Raye’s life and that of Midler’s character in Boys. Like Midler’s Dixie Leonard, Raye made her reputation as a USO singer in World War II, then went on to perform in Korea and Vietnam. And, asks Harris, ”What other performer was dismissed from her television show in the ’50s and had her own nightclub?”

Yet Harris, a sometime singer whose surprise marriage to Raye alarmed many of her friends and associates, hardly makes the most effective spokesman for his wife, best known in recent years for her Poli-grip commercials. Though he serves as her manager and has sought press coverage, he isn’t yet able to document his allegations. He contends that Midler met with Raye at Raye’s Bel Air home several times a few years ago, but he doesn’t know the dates. He claims a writer prepared a treatment of Raye’s life story, which she turned over to Midler, but he hasn’t found a copy of the treatment, or even the name of its author, in his wife’s files. He also asked Raye’s friend Sheila MacRae, the singer, to approach Midler’s producing partner Bonnie Bruckheimer about Raye’s life story. MacRae says she made the approach in September — but she thinks talk of a lawsuit is ”foolish. I don’t think it will enhance Martha.”

Since no legal papers have been served, neither Midler nor Bruckheimer will comment. But Neal Jimenez, who worked on the Boys screenplay, insists that he and partner Lindy Laub ”did all our own research. One of the things we were very careful about was removing all the details that might suggest any actual living person.”

Ironically, Bob Hope, who has been suggested as the model for the Boys character played by James Caan, hasn’t been bothered by the big-screen homage. ”He’s a big fan of Bette’s,” said a Hope spokesman. ”He hasn’t seen the movie yet, but he’s looking forward to it.” ”I should’ve been an adviser,” he joked to a reporter last month.

For the Boys
  • Movie
  • 138 minutes