This makes it three: The trio of films that Bette Midler has released through her All Girl Productions-Beaches, Stella, and now For the Boys — have nobly attempted to revive the women’s-weepie genre for a postfeminist world. Yet none of the them caught fire with theatrical audiences — at least not on a level commensurate with Midler’s ambitions. There are consolations, though: For the Boys netted the star a Best Actress nomination from the Academy (her second after 1979’s The Rose), and it will no doubt be as huge on the video-rental charts as those previous two movies. But what does it mean that Bette Midler has become primarily a ”video star”?
Is it that the majority of people who came to know her as the wacko party girl of Outrageous Fortune are only interested in her as a one-trick pony? Is it that character-driven dramas attract an older crowd that doesn’t get out to the multiplex much these days? Maybe it’s simply that postfeminists prefer to do their weeping at home, surrounded by boxes of Kleenex. The truth is, all of those theories are probably partly valid, and each is enough to drive Midler nuts.
For the Boys may be the gauntlet she has thrown down in response: It’s one of those sprawling, decades-spanning, how-much-old-age-makeup-can-we-pile-on epics that demand to be seen on a wide movie screen. The gambit backfired, though, because Boys still didn’t attract a theatrical audience-and it suffers on video: The smallness of the tube robs the movie of its glitzy breadth and reveals its curious lack of depth.
The soapy plot could even be taken as an attempt to give Midler her very own The Way We Were. Both movies examine the crisscrossings of politics and entertainment in the postwar era; both position their stars as sensitive pop divas; both touch upon the Hollywood blacklist. But For the Boys‘ most intriguing twist is also plain perverse: Despite being together for 40 years and three wars, there’s no romance between USO entertainers Dixie Leonard (Midler) and Eddie Sparks (James Caan). There’s nothing in the plot to fill that gap either — just some hackneyed melodramatics involving Dixie’s son. The movie feels stitched together from other movies’ spare parts — there’s a Vietnam scene airlifted from Apocalypse Now — perhaps because a more strongly antiwar original script was apparently watered down.
What that leaves is a wonderful soundtrack (especially if you have your stereo hooked up to your VCR) that covers the pop palette from the Andrews Sisters-like harmonies of ”Billy-a-Dick” to swank ’50s torch (”For All We Know,” a nod to Billie Holiday). Here’s where Midler gets to act every inch a star, and I’ll bet it’s what first attracted her to this project. As a singer, she has always seemed a pre-rock stylist in a post-rock world; that’s why her records have never taken her much beyond an avid cult. In For the Boys, though, Bette Midler at last gets to have the deluxe, show-bizzy musical career for which she was born too late. And that may be more important to her than who sees the movie, or where. C