Author: Bruce Vilanch
calls herself Bathhouse Betty these days, but we've always thought
of Bette Midler as simply divine
Midler and I go back a ways. We didn't meet at the Continental Baths,
that fountain of fun, fornication, and feather-boa'd girl singers
where you could literally get blown away by one entertainer or another.
But we could have. Since our collision in a much tamer Chicago
club almost (gasp!) 30 years ago, we have had a collaboration marked
by tantrums, triumphs, hits, losses-and the world's record for late-night
room service consumption of Caesar salad. I write, she rewrites,
we re-rewrite, she performs. In the early days, when I was a TV
critic for the Chicago Tribune, I used to call the other TV critics
in towns where she was playing and get news of the latest scandal
to incorporate into the material in her act. Then I started going
on the road with her and terrorizing the TV critics in person. I
sat through many an interview, watching her work with the press.
And now, so many glad hands later, I am interviewing her myself,
fiddling with the little tape recorder, knocking over the iced tea,
getting small bits of bread crumb on the steno pad. She's in the
midst of promoting a new album, but we've got bigger fish to fry,
although fried fish is strictly verboten on both our diets. The Advocate has named her the coolest
straight person in the world.
How do you feel about reaching this pinnacle?
I was thrilled to hear it. I don't know what I've done to deserve
this, but evidently I've done an exceptional job.
You are now officially cooler than Madonna.
You mean I beat her out? I can lord this over my daughter for weeks!
I gave her an award once. Not my daughter. Madonna. The details
are hazy. We were both very blond and both wore black Armani suits.
I have no memory of anything else that transpired.
You were filling in for Elizabeth Taylor.
Oh, that's right. And I wasn't wearing nearly enough jewelry for
It may not be entirely coincidental that you're getting named
straight person in the world on the eve of the release of a new
Well, get you, Ted Koppel. I suppose not.
Why have you gone back to the baths at this point in the game?
This is not back to the baths, exactly. But I wanted it to be informed
by that energy. The energy I had in those days. The essence of who
I am was created in that hothouse environment. If that isn't too
pompous. And God knows we are nothing if not pompous from time to
So the title-
The title I got from a crazed fan. I was at my house in Laguna,
and I was all alone, and it was early in
the morning, and suddenly there was this pounding on the door. And
I looked out the window and this drunken fan-I think he must have
been at the end of a v-e-e-ery long night-was staggering around
outside, and he was screaming, "Bathhouse Betty! Bathhouse
Betty! Come out!" And I immediately called my broker and said,
"Sell this house!" Then I called 911. But he went away.
Much later, when I was choosing the songs for this record, I was
thinking about the old days, and it occurred to me "I really
am Bathhouse Betty. I mean, you've no idea how many people I meet
who say, "You know, I was there." Hordes of people! Of
course, they all can't have been there."
Probably not. "Excuse me, Princess Margaret, but
I would have remembered you. That would have been one big royal
blue towel." Because of those early days, a lot of gay people
feel you are their personal possession who somehow fell overboard
into the mainstream.
Well, my heart's always been Bathhouse Betty, I have to say. If
it hadn't been for certain gay friends of mine, I wouldn't know
nothing from nothing. If Ben Gillespie hadn't played Aretha Franklin
for me, I'd still be singing in Fiddler on the Roof. [Bette and
Ben met when they were both in the Broadway cast, circa 1969.] That's
why I say this album has a gay sensibility. In fact, all of my records
try to. Because gay people don't say there's one kind of music.
Gay people accept all kinds of music. If you can dance to it, sing
along with it, it can be rock or opera-or rock opera! Gay people
not only keep opera going, they keep plays about opera going.
Have you ever had any backlash or attitude from gay people who
Who, cool me? Actually, just at the beginning. Remember Arthur Bell?
He wrote for The Village Voice, and he was very influential in that
crowd in the '70s. He wrote that I was the first female drag queen.
He said I was a woman imitating a gay man imitating a woman. I was
highly insulted until Irealized he was right [Laughs].
Arthur was devilishly clever, as Daffy Duck would say. He reviewed
Bugsy Malone and said it was the first movie ever made for gay children.
But seriously-other than Arthur-have you ever encountered any gay
people who feel you've moved away from them?
I think gay people have been very proud of me, unless I'm missing
something. They're proud I was there at the beginning of the gay
rights movement. You know, when I talked about doing a gay liberation
benefit, which is what it was called in those days-on national television,
on the Johnny Carson show!-it gave them a real jolt. [Bette did
do the first gay liberation rally, in New York's Washington Square
Park, in 1971.] I didn't realize it at the time because I was in
the middle of it.
You were also in the middle of women's lib.
That was Helen Reddy. You always got us confused.
Who wouldn't? When I met you, at the legendary watering hole
in Chicago known as Mr. Kelly's-
The green goddess salad dressing is swimming before my eyes as we
You were wearing-
The black dress with no bra. I remember.
You told me it was a political statement. I told you that in
your case it was a terrorist act.
And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Louie. You
were mad about me, and I love to be worshiped. We got along great.
Then we both went blond, and that was the beginning of the end.
wasn't until much later. We had to come to Hollywood for that. You
went blond for The Rose, and I went blond for spite.
Oh, by then we'd sorted it out. At the beginning there were some
rough times. You bonded with Barry [Manilow, her music director
at the time], and I was very jealous. Barry made friends with all
My People, and it freaked me out because I knew he was going out
on his own. But you stuck with me, and we kept on going.
And we would go from town to town, our merry band. Barry and
Melissa Manchester, who was the first Harlette, and Will Lee, who
plays bass for Letterman, and Luther Vandross-
Luther was later. He would sit offstage because he had terrible
stage fright. He was afraid to fly too. He was afraid of his shadow.
He wasn't afraid to eat, though. Mmm, boy, we had some good eating
times on the road. He would sit offstage and sing the most brilliant
While gnawing on a chicken. I was there, bidding for leftovers.
A fool's errand.
Should we talk about some of the benefits we've done? To give
this interview some redeeming social value? Other than the social
value we're getting having lunch together? Benefits "R"
Well, there was Washington Square, that first gay lib benefit.
The ones I remember are the Hollywood Bowl-that was to fight a measure
on the ballot that would have banned openly gay people from teaching
in the California school system. And Richard Pryor got stoned and
told the audience to kiss his rich black ass. And then Tom Waits
had to go out and sing, "Standin' on the corner, watchin' all
the girls go by." And then I came out and said, "Who wants
to kiss my rich white ass?"
And you were dressed as Miss Liberty, being lynched by the Harlettes,
who were in Klan robes.
I forgot that part! God, we were thematic! I remember falling and
skinning both knees and standing up there bleeding my way through
the ballads. And then there was the Shanti Foundation benefit for
Peter Allen [a memorial tribute by the HIV/AIDS service organization],
where I was holding the sheet music, decided I knew the words, cavalierly
tossed away the sheet music, and forgot everything. Very humbling.
Do they still do that Commitment to Life benefit [AIDS Project Los
Angeles's annual shindig]?
We just did the tenth one. You were honored at the fifth.
But that was years ago. I thought they'd dismantled it.
It's very hard to find people to honor.
Not really. There are lots of people who would be honored. But the
emphasis is always on show business. Since I moved back to New York
City, I've been to a million benefits honoring people in banking,
real estate, insurance. There's money out there. And those benefits
don't have any entertainment at all. The entertainment is the guy
accepting the award. People don't mind.
Maybe these charities have to widen their horizons.
Speaking of which, let's talk about Jackie. In your next picture-I
love saying that, I get a little Louella Parsons frisson-you play
Jackie Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls. It's ironic that the
book is such a gay icon, because she's kinda tough on homos.
You think? I guess-It's the way some of the characters are written-they
have a rough edge-but those
were the attitudes of the times. I think that she actually had a
soft spot in her heart for gay men. And then there is all that undocumented
evidence about her and Ethel Merman! I mean, I was doing my research
on this woman, and my head was swiveling as I was reading this stuff.
Does the movie touch on any of this? Ab-so-lutely not! She also
smoked like a chimney and took major drugs, but that isn't dealt
with, either. The writer, Paul Rudnick, is a gay man, but that is
not the story he wanted to tell. She was larger than life but also
loose, and she wasn't an uptight person at all. She thought everything
was funny, plus she was so stylish. That is so much of her appeal-she
was so unafraid. Big, big hair, bold prints, lots of makeup, immense
eyelashes. Drag queens especially love her. But I think people will
be surprised at the dimension of this character
they view as a '60s icon.
How about your other projects? Avon Ladies up the Amazon, the
rumored sequel to The First Wives Club?
I loved the script, but they're having a hard time getting the other
girls to commit.
What about this TV series we kept hearing about?
Very curious. They came up with an idea, and they wanted it to go
on the air this September. But they never showed me a script. However,
the Harlette series [which Bette will coproduce but not star in]
has gone to Lifetime-Television for Women, babe-and we have Jenifer
Lewis and Taylor
Dayne involved. And they're a force worth reckoning with.
Ah, good chance for a segue. Have you been following what's
been going on in Hawaii? With the same-sex marriage case? You are Hawaii's most famous
Jewess, you know.
I honestly haven't thought about it. But they expect to have a big
influx of people coming there to get married, and that can't hurt,
because the economy is in the toilet; the Japanese don't spend the
way they used to. Every place is in a panic except Maui, which is
the only island that has survived the crash. In the long run I don't
know if the marriage law will make that much of a difference to
the economy, but you know the Hawaiians have such an easygoing "live
and let live" sensibility. It's so Americanized, but it's the
best part of America. All the best things about America are there.
It's so beautiful, and everything works. I'll wind up back there.
But first the road.
I'm thinking about it. I'd like to get out there again, sing some
of these new songs. You interested?
I would do it only for my charity.
The Vilanch Foundation for Needy Lifeguards.
As you wish.
Vilanch is head writer on Hollywood Squares. He's written every
function-and dysfunction-imaginable, including the last nine Oscar