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The Advocate
Author: Bruce Vilanch
Date: 11-

Best Bette

She calls herself Bathhouse Betty these days, but we've always thought of Bette Midler as simply divine

Bette 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 the job.

It may not be entirely coincidental that you're getting named the coolest straight person in the world on the eve of the release of a new album titled Bathhouse Betty.
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 time.

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 think you've
forgotten them?

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 speak!

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.

That 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 vocal lines!

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" Us!

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.
What's that?

The Vilanch Foundation for Needy Lifeguards.
Accommodating lifeguards.

As you wish.

Vilanch is head writer on Hollywood Squares. He's written every TV
function-and dysfunction-imaginable, including the last nine Oscar shows.