Author: Roger Ebert
CANADA - About halfway into "Divine Madness," Bette Midler
is doing a series of dirty jokes and somebody in the audience shouts
out that she should tell the taco joke. "The taco joke?"
Bette asks. "You think I'm crazy? I know what the movie audience
will go for, how much I can get away with.... Remember, this is
the time-capsule version."
so the taco joke remains forever unpreserved. But "Divine Madness"
is a time capsule of sorts; a record of the last production of the
basic concert Midler has been doing, in one form or another, for
more than five years. The trademarks are all there: Bette sings
"Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," introduces the Harlettes, wears
the outrageous costumes, plays the dreamy, old bag-lady and does
a comedy routine with targets ranging from Hitler to the Queen ("That
lady is sooooo white! What does she carry in her purse?").
movie had its world premiere eight days ago before a wildly enthusiastic
audience on the closing night of Toronto's Festival of Festivals,
and it opens Friday in Chicago.
It's a concert movie, all right, but it's different from most concert
movies in two ways.
Photo Scan: Baltoboy Steve
it's not locked into the dreary documentary style of most concert
movies, with the camera glued into position at the feet of the singer,
whose face is usually obscured by the microphone. The director of
"Divine Madness," Michael Ritchie, used 20 cameras, shot
three complete performances, and claims to have exposed twice as
much film as Francis Coppola shot, for "Apocalypse Now."
He choreographed his cameras so carefully that the audience never
sees a camera onscreen, and the movie sometimes feels more like
a studio musical than the record of a live concert.
second difference has to do with Bette Midler's performance itself.
Most concert films, however good, tend to grow monotonous because
the performers are locked into the same stuff for two hours. There
are two ways out of that trap of stylistic sameness: You can make
a documentary of the concert, as Michael Wadleigh did with "Woodstock,"
or you can find a performer like Midler, whose material itself is
so varied that her concerts feel more like variety shows than two
hours of one performer.
possible, though, that "Divine Madness" marks the end
of the all-over-the-map Midler concert. In the last year she has
been edging more and more into straight rock 'n' roll. And she told
people in Toronto that she'll probably never again do stage shows
as elaborate as the "Divine Madness" production, which
grew out of her "Clams on the Half Shell" and its variations.
show is the end of what I've been doing for five years on the stage,"
Midler said at a jammed press
conference held in a hotel disco before the premiere. "A girl
has to move on. I seem to be getting into rock 'n' roll. And I want
to do some more straight acting roles in the movies. On the other
hand, I may just retire, and become a literature teacher . . . "
the press conference and later on, when I talked with Midler in
her hotel suite, she seemed to be almost half-serious about retiring
from singing: "I'm really a student type of person," she
mused. "When I'm not working, I have one pair of old white
painter's pants I've had for 10 years, with holes in the seat, and
that's what I wear. I sit around all the time reading. I'm real
quiet. I'm nothing like I am on stage. When I have to go out and
do one of these premiere things, I have no idea what to wear, and
I buy all this conservative stuff as if I were trying to impress
In that case,
where do your outrageous costumes and stage persona come from?
"It's a performance. It's a character that has developed over
the years. When l started out, I didn't want to be a singer, I wanted
to be an actress. But they wouldn't even let me inside the door
before they threw me ut. I was the Jewish Tinker Bell. It never
occurred to me to just sing. When I started singing, many moons
ago, I thought I was doing OK, but I still wanted to be an actress.
That comes out in my act. "And of course, for a year at the
beginning I worked at the Continental Baths, and those boys wouldn't
sit still for just singing . . . I had to do everything to keep
Continental was a notorious New York bathhouse whose gay patrons
made Bette a cult figure. Midler played high camp, and in a widely
quoted negative review, Arthur Bell of the Village Voice said she
resembled "a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman."
that mean I play a drag queen?" Midler asked the Toronto press
conference audience. "People still ask me if I'm a fairy. I
mean, I'm not gay or bisexual or lesbian or any of that stuff, but
I have a good ear for speech patterns. When I was working at the
baths I could go there and feel right at home. I picked up the ay
sense of humor, almost like a sponge. Since I moved out into the
world a whole lot more, my personality has changed and even the
sound of my voice has changed."
changed so successfully that she was rather astonishing in her 1979
movie debut in "The Rose," which won her an Academy Award
nomination for her portrayal of a doomed, doper rock 'n' roll queen
not unlike Janis Joplin.
"I really wanted that Oscar," she said. "I thought
for five minutes that maybe I had a chance. After I lost it, though
. . . I sort of lost interest. It's funny how that happens."
waited until "The Rose" to make her film debut, she said,
because she didn't want her first movie role to be a supporting
character. "I was offered the Stockard Channing role in 'The
Fortune,' with Warren Beatty nd Jack Nicholson, but that was a supporting
supporting role I should have taken, if my then-manager hadn't turned
it down, was the Talia Shire role in 'Rocky.' I'd still like to
work with Sylvester Stallone. There's something about those beefy
Italians that turns me on. But when he sent over the 'Rocky' screenplay,
my manager told me it was a nice role, a nice movie, but not for
me. When I saw 'Rocky,' I was really sad that I'd lost the chance
to play that girl."
projects she has been mentioned for are the screen version of "Annie"
and a remake of "Gypsy." "I turned down 'Annie.'
They wanted me for Miss Hannigan, the villainess you hate but love.
I didn't know if I could do that. I just thought they'd hate me.
And I have to age another five years for 'Gypsy' before I could
play that role."
role? Gypsy, or her mother? "Both roles. With split screen."
Her next movie,
she said, will probably be "Dry Hustle," based on Sarah
Kernochan's book about two Times Square dance parlor girls. "It's
a kind of female 'Midnight Cowboy,' with two women who get 'em hot
and don't give 'em anything," she explained.
looking for the other girl. She has to be young, around 20. It's
hard to cast."
other recent project has been the publication of A View from a Broad,
her first book. She made it clear at the press conference that she
wrote it all herself: "I'm probably prouder of that than anything
else I've done. It took me a year. There are times when I think
of myself as basically a writer."
the area of regrets, she said, she's maybe just a little repentant
of the way she treated England's Royal Family in her "Divine
Madness" comedy monologue (in Bette's version, when Princess
Anne is asked how old he is, she responds by pawing the ground).
If she had it all to do over again, how would she approach the Royal
Family the next time?
hands and knees."
What about a
career in politics?
I mean, why not? I'm 30, uh, cough, cough . . . well, 34 years old,
I've got a lot of energy, I'm intelligent. I don't see anything
wrong with actors getting into politics. Well, certain actors. I
certainly don't think Reagan should win on the basis of his acting,
that is. But I think he means well. I mean, what's wrong with recognizing
Taiwan? At least, recognizing it as Taiwan. Are they telling us
those poor slobs don't even exist? Somebody must be over there."