Brad Darrach, with David Hutchings
THE COVER: THE FIRST LADIES OF LAUGHTER DOUBLE UP Bette Midler and
Lily Tomlin combine for combustible comedy and real-life friendship
Midler is the trash queen of the century, a 5 ft.1 in. Titan of
Tack. Saucer-eyed and gloriously zaftig, the lady has an air raid
siren in her larynx, and she has indisputably done more for bad
taste than anybody since Nero -- remember how she flashed her celebrated
magoffs in London's Palladium and impudently mooned the student
body during an award ceremony at Harvard? Low comedy is Bette's
high calling, and she wields her shtik with a raunchy ; zest that
has animated three superhits in succession (Down and Out in Beverly
Hills, Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune) and made her the hottest
thing on the Disney lot since Mickey Mouse. Now she's out in a new
Disney comedy called Big Business, and this time she meets her mismatch
in co-star Lily Tomlin -- with raucous, hilarious results. Lily's
humor is as sly as Bette's is broad, and visually the co-stars make
a preposterous contrast. At 42, mighty mite Bette comes on like
a cross between Mae West and Don Rickles in drag; at 47, lanky,
lantern-jawed Lily eerily resembles both Loretta Young and, some
say, Secretariat. Ready for this? Bette and Lily play twins - -
two sets of twins, in fact. Sadie and Rose Ratliff grow up poor
in a small town in West Virginia; Sadie and Rose Shelton are raised
rich in uptown Manhattan. So how come Sadie looks like Sadie and
Rose looks like Rose? Because two sets of identical twins were mixed
up at birth by a shortsighted nurse. And how do scriptwriters Dori
Pierson and Marc Rubel unravel this cat's cradle of complications?
By piling up more complications, including mistaken identities,
corporate infighting and amorous intrigue. All this with a tip of
the cap to William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, plus a pair
of knock-'em-dead performances by Lily and Bette. Disney, in short,
has done it again. Formula farce it may be, but Big Business is
a barrel of laughs that will almost certainly turn into a pot of
box office gold.
Flashback to October 1987 in the L.A. airport. Bette and Lily
are about to start filming, and hopes for a hit are liberally doused
with flop sweat. ''We think the chemistry between Bette and Lily
will work, but we won't know until we see all the dailies,'' says
producer Michael Peyser. ''Bette is shoot-from- the-hip and Lily
is all from the brain.'' The ladies agree. ''I immerse myself totally
in the character and prepare everything beforehand,'' says Lily.
''I don' t like to think too much,'' says Bette.
Actually she hardly seems to work at all. Between takes Bette trots
off to her trailer and plays peacefully with her lively, blue-eyed
11-month-old daughter, Sophie Frederica Alohilani von Haselberg.
(''Alohilani,'' Bette explains happily, ''means Bright Sky in Hawaiian.'')
When she's called on- camera, she hits her mark, speaks her lines
and then trots right back to Sophie. Lily, on the contrary, never
stops stalking the set, mumbling speeches, making
funky faces and producing weird little animal noises. Just before
playing a scene as Rose Shelton, she executes a series of elegant
pirouettes. ''I do it to make myself dizzy and vague,'' she explains,
''like Rose.'' As she passes by with Sophie in tow, Bette is utterly
oblivious to Lily's contortions. ''Come on, puddin' girl,'' she
Some weeks later on location at the Disney Ranch in Placerita Canyon,
the Ratliff twins are about
to cheerlead a pep rally for the folks in Jupiter Hollow, W. Va.
Off to one side, Lily is earnestly practicing a clog dance. Onstage,
Bette is all gussied up in a curly red wig, purple gingham dress,
ruffled petticoat -- and black Reeboks. ''I hate high heels,'' she
once explained. ''I only wear 'em because they add a few inches
and make my legs look good. For a close-up I wear these.'' Right
now she's about to film a close-up with a humongous black-and-white
cow named Alice, and she's terrified of the beast. ''I know when
I start to milk her, she's gonna kick me,'' Bette wails. ''I can
see it in her eye.'' Martin (a/k/a ''Harry'') von Haselberg, Bette's
husband, watches calmly from 20 feet away. A dignified man of 39
with a serious air, he's wearing a green blazer, green slacks and
green shoes and seems comfortably unaware that he looks like the
Jolly Green Giant. Sophie arrives with her nanny, a pleasant young
woman named Jane. Lily stops hopping around. ''Hello, Sophie,''
she says. ''Your hat fell off.'' She puts it back on Sophie's head.
Sophie snatches it off and throws it on the ground. This time Harry
puts it back. Sophie flings it off again. ''Make her leave it on,
honey,'' Bette calls out. ''I know she doesn't want it, but it's
too cold out here.'' ''Places, everybody!'' an assistant hollers,
and the scene begins. ''I'm as mad as a wasp,'' Lily screeches at
a crowd of country bumpkin extras, ''and my stinger's 'bout half
out! These . . .'' With a yelp of terror, Bette staggers back from
Alice, who has just kicked over the milk pail. ''I knew she was
gonna do it!'' Bette gasps. Then she grins. ''Well, I guess there's
no use crying over spilt milk.''
After lunch Lily and Bette sit and chat about how they're getting
along. BETTE (briskly): We get on each other's case. Which is fun.
LILY (casually): We can both take it. BETTE (with a tough-guy shrug):
It comes with being famous. LILY (smugly): Of course, I got famous
before she did. BETTE (meekly): She's much more famous than I am.
(Pause.) That' s because she's older. ! LILY: I got famous three
years before she did. BETTE: But I caught up. LILY: Yeah. I kept
my eye on her. I said to myself, ''This one' s on my tail.'' She
was sort of a phenomenon. BETTE: Unique. LILY: How true. BETTE:
A REAL HAM! Squealing like teenyboppers, these middle-aged millionaires
fall all over each other laughing.
Chummier with each passing day, both Bette and Lily offer each
other helpful hints. Lily urges Bette to develop more ''stage business.''
In a scene where Rose Shelton's shoulder pad keeps slipping down
her sleeve, Lily asks Bette to stuff it back in place: ''Act like
my big sister cleaning me up.''
''No, no,'' Bette says, making a face. ''I don't want to fuss with
''Why not try it once?'' Lily persists.
Bette tries it, likes it, then does it on-camera.
Bette meanwhile has decided that Lily needs help with mugging, and
she offers to enroll her in the Bette Midler Academy of Mugging.
''I'm the Founder and Guiding Light,'' Bette explains. ''We give
an introductory course in Basic Mugging. Then you can go on to Advanced
Scene Stealing, Mugging with Body Parts, Mugging with Food, Mugging
with Sticky Substances, How to Destroy Your Director with Mugging.
It's a rich curriculum.''
Lily eagerly enrolls. ''Not many are accepted at this institution,''
she confides. ''You have to show talent.''
After Lily's first class, Bette is encouraging. ''Chin up. You'
ll be teaching summer school before you know it.''
Lily one day begins to talk seriously about her talented opposite
number. ''Obviously she's a fantastic performer. But there's a lot
more to Bette than the Divine Miss M. There's this tenderness and
frailty and a wonderful kind of dearness that's truly touching.''
Bette's feelings are indeed so vulnerable that friends often wonder
how she has survived her roller coaster career and rackety private
She was born in Hawaii and named after Bette Davis, mother Ruth'
s favorite actress. Father Fred was
an underpaid housepainter with a savage temper. ''We were so poor,''
Bette remembers, ''we couldn't afford TV or even a telephone.''
At 12, Bette was taken to a roadshow of Carousel, and she fell forever
in love with the stage. At 19, working as an extra in the film Hawaii,
she saved enough money to fly to New York. Chutzpah got her a job
in a chorus line.
Fame found her singing in a gay bathhouse for an audience attired
in towels. (''They were very discreet,'' she remembers. ''I only
saw one penis peeking out.'') One night the teensy tornado roared
from coast to coast on The Tonight Show, and suddenly Midler needed
a manager. She found one in Aaron Russo, a terrible-tempered young
entrepreneur who became her lover and eventually her Svengali. After
eight years in his thrall, she was a superstar in the music business
-- and an emotional wreck. In 1980, too much booze and the inexplicable
collapse of her movie career after The Rose (which won her an Oscar
nomination) kicked her into a spin that took three years to bottom
out. Two phone calls reversed the spiral: one from Disney, one from
a special fan named Martin von Haselberg.
Lily's story is less scruffy and more quirky. She was born in
Detroit, but her folks were poor whites from Kentucky. Father Guy
worked in a brass foundry and dearly loved his pint. Mother Lillie
Mae was a nurse's aide. At an early age Mary Jean (as Lily was christened)
got hooked on Geritol and worried incessantly that she was coming
down with leprosy. In her teens she stayed home from school for
days at a time ''if my hair didn't come out right.'' She began to
act at Wayne State University, took off for New York City when she
was 23 and charmed her way onto the Garry Moore Show by taping taps
onto the soles of her feet and doing a barefoot tap dance.
Month by month her catalog of characters grew. There were Crystal
the Hang Gliding Quadriplegic, Lupe the World's Oldest Beautician
and Edith Ann the Five-and-a-Half-Year-Old Monster (''Sometimes
I like to sit on the drain in the bathtub when the water's running
out. It feels inneresting''). But it was ''one ringy-dingy, two
ringy-dingy' ' Ernestine the Sadistic Telephone Company Representative
(''When can we expect the $23.67 you owe us? You don't understand.
This is the Telephone Company. We are not subject to city, state
or federal legislation. WE ARE OMNIPOTENT!'') who got the biggest
laughs on Laugh-in and made Lily a national heroine. Yet on the
whole her wit was too subtle for TV: ''If truth is beauty, how come
no one has their hair done at the library?'' . . .''Reality is just
a crutch for people who can't handle drugs'' . . . So she took her
characters on tour in a series of sold-out one-woman shows; her
latest, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,
opened almost three years ago on Broadway and is still intermittently
playing on the road. Her movie career began in 1975, when director
Robert Altman cast her in Nashville. She got an Oscar nomination
for her role as a housewife by love possessed, but after The Late
Show (1977), 9 to 5 (1980 ) and All of Me (1984), all well reviewed,
nothing happened until Big Business.
She's glad it came along. ''I think the film is funny. Bette's
wonderful in it. There is something about us that has a similar
center, a similar heart. We're both kind of outrageous but with
a down-to-earth core. I like Bette tremendously because she's out
there, bawdy, then sweet and always real.''
Real is the word for Lily too. She says what she thinks and lives
what she believes. She's a passionate feminist, and in 1972, when
a fellow guest on The Dick Cavett Show called his wife ''the most
valuable animal I own,'' she stood up and calmly walked out of the
studio. Not that she always controls her temper. ''When I lose it,
I'm loud and embarrassing and very volatile. But I don't hold grudges.''
Work is what makes Lily happy. ''I work pretty much all the time,''
she says. ''It's what I love.'' Usually she collaborates with her
best friend, 47-year-old writer Jane Wagner. When they're not on
the road, Lily says, home is ''a big old pink stucco house in L.A.
that used to belong to W.C. Fields. It's casual, airy, light, very
feminine, a soft house.''
Lily speaks about Jane with great warmth. ''We share similar feelings
about people and about the world. She's able to verbalize it and
I'm able to physicalize it. She writes satirically but tenderly,
and she loves farce and black comedy and broad slapstick. When you
put all this together and make an audience laugh and be moved, it'
s just glorious.''
''I married a Kraut!'' bawls the Divine Miss M. ''Every night
I get dressed up like Poland and he invades
me.'' There's just a touch of truth in this grody little gag. Martin
von Haselberg's father was in fact German. But his mother was Jewish,
and Martin was born in Argentina. He has lived all over Europe,
traveled the world, made a handsome living as a commodities broker
and survived in blissful penury as an avant-garde performance artist.
His act -- soon to be seen on Cinemax in a heavily censored form
-- is a gross farrago of self-mutilation and fecal imagery that
might make even Bette blush.
But from the day he appeared on her doorstep, Bette declares in
wonderment, Harry has been ''one of the great ones. He's the kindest
man I've ever known. He doesn't suppress me, doesn't put me down
in front of people. He does a lot of cooking and takes a big burden
off my shoulders when I'm working. In the beginning, when we were
getting to know each other, it was kind of racking, but now it's
settled into a wonderful companionship and intimacy I've never had
with anyone else. Marriage never interested me before, but marrying
Harry was quite the right thing to do.''
Harry agrees. ''Bette's wonderful to live with,'' he once said
with a twinkling smile. ''With Sophie she does lots of voices and
characters and becomes like a baby herself.'' ''Life now,'' Bette
continues serenely, ''is the best it's ever been for me. I love
my home. It's to die for. I've got a lot of old furniture with new
covers -- I like things that have had other lives -- and there are
lots of flowers in the house because I love color and scent. And
I do love being a mother, and my baby enjoys me too. She's a very
happy child and likes a good laugh. Watching her grow is unbelievable.
I've never experienced anything like this love I have for her. I
have to have at least two more babies,'' she concludes with emphasis,
''to make my life worth living.''
With Bette, emotion is quickly transformed into motion. Not long
after she finished shooting Big Business, she found herself pregnant.
And not long after that, she had a miscarriage -- a subject she
can' t bear to discuss. ''Sometimes it's a brutal world,''' she
says. ''It' s good to have a haven.''
It's the last day of shooting at the Disney Ranch. Bette arrives
on the set bearing a large, official-looking document. ''Lily Tomlin!''
she announces in a loud, serious voice. ''As the Founder and Guiding
Light of the Bette Midler Academy of Mugging, I've watched you grow
and become every bit as great a mugger as your mentor. Therefore
it gives me great pleasure to award you the degree of Doctor of
Mugging. Congratulations, Dr.Tomlin.'' Mugging delightedly, Lily
clasps the certificate to her breast and gasps: ''Oh thank you,
thank you, Founder and Guiding Light! At last I am a Doctor of Mugging!
Maybe now,'' she adds wistfully, ''I might even get another movie!''