Author: Richard Corliss
by: Mary Cronin/Elaine Dutka/Denise Worrell
SHOW BUSINESS: COVER STORY
Steals Hollywood The Divine Miss M is a movie star at last.
lady knows how to make an entrance. On New Year's Eve, 1972,she was borne onstage
at Manhattan's Lincoln Center in a sedan chair with the drapes closed, one leg
peeking through to salute the audience; at midnight she returned in a diaper as
Baby 1973. She hasemerged from a giant mollusk in a Polynesian bikini; walked
on in a cunning knee-length frankfurter costume, mustard streaked down herfront;
raced across the proscenium in a mermaid's spangled fin and a motorized wheelchair;
wowed crowds with her renowned mammary-balloon ballet. So what can she do for
a 1987 encore? Strut into her hit movie, Outrageous Fortune, abuse a defenseless
pay phone and insist, ''Gimme back my bleepin' quarta!'' Hollywood may be far
from Broadway, but for Bette Midler it's just another opening, another show.
has always put on a great show, but until recently it has been mostly onstage,
not onscreen. At the dawn of her solo career 15 years ago, Bette (rhymes with
pet, sweat, coquette and martinet but never regret) declared her intention to
become a ''legend.'' She made good on the boast with a song- and-comedy act that
elicited raucous laughs and heaving sobs on both sides of the footlights. She
was the Callas of Camp, peppering her program with naughty jokes in the spirit
of Mae West and Sophie Tucker. Midler's good-timey raunch made her famous as the
Divine Miss M, a creature she once described as embodying ''everything you were
afraid your little girl would grow up to be -- and your little boy.'' The image
obscured her rightful claim as the most dynamic and poignant singer-actress of
her time: a 5-ft. 1-in. Statue of Libido carrying a torch with a blue flame. Her
phrasings were as witty as Streisand's, her dredgings of a tormented soul as profound
as Aretha's, her range wider than all comers'.
and awards were never a problem. She copped a Grammy As Best New Artist in 1973.
Her 1979 LP, The Rose, went platinum. In 1983 she even found a perch on the best-seller
lists with her children's book The Saga of Baby Divine. But what, these days,
becomes a legend most? The one little item that eluded Bette Midler: movie stardom.
Her galvanizing turn in The Rose, as a soulful thrush on the high wire of drugs,
sex and rock 'n' roll, earned the actress raves and an Oscar nomination and .
. . precisely no film offers.
next star role, in the black-and-blue comedy Jinxed (1982), provided the occasion
for scuffles, snarky reviews and, for Midler, a nervous breakdown. Jinxed, indeed.
It was three years before she made another film.
was when a performer considered damaged goods teamed up with a studio aching for
Bette Midler made three comedies for Walt Disney Studios. Zinnng! A sprinkle of
stardust, and here comes the happy ending, one as unlikely as the transformation
of a white elephant into a soaring Dumbo. Her first, Down and Out in Beverly Hills,
was tenth among 1986's box-office winners; the next, Ruthless People, ranked eighth;
Outrageous Fortune has earned more than $25 million in the first 25 days of release.
The cheeky trio made Disney a major movie studio and Midler Hollywood's top female
attraction. Rhapsodizes Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, who
recently signed her to a three-picture production deal: ''Bette Midler is the
single greatest asset as a performer we have.''Asset? You Bette! You're the company's
hottest female star since Minnie Mouse.
has everything she ever wanted,'' notes Bruce Vilanch, who writes Bette's ''Soph''
jokes, ''things she didn't even realize she wanted and didn't set out to get.''
Two things, anyway: a doting husband as dotty as she is and a three-month-daughter.
Of Martin von Haselberg, 38, a commodities trader who has cavorted as a performance
artist under the name Harry Kipper, Midler declares, ''He sees to the heart of
things. He respects and supports what I do. And he leads me, too, when I lose
my way.'' Now listen to the new mom, 41, on thesubject of Sophie (''not for Sophie
Tucker'') Frederica (''for my father Fred'') Alohilani (''Hawaiian for 'bright
sky,' which is what I always wish for her'') von Haselberg: ''I adore her. Her
face swims before me when she's not there, and I think about her before I go to
sleep at night and I dream about her, and I wake up and I can't wait to see her.''
Miss M never delivered two more fervent monologues.
commemoration of all she has given and, lately, received, the world's top singer-dancer-comedian-songwriter-actress-author-survivor-thriver-dynamo-divinity
deserves some special prize. The Tony isn't tony enough. The Nobel Prize wouldn't
be noble enough. And so to you, Bette Midler, the academy of your admirers is
pleased to present its Life Achievement Award for the body of your work. And the
work of your body.
chanteuse or bawd, in concerts or movies, Midler has put her body to nonstop work.
Harnessing the energy of some Rube Goldberg perpetual-motion machine, prancing
on those fine filly legs like the winner of the strumpet's marathon, Bette uses
her body as an inexhaustible source of sight gags. She shimmies it, twists it,
upends it to reveal polka-dot bloomers. In 1978 at the London Palladium she flashed
the front of it; at Harvard she exposed the rear. She has made a cottage industry
of her buxom bosom. In the 1985 album Mud Will Be Flung Tonight, she confesses
that she once consulted a postage scale to determine just how heavy her breasts
were, and ''I won't tell you how much they weigh, but it cost $87.50 to send 'em
to Brazil. Third class.''
jokes -- delivered, as all her slings are, with a great guileless smile -- fulfill
the tradition of the defiant female wit, alive with innuendo, that stretches from
the Wife of Bath to Belle Barth. They also tend to obscure Midler's unique talent.
Yes, she coos bedroom ballads like Long John Blues; sure, her charts tease five
decades of popular music with the wink of parody. But her laser-precise technique
is no counterfeit of feeling. It is the art of the Method singer, who approaches
a song as an actor does his text: finding the heft of a melodic line, trolling
for the truth in a lyric, daring to shift emotional gears without stripping them.
She is a demon explorer, possessed by music.
actress-singer orchestrates her vocal versatility and preternatural empathy to
slip inside the spirit of each song. Performing the title tune from The Rose,
the lovely mantra of regeneration that has become Bette's Over the Rainbow, she
sings in her own haunting alto. But she can go seductively nasal for E Street
Shuffle, chicly bonkers for Twisted, brassy and clinging for her evocations of
the low-biz Songstresses Vicki Eydie and Dolores DeLago. Midler's most powerful
number, Stay with Me (best heard on the sound-track album of her 1980 concert
film, Divine Madness), is the plea of a woman to her departing lover. Her mood
is desperate; her sexual pride has been flayed raw. She can only beg and scream.
Bette scorches the soul with this one. In six minutes she wrings out herself and
the song, and mops up the audience as well. Her cover versions of all these songs
make the originals sound like demo tapes.
once the bromide may be true: you don't learn songs like Stay with Me, you have
to have lived them. This woman has a right to sing the blues. To hear her story
is to find autobiography in every Midler song, and tragedy as the punch line.
All that love, drive and desperation in her voice had to come from somewhere.
Most of it came from Honolulu.
Midler, a civilian house painter for the Navy, and his wife Ruth moved there from
Paterson, N.J., in the late '30s. Ruth named Bette, the third of her four children,
after Bette Davis. ''My mother was, oh, stunning,'' Bette recalls, ''and very
hardworking. She sewed beautifully. She made all our clothes for years, until
my parents discovered the Salvation Army. We were really poor. We didn't have
a TV or a telephone until the late '50s. We lived in subsidized housing in the
middle of sugarcane fields.'' Most of the families in the neighborhood were Samoan,
Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese. Bette's family were the only whites.
father was a bit of a tyrant,'' Bette recalls. ''He would flush the girls' makeup
down the toilet. He'd lock my sister Susan out of the house when she came home
too late. He taught my younger brother Daniel, who is brain damaged, to read and
write by hammering and screaming at him until he got it. Every afternoon. None
of us wanted to be in the house. But Daniel did learn, and it's made a big difference
in his life. It gave him freedom. My father always thought I was a little odd.
He never chose to see me perform -- except on Johnny Carson. He said I looked
like a loose woman. My mother, on The other hand, thought I could do no wrong.
One night she sneaked out to see The Rose, and she thought it was wonderful. She
died the next year, of liver cancer. She had also had breast cancer, twice. My
father died of heart trouble last May. It was too bad. It was just too bad.''
adored her older sisters. Susan is a health-care executive in New York City; Daniel
lives with her. Judy, the eldest, was a brilliant, unhappy girl. She came to New
York and, Bette says, ''in 1968, as she was walking along 44th Street, a car came
out of a garage and killed her. I was the only family member in town. I had to
go to the morgue and identify the body. I don't think my mother ever recovered
from the shock. It was a very bad time in our lives.''
was the artistic goad to her girls. She gave them hula lessons and encouraged
them to see musicals. Bette's solo debut came in first grade: Silent Night won
her a prize. ''After that you couldn't stop me from singing,'' she says. ''I'd
sing Lullaby of Broadway at the top of my lungs in the tin shower -- it had a
really good reverb. People used to gather outside to call up requests or yell
that I was lousy.'' When she was twelve, Bette was taken to see her first stage
show, Carousel. ''I couldn't get over how beautiful it was. I fell so in love
with it. Everything else in my life receded once I discovered theater, and my
mother was all for my starting on this journey and going full speed ahead. When
I was the lead in the junior- class play, she brought a bouquet of roses and presented
them to me over the footlights.''
years later Ruth's girl hit New York City. Right away she met Tom Eyen, author
of such plays as Sarah B. Divine! and Who Killed My Bald Sister Sophie?, and started
working for him, soon graduating to dizzy-bimbo leads. From Eyen she learned about
camp. From the East Village Soubrette Black-Eyed Susan, she picked up the retro-chic
'30s look. She bought an old velvet dress and coat and started singing songs from
the period. Busy Bette. By day she was auditioning or scavenging for obscure sheet
music (truly obscure to Bette: she couldn't read music). By night she was appearing
in the chorus, then as the eldest daughter, in Fiddler on the Roof. After the
show she would sing at any club that would have her. And every spare moment she
would study records of Bessie Smith, Ruth Etting, Libby Holman and Aretha Franklin,
the adored elder sisters of Bette's vocal style. And when two bigger clubs --
the Improvisation and Continental Baths -- called, Miss M was ready to become
she says, ''in my velvet dress with my hair pulled back and my eyelashes waxed,
I was convinced I was a torch singer. Because the Improv was a comedy club, you
had to be a little bit funny, so I added chatter between songs. There I was, singing
my ballads and crying the mascara off my eyes, and in the next breath telling
whatever lame joke I'd just heard. By the time I got to the Baths, I had 20 minutes
of material but needed 50. So I had to wing it. The Baths was gay, gay, gay in
a heartfelt way. The guys would check their clothes, get towels and sit on the
floor. They thought my show was fab-ulous. So eventually the big brassy broad
beat the crap out of the little torch singer and took over.''
pianist and arranger was young Barry Manilow, just a few years short of his own,
more comfortable stardom. Their first rehearsals were ''nothing special, almost
dull,'' as Manilow recalls them. ''I played and she sang. But then we did it in
front of an audience. She came downstairs in this turban and an outfit that could
have come from my grandmother's closet. She was a tornado of energy and talent.
I was six feet away, and this vision was one of the thunderbolts in my life.''
Another fan-Aaron Russo, signed on as Midler's manager in 1971, while she was
still at the Baths, and they briefly were lovers. Their eight-year affiliation
was productive and destructive; they were two strong wills making success possible
and life miserable. ''Aaron began booking me into theaters,'' Bette says, ''and
lo and behold, I was a big success. For our first full revue, we had our backup
trio, the Harlettes, and a great band and girls intap-dancing clothes and the
jukebox and the mannequins and King Kong. It just blew me away!'' Bette was a
Russo dreamed bigger still. ''From the beginning,'' he says now, ''I knew the
screen could take this little
person with the enormous talent and show her off in a big way.'' But no project
seemed right. So they resurrected Pearl, a script about Janis Joplin, and had
it rewritten, Midler says, ''as a homage to all those men and women who bit the
dust from sheer compulsion.'' That was The Rose. ''I had a ball! I couldn't wait
each day to strap on that angst bag and chew up that scenery. I thought it was
my best work.'' Seen today, The Rose looks ragged, with dramatic longueurs randomly
interspersed with explosions, but that is part of its surly authenticity. And
Midler, deglamourized as Joplin and vulnerable as her own private self, creates
a gorgeous image of tenacious stardom as the dying Rose waves away the hands guiding
her and, revived by the audience's electricity, propels herself onstage for her
European tour following the filming of The Rose in 1979 provoked one last fight
with Russo, and Midler was on her own. She chose a jokey film noir script called
Jinxed; she chose the director Don Siegel and her co-star Ken Wahl. The brass
at United Artists, then tiptoeing through the rubble of Heaven's Gate, was turning
to Midler to make decisions. And the creative team, vexed at her power, turned
on her. There were shoving matches and walkouts. It was a sorry time. In retrospect,
Midler notes, ''I feel I've had my revenge. What goes around comes around.'' Translation:
Siegel's and Wahl's careers have treadmilled, while Bette's has escalated. But
Hollywood seemed not to know what to do with its unconventional star. Says Rose
Director Mark Rydell: ''She didn't fail us. The film business failed her.''
better, best -- bested. Jinxed defeated her; De Tour exhausted her. ''Bette is
easily bruised,'' says Tour Director Jerry Blatt. ''She couples incredible toughness
with great softness. You feel she could creak, crumble at any minute.'' And busted:
something like a nervous breakdown ensued. ''I couldn't face the world,'' she
recalls. ''I slept all day and cried all night. I was drinking to excess. I was
miserable.'' Then, as if in a Hollywood musical (not The Rose), love found Bette
Midler. ''When I was at my lowest point,'' Bette says, ''Harry called me up out
of the blue. This was October of 1984, and in two months we were married'' (see
box). Harry-Martin has his own unusual saga. His parents fled Germany for South
America upon Hitler's accession to power. Martin grew up in Germany and London,
went boho in the late '60s and met young Brian Routh at a suburban London drama
school. With that meeting, the Kipper Kids were born. In their act, which they
have toured, on and mostly off, for 17 years, Martin and Brian play the same character:
Harry Kipper, a working-lad with a big chin. Both Harrys work in jockstraps and
false noses; they mime show tunes in parody form and smear each other with chocolate
and luminescent paint. ''The show is very scatological,'' Martin notes, ''but
in a childish way. People love it.''
has never seen Martin as a Kipper, but then he has never seen her as the Divine
Miss M. Indeed, he had never heard Bette's music when they met briefly in 1982,
two years before they fell in love. As Harry remembers their first date, it was
''just sort of instantaneous. We knew we were meant for each other.'' Bette seconds
the wisdom of impulse. ''We were two people who -- he in his sphere and I in mine
-- had sown quite a few wild oats. But even before our marriage, there was something
about Harry and the relationship that made me feel trusting and safe. He is so
stabilizing. Now all my friends want to marry Harry Kipper so they can have a
fabulous life like mine.''
the time of the wedding, though, her career was not quite fabulous. ''I would
whine to Harry,'' Bette says. '' 'Why can't I get a job? What's wrong with me?'
And he asked what I really wanted to do. Singing? Comedy? I realized I didn't
care that much about singing anymore. Nobody else seemed to like it either. But
I knew they liked me when I was funny. I said, 'I think my best work is my funny
work. And if I could, I'd like to be the funniest woman in the world.' He said,
'Go make a comedy album.' And that was Mud Will Be Flung Tonight.''
album made ripples and giggles, but in movies Midler was still a could- have-been,
a never-was. Then Director Paul Mazursky phoned, and, Bette says, ''it was like
a call from the gods. It's like I'll Cry Tomorrow -- it's so Lillian Roth I can't
stand it!'' In Down and Out in Beverly Hills Midler played a fad-mad wife whose
latest crush is on a derelict. As the kidnaped wife in Ruthless People, she has
fun hitting the abrasive high notes, being splenetic and spiteful one moment,
shedding warm tears of self-pity the next. And she gives good time in Outrageous
Fortune, playing a floozie on the run with her boyfriend's other girlfriend. She
shakes her patented sass and looks terrific in green nail polish and four-inch
heels. She is also typecast in these films: as a two-dimensional harridan who,
through camaraderie and mother wit, finds new depth in the third dimension. They
do not stretch Bette; they shrink her to farce-size roles.
is a trouper pleased to have joined the big smooth circus. But she is careful
to keep stardom in perspective. She calls Beverly Hills a ''happy experience.
Plus they gave me the underwear my character wore. The furniture was what really
slayed me, but I didn't get that. But I did get the bras.'' Nor does she make
many distinctions among her three recent hits: ''Was it Outrageous Ruthless People
in Beverly Hills? The films have certainly indicated a direction to stay in. The
whole package is a surprise: to be a box-office success hand in hand with Disney.
A real shocker. I mean, Walt Disney never would have hired me.''
in her Beyond Tasteful Mediterranean-style house above Beverly Hills, the supine
Miss M looks and behaves not at all like the Divine One. The Amazonian figure
that fills the most capacious theater proves to be a miniature, magnified by stagecraft
and star quality. Shopping or seeing a movie, she can easily go unrecognized.
Out of the limelight, says Bonnie Bruckheimer-Martell, Bette's friend and partner
in All Girl Productions, ''she's basically shy. She'd never think of wearing anything
low cut. She calls herself a librarian.'' No dust on this star's bookshelves.
''She's a cleanliness freak,'' notes Bruckheimer-Martell. ''She calls herself
Harriet Craig, after the Joan Crawford character who was constantly cleaning.''
Manilow recalls Bette's perfectionism, ''from neatness at home to the 95th take
of a song. Once we were walking on a Chicago beach, deep in conversation. She
kept picking up bottles and caps, all this crap in the middle of our heavy talk,
dumping it into the garbage pail.''
new mother is preoccupied with the chain of continuity that gurgles in her lap.
Bette has just noticed that Sophie's ears, like little wings on her bald head,
resemble those of Ruth Midler's as a child. Bette softens and tenses as she talks
of never appreciating her mother's sacrifice. ''When my baby was born,'' she says,
''I was so tired. I kept thinking, 'How did she do it? How could she raise four
children and still be standing?' I finally got the message, but it was too late.''
tries to be both tickled and modest about her mainstream celebrity. ''I really
don't even feel I deserve all this,'' she says earnestly. ''I have been a very
lucky girl. Now I'm working and doing good work and loving it. I'm not going to
say 'Woe is me.' I can't. I'm too happy that anybody noticed I had any talent
at all. But I would make a wonderful Lady Macbeth. I'll wear a pair of platform
shoes or something.'' Instead of Shakespeare, though, she is preparing yet another
comedy, Big Business, in which she and Lily Tomlin play mismatched sets of identical
twins for Ruthless People Director Jim Abrahams. And in the haze of hope, a musical
biography of Ina Ray Hutton, '40s leader of her all-girl band. And maybe a remake
of Gypsy, with Bette as Mama Rose. Possibly even a Divine Miss M movie. But for
now, no albums or concert tours.
Bette is better than no Bette at all, we guess. But why should she not do what
she does uniquely well? Perhaps because Hollywood just now does not care to see
the blowsy, pug-beautiful singer, alone and proud on the screen. Instead it wants
a Bette Midler like the woman she plays in Ruthless People: bound and blindfolded
and sending out comic danger signals. Illuminating these undemanding comedies
uses about one green fingernail's worth of her gift.
are greedy, possessive creatures who demand too much of their idol: that she stay
faithful to the first blinding image of herself, that she stand forever in its
wilting light. Bette Midler may figure she has paid her dues as an entertainer
and earned a paid vacation in the movies. Why shouldn't she be happy to trade
in the enervating risk of a solo act on the road for the cozy virtues of family,
familiarity and the Hollywood version of a steady job? The star that shines can
shine on; the star that burns may burn out. And any woman with a right to sing
the blues has the privilege to sing a lullaby instead. O.K., divine Mrs. Von H.,
but do us a little favor. Sing it in public.
was love at second sight for Bette Midler and her beau, the suave Martin von Haselberg,
a.k.a. Harry Kipper. Within two months of their initial date, they were married
in a ceremony worthy of the Divine Miss M. Here are the nuptials as Midler described
them to TIME Correspondent Denise Worrell:
and I decided on a Monday to get married on a Saturday. And so we did. It was
just like that. We
drove to Las Vegas and arrived very late at night. Yet there must have been 200
couples in the line for licenses. So we checked into the wedding suite at Caesars
Palace and changed clothes. I was wearing a grayish-blue chiffon dress that I
had bought for our first formal date together, a movie premiere. It cost a fortune,
but I really wanted to impress Harry. And that's what I wore. My dress was very
boom-boom -- it had strings of beads hanging down -- and I made a nice racket
walking down the aisle. I wore a pair of silver shoes I'd bought. And I carried
a beautiful bouquet. It's dried now and hanging next to a picture of Harry in
our bedroom. Yeah, we're sops. We're really soppy. By this time it was 2 o'clock
in the morning, and we got our marriage license. We wound up at the Candlelight
Wedding Chapel. We put on a sound- track tape of Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits
and walked down the aisle. The fellow started reading the service; it was really
quite moving. We both got teary-eyed at the part about the gold ring. At the end
the guy said he liked my work -- and did I know he was an Elvis impersonator?
I said no, I didn't know he was an Elvis impersonator. He told us he was very
popular and had recorded some AC music. I explained to Harry that the guy meant
Adult Contemporary or Easy Listening, depending on which coast you were on. As
we left the chapel, he promised he would send us his single. We were both terribly
nervous. I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I looked over at him, and the
enormity of it just hit me. I thought, ''Oh, my God! '' After all, we hardly knew
each other. It was quite a shock. The next day we drove home, and there he was
in his house. And there I was in my house. We had never lived together. And do
you know what happened two days later? It was around Christmastime, and because
we'd already planned it, I went to see my father in Honolulu, and he went to see
his in Germany. So we didn' t really have a honeymoon.
Corliss. Reported by Mary Cronin/New York and Elaine Dutka and Denise Worrell/Los
Angeles, SHOW BUSINESS: COVER STORY Bette Steals Hollywood The Divine Miss M is
a movie star at last. , Time, 03-02-1987, pp 64.