Bette Midler: Divine Miss M And Movie Rose, Then And Now
Left: Midler as caricatured on the cover of her self-titled second album. Right: Midler at the 17th Grammy Awards in 1975. Sources: Amazon; Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Bette Midler, the Divine Miss M, Ol' Red Hair, whatever you want to call her, she's one of the few stars who's crossed boundaries and made the world of performance her own. Midler began her career on Broadway, but she cultivated the brassy outrageousness that we still associate with her in off-off-off Broadway venues -- specifically, the gay bathhouses of New York City, where she was such a draw that she became known as Bathhouse Betty.
Midler's work is so omnipresent today that her trajectory seems like it was meant to be. As the star of Beaches, she's forever going to be known as a red headed tear jerker, and with hit singles like "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" we'll never stop hearing her voice bounce around our heads. Bette Midler is a drama queen in every sense of the word.
From Hawaii with love
Born in Honolulu in 1945, Bette Midler was one of the only Jewish kids in Hawaii. Her mother and father were New Jersey born and bred, but when her father was posted on the island during the war he became fond of the tropical climate and decided to set down roots. The young Midler, named for Bette Davis, spent her childhood keeping to herself and reading in her local library, building a "rich interior life" made up of stories that she found in her only friends, books. She told Oprah:
I sat upstairs in the picture room and went through opera, ballet, and theater books. I loved the photographs of people wearing elaborate makeup and costumes—they really pulled at me inside. I was in that library every week for years, until I was about 13. I had a rich interior life, because I didn't have much of a social life.
New York, New York
After getting a taste of the limelight as an uncredited extra in the epic film Hawaii, Midler moved to New York when she was 19 years old and started pounding the pavement looking for work. It didn't take long for Midler to get noticed. She starred in the Off-Off-Broadway plays Miss Nefretti Regrets and Cinderella Revisite, a play that worked two-fold. In the day it was a children's play, but it became an adult show by night.
A year after arriving in the Big Apple Midler nabbed the role of Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. It was a quick ascent for the young girl from Hawaii who was bitten by the theater bug at her local library, but she still had a long way to go before becoming a household name.
The Divine Miss M
While Midler was starting her career on Broadway, another institution was also in its infancy. In 1968, Continental Baths opened in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel in New York City. It was a place for gay men to meet up and socialize away from the straight world -- you didn't go to Continental Baths without knowing exactly where you were going.
In 1970, Midler began a long running residency at the bathhouse with backing from pianist Barry Manilow. Midler may have had to play it (mostly) straight on Broadway, but she was able to camp it up at these shows. During her performances at Continental Baths Midler formed the persona that she held onto throughout the '70s. She had a winking sexuality, a brassy attitude, and a range of material that stretched from old-timey tracks like “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” to modern tunes like "I Shall Be Released" by The Band. While speaking with Oprah, Midler explained that as strange as it may sound for a girl from Hawaii to be performing in a bath house, it was just a place that let her be herself:
I started downtown in experimental theater—while onstage, people would take off their clothes, smoke dope, get drunk, throw food at one another. I just fell into a group of performers, and I absorbed a lot of their behavior. But I had always been divine. From the time I was in the sixth grade I had been saying, 'Oh, darling, that's divine!' I'd seen so many movies where they said things like that.
This small revue was so successful that Midler scored a recording contract with Atlantic Records, and in 1972 she released The Divine Miss M, co-produced by Manilow. The album was a huge hit, going platinum, reaching the Billboard Top 10, and earning Midler the Grammy for Best New Artist.
Ol' Red Hair
Midler's upward trajectory continued into 1973 when she released a self-titled follow-up on Atlantic before receiving a special Tony Award for her "contribution to Broadway." She followed that special award up with "Songs for the New Depression," an album that mixed standards with songs by Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. The album peaked at number 27 on the charts and spawn a hit with her discofied version of Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night."
Her cabaret style act was so popular at the time that in 1977 she performed in her first televised special, Ol Red Hair is Back (a nod to Sinatra, known as "Ol' Blue Eyes"), that featured a cleaned up version of the act she'd been performing for years. The special won an Emmy, her first, and she followed that up with an Academy Award nomination for The Rose, a fictional story about a self-destructive rock star based on Janis Joplin's life.
This career highlight was soon followed by a downturn. Following the success of The Rose, Midler released a disco-tinged album cheekily titled Thighs and Whispers that failed to reach the heights of her previous efforts. This blow was especially crushing following the soundtrack to her foray into feature films going double platinum.
Bette Midler is Jinxed
There was an almost obsessive nature about the way that Midler tried to get Jinxed, the story of a lounge singer following an abusive deadbeat played by Rip Torn through the casinos of the southwest, off the ground. The role of Bonita Friml was one that offered the singer and actress a chance to flex all of her on stage muscles, but the film was so mired in drama that it had zero chance of success. Midler received appreciative nods for her performance, but the film was most interesting for its troubled production.
While on set Midler and her co-star, Ken Wahl, were openly vicious to one another. They argued so much in front of the rest of the cast and the crew that director Don Siegel had a heart attack on set. The film was one of the biggest box office disasters of 1981, and ended her run on the silver screen for a solid five years.
Midler's second wind (beneath her wings)
The Divine Miss M may have been down but she wasn't out. Jinxed was a monumental failure, but rather than recede to the shadows and sulk Midler went back to her music and released No Frills, an album with a stellar cover of "You're My Favorite Waste of Time," before putting out a stand up comedy album in 1985, the same year that she performed on "We Are The world."
Midler's return to cinema was huge. She starred in the Paul Mazursky film Down and Out in Beverly Hills and the very nasty and very funny Ruthless People. But it was the 1988 tear-jerker Beaches that cemented Midler as a star for the ages.
Beaches didn't just allow Midler to be a dramatic star. She gets to show off her comedy chops while showing the audience just how good she is at pulling at your heart strings with little more than her voice. The film received mixed reviews, but it's still one of the most beloved films about friendship to come out of the 20th century, and it features Midler's performance of "Wind Beneath My Wings," a song that not only articulates the themes of the film, but that turns them into one of the most epic pop songs go all time.
The Successful Miss M
Since Beaches it's been nothing but flowers for Bette Midler. She had a string of successful films in the '90s, ranging from the iconic Halloween classic Hocus Pocus to The First Wives Club. She returned to the stage in the 2000s, culminating with her first acting award at the Tony's for her role as Dolly in Hello, Dolly! - it's as if her divinity never ends.
Tags: 1970s Music | Bette Midler
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