Before there were Jewish princesses, there were bawdy Jewish women. Bette Midler fits into this earlier tradition. She is the latest incarnation of the early twentieth-century bawdy entertainers such as belle barth and sophie tucker. Indeed, Midler does an imitation of Tucker in her role as Delores De Lago, the lowest form of show business and the toast of Chicago. Born in Honolulu on December 1, 1945, to Fred and Ruth Midler, Bette (named after Bette Davis) learned as a young girl to observe other people’s behavior carefully and create her own persona.
She was the third daughter in a family where both parents were frustrated and disappointed with their condition. Midler later remembered screaming and shouting matches between her parents and between her father and older sister Susan. In school, she felt like an outsider as well. She was the only white in school, as she later recalled, and she was Jewish. Neither she nor her classmates knew what that meant. Bette wisecracked that she thought it had something to do with boys. Witty responses, quick retorts, and a ready smile became her defense against unpleasant home and school realities. Although she performed well in school, being elected senior class president and graduating as the class valedictorian, she always felt her physical appearance combined with her outré status made her different from the majority of students.
After a year at the University of Hawaii, she left for New York and a career in show business. Midler viewed herself as a singer and a clown, and hoped that opportunities to perform would materialize. She gained a small part in the chorus of Fiddler on the Roof in 1965 and later was given the part of Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tsaytl. She stayed with the show for three years. While performing in Fiddler, she also sang at the Improvisation Club, where she met Stephen Ostrow, the owner of the Continental Baths, a gay gathering place where entertainers performed while the audience sat around the pool area. It was in this setting that Bette Midler developed many of the outrageous personae that became the standards of her concert show and the basis of her spectacular success.
The Divine Miss M became her central character, a woman who wore a black lace corset and gold lamé pedal pushers while singing songs of the 1940s and 1950s. In between songs, she told off-color jokes, moving constantly around the stage. She made frequent references to male sexual parts, and laughed alongside her audience. Midler took neither herself nor her subject matter seriously and communicated a sense of irreverence to her listeners that may have both shocked and delighted them simultaneously. In the late 1960s, when Midler flourished at the Continental Baths, the country was experiencing a social upheaval. Midler’s enthusiastic willingness to discuss in public topics that had always been reserved to private spaces fit into the revolutionary changes in sexual behavior and discourse. Her support for gay men, who have remained a loyal contingent of fans for her shows and records, added to the image she projected of a free and anarchic spirit.
An appearance on the Johnny Carson Show in 1970 helped to give her a national audience. In 1972, Aaron Russo became her manager and is credited with organizing her career and arranging her tours. They had a tumultuous personal and professional relationship, which resulted in Midler taking a year off in 1974 to recover from the mental and physical pressure of constant touring. In 1979, she made her first movie, The Rose. In it, she played a rock performer, reminiscent of both her own experience and Janis Joplin’s. The performance, a tour de force of acting and singing, demonstrated the incredible stress associated with touring and the added tension of a domineering manager. Midler broke with Russo in 1979 and took charge of her own career.
The Rose launched Bette Midler’s Hollywood career. Unfortunately, she followed up this success with a movie called Jinxed (1980), which was exactly that. Her movie career went from a spectacular beginning to a seemingly disastrous end. The next few years were very difficult for Bette Midler, and by her own admission, she experienced a mental breakdown. Rest, therapy, and contemplation, a decided contrast to her usual style and behavior, restored her spirit. The whirlwind 1970s, which had included the winning of a Grammy, a Tony, and an Emmy award, ended with Jinxed.
Her personal life got back on track, however, when she met and married a German performance artist named Martin von Haselberg in December 1984. The wedding took place, after a brief romance, in Las Vegas and was performed by an Elvis impersonator. By her account, her new husband was funnier than she was, extremely supportive of her career ambitions, and thoughtful in his guidance.
Midler credits von Haselberg with the turnaround in her career. He suggested that she return to comedy, her natural métier. In what turned out to be a brilliant move, she signed with the Disney Company to make a series of comedies. In 1986, she appeared in two movies, both of which became smash hits: Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People. The former movie was the first R-rated movie to come from Disney. These movies established Bette Midler as a major comic actress. The great success of both movies made her known nationally and internationally. Previously, her concert tours, which took her overseas as well, attracted only the young, enthusiastic fans who enjoyed her outrageous humor. In these movies, though Midler’s anarchic bent could occasionally be glimpsed, it was her smirk, her grin, and her swagger, rather than her bawdiness, that appealed to a larger, more mainstream audience.
These two hits were followed in quick succession by Outrageous Fortune (1987) and Big Business (1988). In 1989, she produced Beaches through her own production company, All Girl Productions. Though the movie had a successful musical score, it was a melodrama that did poorly at the box office. Audiences did not seem to want Bette Midler to be anything but funny. However, she had other ideas and plans for her career. In the following three years, she appeared in, and produced, three more melodramas, all of which bombed at the box office: Stella (1990), Scenes from a Mall (1991), and For the Boys (1992).
In her personal life, Bette Midler was feeling more confident and capable of sustaining professional failure. In November 1986, she gave birth to a daughter, Sophie (named after Sophie Tucker). After assessing her career, she decided to return to her roots: concertizing and regaining contact with a live audience and her legion of fans around the country. On September 4, 1993, she opened a five-week stint at Radio City Music Hall in New York City as the first leg of a multicity tour. She broke all records in ticket selling and logged more consecutive performances than any other single performer at Radio City. The tour continued into 1994 and won large audiences and critical praise.
On December 12, 1993, she appeared on television as Mamma Rose in the CBS production of Gypsy. She also played a witch in the film Hocus Pocus. Midler continues to invent and reinvent herself in both old and new media. Her fans enjoy her standard material, always varied with contemporary commentary. In her 1993–1994 concert tour, Dolores De Lago reappeared along with her backup singers, the Harlettes. Midler jokes about the fact that she is a Jewish woman married to a German and readily identifies herself as a Jewish outsider in a Christian world. She clearly believes that her Jewishness adds to her witty understanding of a confusing world.
Bette Midler raised public consciousness on a very important topic, and she did it in mainstream media such as the movies and television. Midler’s image of a bawdy woman, who is both knowledgeable and interested in matters sexual, has rarely had the public airing she provided. She is an independent thinker and an initiator of her romantic encounters. As a successful woman actress, she is also a professional who has resources to aid other women and acts as a role model to women in all fields, not only entertainment.
Since 2000, Midler has been working on films that highlight the woman’s perspective. She produced Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), based on the book about a group of non-conformist girlfriends in Louisiana, and played a major role in The Stepford Wives, a remake of the 1975 “gender war” thriller, in which the town’s men replace their “liberated” wives with a group of obedient robotic look-alikes.
Another passion for Midler is the environment, and she founded the New York Restoration Project in 1995 to restore and revitalize open space in her city of residence. In 1999, after then-Mayor Rudolph Guiliani threatened to sell off many of the city-owned community gardens, Midler arranged to buy all of the gardens from the city and created a trust to preserve them. New York State Governor George Pataki awarded her his 2002 Award for Parks from Preservation for her conservation efforts.
Humor is an extremely effective tool with which to observe human behavior. When the comic laughs at herself as well as at the foibles of her audience, she creates a connection between people and an opportunity to examine serious subjects in a funny manner. Important and forbidden topics receive airings. Bette Midler’s knowing smile, which rarely leaves her face, reminds her audience that a humorous perspective, on any and all subjects, offers catharsis alongside illumination.
Bette Midler has written two books that capture her dissenting form of humor: A View from a Broad (1980) and a children’s verse book, The Saga of Baby Divine (1983), in which the first word she learned was “more.” She creates a persona of a woman who has a strong sense of self and a commitment to both justice and self-satisfaction. In a culture that has traditionally seen women as submissive and subservient to the men in their lives, Bette Midler offers a startling alternative. Her women are pushy, ambitious, often selfish, but they are also generous in spirit, always ready to laugh, and fearless in their contact with life. Because the world always needs the fresh and audacious perspective she has to offer, Bette Midler’s future appears rosy.
The Saga of Baby Divine (1983); A View from a Broad (1980).
The Stepford Wives (2004); Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002); Drowning Mona (2000); Beaches (1989); Big Business (1988); Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986); First Wives Club (1996); For the Boys (1992); Hocus Pocus (1993); Jinxed (1980); Outrageous Fortune (1987); The Rose (1979); Ruthless People (1986); Scenes from a Mall (1991); Stella (1990).
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