MIDLER, BETTE (1945– ) Singer, Actress
A remarkably likeable and versatile entertainer, Bette Midler has been described by Time magazine critic Richard Corliss as “the most dynamic and poignant singer-actress of her time.” Named after actress BETTE DAVIS, she was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on December 1, 1945, to a working-class family. Fascinated with Hollywood musicals, she dreamed of becoming a performer, an ambition her mother encouraged with dance and music lessons. While attending the University of Hawaii, Midler was hired as an extra on the set of the film Hawaii (1966). The experience was exciting enough to persuade her to move to Los Angeles. There, she worked as an extra until she saved enough money to head to New York City to pursue a career as a serious stage actress. After playing several small roles, Midler won a part in the chorus of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof in 1966. She stayed with the show for three years, gradually working her way through the ranks until she was hired for the prominent role of Tzeitel. While performing in Fiddler, Midler also began working on a club act, in which she sang a wide variety of pop, rock, and jazz tunes. Onstage, she spiced up her act with bawdy jokes between songs.
Midler worked at a few Greenwich Village clubs before she was hired in 1970 to perform at the Continental Baths, a public bathhouse with a largely gay male clientele. With help from her pianist, Barry Manilow, Midler developed a brassy onstage persona. Combining sexy, often vulgar comedy monologues with her eclectic musical tastes, she created a tight bond with her audience. She later recalled, “The more outrageous I was, the more [they] liked it. It loosened me up.” As word spread about her act, she began to play larger venues. She also was invited to perform on several national TV talk shows, including The Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson. Midler’s fame was cemented by the release of her debut album, The Divine Miss M, in late 1972. The record yielded an unlikely top 10 hit—a cover of the Andrews Sisters song “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Midler went on to star in the Broadway revue Clams on the Half Shell (1973–74) and record several less successful albums. Among them were Bette Midler (1973) and Broken Blossoms (1977). In 1979 Midler moved into film with The Rose, the story of a fictitious self-destructive rock star loosely based on JANIS JOPLIN. Midler’s performance was a great critical success and earned her an Oscar nomination. She also won a Grammy Award for the movie’s title song.
From this high point, Midler’s career took a sharp turn downward in the early 1980s. Divine Madness (1980), a filmed version of her club act, was a box-office disappointment. Even more badly received was her next movie, Jinxed (1982). The film was a flop, and offscreen battles between Midler and her costar Ken Wahl earned her a reputation for being temperamental. The experience was so bitter that Midler began to doubt her choice of career. “I thought maybe they are right, maybe I don’t have what it takes,” she said, recalling the critical response to the movie.
Midler began to regain her equilibrium with her 1984 marriage to investor and performance artist Martin von Haselberg. Soon afterward, she signed a contract with Disney. The film studio reined in her risqué persona and molded her into a comedy star with appeal for a mass audience. Her new image was showcased in a series of hit comedies, including Ruthless People (1986) and Outrageous Fortune (1987). With these films, Midler became the top female box-office draw of the late 1980s.
Midler also had a solid success with Beaches (1988), an old-fashioned tearjerker that paired her with Barbara Hershey as lifelong friends. She followed it up with two other “women pictures” - Stella (1990) and For the Boys (1991). Although a popular failure, For the Boys, produced by Midler’s company, All Girls Productions, earned her her second Oscar nomination. Midler also won acclaim for her performances in Gypsy (1993), a television adaptation of the classic musical about he life of GYPSY ROSE LEE, and First Wives Club (1996), a satire costarring Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton. In 1992, she made show-business history as Johnny Carson’s last guest before his retirement from The Tonight Show. Her appearance won her an Emmy Award.
While concentrating on film and television, Midler has continued her recording career, delivering pop hits well into middle age. Her most successful singles were “Wind Beneath My Wings” (1988) and “From a Distance” (1990). In 1998, Midler received enthusiastic reviews for Bathhouse Betty (1998), an album that revisited the bouncy, campy songs that made her a club phenomenon decades earlier. Frustrated by the movie roles she was offered, Midler turned to series television in 2000. In the situation comedy Bette, she played a hyperactive, insecure version of herself. Though heavily hyped, the series was cancelled in March 2001. Many critics blamed the writing, citing that even with mediocre material, Midler’s charm as a performer still found a way of shining through.
Bego, Mark. Bette Midler, Outrageously Divine: An Unauthorized Biography. New York: New American Library, 1987.
Mair, George. Bette: An Intimate Biography of Bette Midler. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1995.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Divine Madness (1980). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 1999.
The Divine Miss M (1972). Atlantic, CD, 1995.
Experience the Divine: Bette Midler Greatest Hits. Atlantic,CD, 1993.
For the Boys (1991). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1995.
The Rose (1979). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1996.