Bette Midler: Playing to Win
Today is Bette Midler’s 71st birthday. To celebrate, we’re revisiting an interview she did with Movieline magazine 30 years ago. After a string of hits in the 80’s, Midler’s movie career hit a stretch of bumpy road in the 90’s. Stella and Scenes From a Mall both bombed. Her new movie, For the Boys, was expected to be a comeback vehicle for Midler, but that didn’t pan out either. In this frank interview with Lawrence Grobel, Midler shares opinions on Bob Dylan, Bruce Sprinsteen and anyone who isn’t Madonna.
Bette Midler is saying goodbye to a Vogue writer at the door of her suite at the Four Seasons hotel when I arrive. She doesn’t know if I’m here to interview her or to make some delivery, so she doesn’t react. “Guess I’m next,” I say. Bette says nothing, just turns from the door and walks into the bedroom to talk to her husband, performance artist and commodities broker Martin von Haselberg (aka Harry Kipper of The Kipper Kids). Ten minutes later, she comes out, looking for food and ready to talk. She didn’t talk much for her last two movies, Stella and Scenes From a Mall, and neither did very well.
But her newest film, For the Boys, reunites her with Mark Rydell, who directed her first film, The Rose, for which she received an Oscar nomination. There were nine other pictures between the two, including her concert film Divine Madness!, her jinxed film Jinxed!, and her successful Disney films Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune, Big Business and Beaches.
Born in Honolulu, Bette and her two sisters and brother grew up poor, sharing a bedroom and dreams. As soon as she was old enough to leave home, Bette took off and headed east. She worked for a while as a go-go dancer in New Jersey, and wound up making her big splash performing as The Divine Miss M at the Continental Baths in Manhattan, where she played before a mostly gay audience. By 1973, Bette was on the cover of Newsweek, and it looked like nothing could stop her from becoming the legend she had challenged her then manager and lover, Aaron Russo, to make her. She’s toured Europe and written a book about it, she’s cut numerous record albums. She made it to the big screen in 1979 with her chilling performance as a Janis Joplin-type singer in The Rose.
Soon after that, however, she and Russo split and Bette made the ill-fated decision to appear in the flop Jinxed! After that, her career began to plummet, until Disney came along and brought her back up–to the point where she is now among the highest paid women in Hollywood. In 1984, she married von Haselberg and the couple had a daughter, Sophie.
Bette’s continued support of those who were there for her at the beginning led to her recently being honored by the AIDS Project Los Angeles at their annual “Commitment to Life” benefit. Midler didn’t try to outbelt the performers who preceded her that evening– among them Melissa Manchester, who had once been among her backup singers–but instead joked with the audience about “the Scud missile that is my career.” She also brought up the latest bit of sex gossip revealed in Geraldo Rivera’s autobiography, that the pair had once had a fling which Geraldo ended because he couldn’t keep up with her. “I know you heard from Geraldo that I’m insatiable,” she said. “I think it gave a boost to my career.” Then she turned serious, acknowledging that she deserved the recognition for being there when AIDS first started decimating a large part of the gay population she considered her friends. “I did something. And I’m proud of myself that I didn’t run screaming for the hills like some people did. And fuck ’em, I say.”
That evening, around 11 p.m., she called me to make a request: not to print something she hadn’t even said. It had to do with her being funnier than Madonna, and I had to interrupt her to say that we hadn’t talked about Madonna. “We didn’t?” she asked, wondering how far south her mind had gone. But once the topic had been brought up, I of course did ask her about Madonna. She replied, then ended the call: “Be kind,” she said. “We had a nice day.”
BETTE MIDLER: [Notices my two tape recorders] Wow, gee do you think you have enough tape recorders here?
LAWRENCE GROBEL: No one’s ever used two with you? In case something goes wrong with one?
A: No. I’m impressed. I must have hit the big time.
Q: Well, word-of-mouth around Hollywood is that you’re about to have a big hit with For the Boys.
A: Yes, it’s very nice to be on that end of it for a change.
Q: How long did it take to get made?
A: It was long. It was an idea that I got not long after I made The Rose. It was percolating around in my head for a long time. Finally, when we got our development deal with Disney, we got the wherewithal to hire a writer. We had Neal Jimenez and Lindy Laub, and we started about six years ago. When Mark Rydell came on, he felt that they had gone as far as they could go, so he brought in Marshall Brickman. And they really whipped it into shape in about a year. We’re very proud of it. It’s big, it’s gorgeous, it’s old-fashioned entertainment. It has laughs, music, dance, tears. It has everything.
Q: It sounds like a cross between The Way We Were and New York, New York, spanning generations, watching people grow.
A: Hmmm, that’s interesting. I think it’s not as mean-spirited as New York, New York. I don’t know if I’m talking out of school here. I do love Marty Scorsese, but I did find that picture very, very mean-spirited. So, For the Boys is not like that. It’s much more traditional, more old-fashioned than that. It’s a triangle love story, a woman and her son and a man who does love her but mostly wishes he had a son. It’s those relationships against the backdrops of all the wars.
Q: Any similarities between it and The Way We Were?
A: No, I wouldn’t say so.
Q: I once asked Barbra Streisand which she would choose if she had to make the choice between acting and singing. Which would you choose?
A: Singing. No question. I’d much rather sing.
Q: What do you think Streisand chose?
Q: Acting. Because she felt she never had to work for her voice, it came naturally. While she’s had to work hard to act.
A: Certain kinds of acting come very naturally to her. She’s very funny. I have to work on my singing. Singing is hard for me. Comedy is easy. Acting is really easy.
Q: You’ve said before that you felt you were coasting with the three films you’ve made for Disney. That you weren’t being stretched or challenged enough.
A: There’s nothing wrong with coasting. In the old days you would be hired for what it was you did. For your character. You always played the same character. [The ’30s comedian] Franklin Pangborn never did Hamlet but people still loved him. If you were Marie Dressler, that’s who you were, that’s what you did, you played the same character. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I had a wonderful time, for the most part, doing those films. People still come up to me and say, “Ruthless People is my favorite picture.” What can I say? “It’s not mine?” “Get out of my face?” I don’t say that. I say, “Gee, I’d better look at it again.”
Q: Do you read reviews?
Q: Are you interested in having things quoted to you?
A: Well, if you quote something nice then I’ve got to go out and find something horrible, and I don’t really want to do that.
Q: What if I quote you the horrible?
A: Oh my God, then I’ll have to throw you out. I try not to let that into my life. I’m too sensitive. I made up my mind a long time ago–if you’re gonna read the good you gotta read the bad, too. And since I had no tolerance at all for even one bad word, even a suggestion, it became impossible for me to read not only reviews, but also any interview that I had ever given. I don’t read any of it. And that’s the reason why I don’t believe my own press. I used to, in the old days, get terribly despondent and in fact I couldn’t even work. One guy put me out of business for a year.
Q: What did he say?
A: That I couldn’t sing. And I believed him. And I can sing. But I let him suppress me. I let him put me into the toilet. And I didn’t ever want to let that happen again. Maybe he didn’t like the way I sang, but a lot of other people did.
Q: It takes a certain strength to ignore what’s written about you.
A: And also wisdom.
Q: Do you like to read about other people?
A: Religiously! Fanatically. I’m always interested in what happened to them. But I sure don’t want to know what happened to me. I don’t know how they can stand the shit being written about them day after day. Boy! They must have hides like a rhino.
Q: Cher recently said she didn’t think she’d be acting much longer, because there aren’t great parts for women over 40.
A: I don’t feel that way. I feel like I can go on forever. People always want to see a funny little old lady, don’t they? And if they don’t, I’ll make them.I still have the Sophie Tucker story to go yet. I don’t have that fear. I also know that that fear is something that they’re all going through. I wonder if they’re just catching it from each other, though. I mean, it’s obvious that Cher can go on forever too if she wants. Her career is longer than God so far.
Q: Sally Field seems to be covering her bases by starting to produce as well as act.
A: She’s very smart. She’s doing exactly what she wants to do. It took her a minute to figure out how the business has changed, because it changed right out from under her, when nobody was looking. So that’s what we’re all in for. You can either jump in feet first and go to work or you can stand on the sidelines. Things have changed.
Q: Will you be producing too one day?
A: It doesn’t pay for me. There’s no money in it. No money. Not that I care about the money, but I do have a huge overhead and you mustn’t let your overhead own you. If it’s something you don’t believe in–well, I don’t want to be a line producer and I don’t want to be an executive producer if I don’t believe in the material. If it’s something that I do believe in or want to give a shot to, that’s another story. Then I’d be perfectly delighted. But to just produce to be a producer, feh. Big feh.
Q: How about directing?
A: To tell you the truth, I’m no dummy. Directing is just a bitch. And it’s years out of your life. And you are in a dark editing room a lot of it. You’d better like that person you are in there with because you’re there, you’re locked. It’s a lot like making records. Sometimes it gets so claustrophobic in those little dark rooms, it’s hard. And I don’t want to do that much work. I don’t want to work that hard for no money. I would rather work a little and make a lot of money than work like a dog and make nothing.
Q: Why do you suppose Streisand needs to direct?
A: Because she feels that she had a calling for it. I’m not going to jump on her. If that’s what she feels she’s obliged to do, if she feels that’s her destiny, let her go with God. She wants to be that, she wants to be an auteur, she wants that respect. That’s the main thing with her: She’s a very lovely girl who has all sorts of tremendous gifts, but maybe she feels that she doesn’t get any respect. And maybe she feels the only way she can get any respect is if she directs the picture. They’re the only people who get any respect in this town, God knows. The screenwriters certainly don’t. The actors get a lot of money but they don’t get any respect either!
Q: When you get that much money, why should you have that too?
A: That’s the Jewish way.
Q: What do you do with your money?
A: Not a goddamn thing. I don’t do anything with it. I give a lot of it away. I like charity. I like gardens. And travel. My husband says my life is wasted on me. He said no one should have as much good fortune as me and not have any idea what to do with it. I don’t pay any attention to it.
Q: Are you still as insecure as Barry Manilow says you were when he was playing for you?
A: I’m not insecure at all.
Q: He claimed he’d never met anybody more insecure than you.
A: Except for him. But he’s in therapy so he’s not insecure anymore. I’ve grown up a lot. When you’re starting out and you’re trying to climb that ladder, sure you think that someone’s going to pull you down, but I’ve been here on this perch for 20 years. It’s not a flash-in-the-pan anymore. I don’t have to feel like they’re going to come and take it away from me.
Q: When you first started out, did you actually tell your manager, Aaron Russo, to make you a legend?
A: Is there something wrong with that?
A: I didn’t tell him to make me a legend. I said I wanted to be one. I said I didn’t want to be nothing. What’s the point of being in something that you love so much and only being a cipher in it? I wanted to be a phenomenon, I didn’t want to be just a schlepper. He was into it. He really wanted to do the same thing because success is a game. It’s a big game. It’s like everybody’s playing and playing to win. And everybody wants to be the winner. So you’re constantly jockeying for position. And constantly looking for a way to get ahead of the other person. Until you grow up enough to know it’s not really very satisfying. The thing that’s satisfying is your relationship with your God, your planet, your family, your friends, and how you see beauty and how you see the world. You come down from that perch a little bit and give that up. You can’t eat your newspaper clippings. And you can’t take your newspaper clippings to bed. It’s really not that satisfying.
Q: Before your name began appearing in newspapers, you were dancing in a go-go bar in New Jersey after you left Hawaii. Goldie Hawn had the same experience. Did you ever talk about those times with her?
A: I didn’t know she did that, but I’m sure we worked for the same agent [laughs]. Shall we talk some more about my picture?
Q: I want to talk about everything. You don’t want to talk about go-go dancing?
A: No. That’s 20 years ago. By the time we get up to my marriage the interview will be over.
Q: Since your marriage, you’ve lost a lot of that early outrageousness. Will we ever see The Divine Miss M again?
A: She never went anywhere. She’s just a character. I didn’t bury her. I love that character. That’s the only character that I ever made up by myself. I made her up out of whole cloth. I was in New York, I saw these people, I looked at these movies, I said, “This is what I want to be.” And that’s what I became. That’s what I made up. But then I didn’t want to get stuck in it, like how John Belushi did with his character. I didn’t want that character to run my life. I wanted to be able to go away somewhere and be quiet, be by myself and have a life. I really did want that more than anything. I never exactly put it in those words, but I really wanted to be who I always was. I mean, I didn’t think that anybody would buy what I had to say when I was just myself, because really I’m kind of a bore. But that character, there was nothing boring about her. She was lively, she had red hair, she swore, she wore dresses cut down to there, everybody loves that. Who wouldn’t want to be that? But that wasn’t what I was. I was never that. Not for a second. But I put it out and people were charmed by it.
Q: How did you get the courage to put that character out?
A: Ben Gillespie gave me the courage. He pushed me right out there. He showed me what the history of that tradition was. I didn’t know any of that. And he opened my eyes.
Q: Who was Ben Gillespie?
A: Ben Gillespie was one of my oldest friends, just the most wonderful gay guy. He was a dancer in Fiddler on the Roof. And he introduced me to the world. He played records for me, we went to old movies together, we talked about art. I worshiped him. I was with him for three years and he literally changed my life. He made me want to sing. I’d always sung, but I didn’t really know there was something called popular music. I had never focused on it. He showed me who Marlene Dietrich was–I had no idea who she was. In 1966, I think it was, I went with this guy to see a Marlene Dietrich show. Burt Bacharach was her conductor at the time. And I’m watching this woman with her hairdo and this long white fur coat. She sashays across the stage and drops the coat, and this crowd is going crazy! People are screaming!. Their faces are turning red. They’re crying. And I’m thinking, “What the fuck is going on here?” Anyway, she does this whole show and I didn’t get it. Then, at the end of the show the audience got up as one and rushed to the footlights and started pelting her with flowers. And I said, “Wow! Check this out! This is the most amazing thing.”
Q: How old were you at the time?
A: I was no spring chicken. I was about 24 or 25. Afterward I told Ben who I had seen, and then we started going to all these Marlene Dietrich movies. I saw one after another. I never saw anything like it in my life: I’d never seen so much gauze, so much glue, so many eyelashes, so many sequins, those things that von Sternberg did for her. It started out neat and then got just bizarre. But it was so beautiful. I was totally enchanted by it. And I was swept along. The more he showed me the more exciting it became for me. Because I was in a very gray world, I had no idea that any of this was going on. I came from the sticks. I had no television until I was 13.
Q: Speaking of Dietrich, did you know Mae West’s secret for beauty and longevity?
A: Enemas. Yeah, I heard that. Well, she didn’t live that long. And she didn’t look that good, either. She wasn’t in that great shape. But she was quite a character.
Q: Is Ben still around?
A: No, he died a couple of years ago of AIDS. I have lost everybody to AIDS. I have no gay friends left. Everybody that I was friends with from those days is dead. It’s like a total wipeout– from the man who made my first poster, Richard Amsel, who died very young, to Kenn Duncan, Tom Eyen, Peter Dallas, Ben Gillespie, Jerry Blatt… the list is just unbelievable. Over 50 now. Those are just my closest friends. I never thought it would happen. I just never thought it would happen.
Q: Your Divine Miss M character evolved at the Continental Baths–for which you will always be known, according to your book. Yet in light of what’s going on now with AIDS, you sound like you feel guilty for that period of time 20 years ago. Are you?
A: I didn’t do it… I just watched it happen. I had this song, “Friends,” and part of the lyric is: “I have good friends but they’re gone/Something came and took them away/From the dust till the dawn/Here is where I’ve stayed.” That was one of the first songs I ever sang when I was at the Baths. And the song has followed me for 20 years now. And now it’s like it was some kind of horrible prophecy that just came true. “I had some friends but they’re gone … something came and took them away.” I just can’t believe it. It’s too close.
Q: But why do you feel guilty?
A: I felt that I made it fun, in a way. I was really the first person–the first legitimate person–I don’t know, I can’t really say legitimate–but I was the first person to ever play in a situation like that, and to bring this up on national television, to bring this situation to the public’s attention. They didn’t know what those places were like.
Q: You mean the gay lifestyle?
A: Yeah. It seemed like it was a fun thing to do, to go to the Baths and hear Bette Midler. And probably it was fun to go hear Bette Midler. But I didn’t know what was going on in the end. After Bette Midler left the building. But they always encouraged me, always loved me. I guess they thought I was a big queen too. Which isn’t so bad. I had a lot of fun.
Q: In Vanity Fair Stephen Schiff wrote, “Midler isn’t the world’s best singer; she hasn’t much range, and she frequently flubs the pitches she strains for–all of which she readily acknowledges.” Do you?
A: I was just being modest–I think I’m a great singer.
Q: When you recorded Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain,” Dylan sang with you. He doesn’t appear on too many other albums other than his own.
A: He really likes me. I don’t know. I think I remind him of someone.
Q: Was he an influence on you?
A: Total. Complete, tremendous influence. The first time I heard him I never got over it. He was my idol, and he’s still my idol. He told me the other night that there are no more songs. That no great songs will ever be written anymore.
Q: I assume he considers some of his early songs among those that are memorable.
A: He says those days are over. You don’t hear those songs anymore, they’re not being written. Or recorded.
Q: Or is it that he’s gotten older and the great songs are yet to be written by younger people? Or perhaps Dylan has just lost bis passion.
A: Maybe so.
Q: Did Dylan ever disappoint you after you got to know him?
A: Sometimes it’s hard to get a straight answer out of him. He’s not really straight with you all the time. He’s very elliptical. But he’s great.