June 1993 By Philip Berk
Time heals all wounds.
For Bette Midler, the scars were deep. I remember her telling me many years ago, fifteen to be precise, that her father had disparaged the very idea of her ever becoming a performer. Even after she achieved some success, he would tell her she’d never amount to anything.
So, naturally, I was eager to ask if they had reconciled before his death in l986?
“I did make peace with him. Before he died he was quite happy with me and I was really very happy with him too. I wouldn’t have traded him for the world. You don’t realise how much you are like your parents until you have a child yourself. When I was growing up, I had no idea I resembled these people who were my parents. I see in my own child, how much like me she is. I look in the mirror I can see my father, I can see my mother. I can hear their voices.”
The occasion was a press conference for Beaches. There she was, the Divine Miss M, just as we had seen her on the screen, big busted, boisterous, ebullient, tastefully dressed in a blue Lacroix original, yet looking more like a caricature than a real live person.
Careerwise, she had weathered one bad movie (Jinxed), after her initial success (The Rose), and waited until the right vehicle (Down and Out in Beverly Hills) came along to salvage her once promising career. After that she has moved from one smash to another and all of them for Walt Disney Studios.
Despite her huge following, Midler wanted to change her on-screen image. In Beaches and Stella Dallas there was little evidence of the Midler schtick. Gone was the funny walk, even the Mae West inflections. She wanted to play serious roles, like the Lotte Lenya story.
I wanted to know why.
“I always wanted to be a serious actress. Of course I wound up a song and dance lady, but really I went into this business expecting to play Lady Macbeth. But you take what comes along. The pictures I was offered were comedies, and I was obliged to play them broad.
“The roles that are coming up are more realistic. The studio (meaning Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney) actually wanted me to make the transition from a comic to a serious actress.”
And what if it doesn’t work?
“I’m sure we’ll all rise to the occasion. I have an inner belief that comes from my mother. She always said, ‘Kid you’re gonna be fine.'”
Her marriage and motherhood at 40 had a profound effect on her. How profound?
“Things that meant so much to me when I was young, no longer mean anything. Suddenly I see there’s a whole world out there, a world of bigger problems. And selfish drives seem to fade away.
“Both the marriage and the child take a lot of time. The emotional tie is so much greater than what I have on the outside. I never expected it to be that way. I am so in love with my child that everything else pales besides it. When the desire to spend time with your family is greater than the desire to spend time pumping yourself up, you find yourself going in another direction. I like my work, but I love my family.”
Besides her daughter her family includes husband Martin Von Hasselberg, who is usually identified as a German born commodities trader, but the truth is he is a slightly off the wall performance artist who was once part of a team called the Kipper Kids.
“I knew he was outrageous, but I didn’t know he was offensive,” she comments jokingly. “But I liked the fact that he wasn’t afraid to be different, that he was a sort of outsider, like I am. He has a quality that is not mainstream. I knew it, as soon as I saw he was bald — and he had on a very loud suit. This man obviously likes to draw attention to himself!”
Is that why she married him?
“I’d lived with men for years and years, but it could never get past three. I would be in love for a year, not exactly in love for a year, and then the last year it was like, ‘When am I gonna get rid of this creep?’ So I thought, maybe if I marry, I’d have a different time clock. I think I got the right guy now.”
The first time I interviewed her she confessed she had never married because she was never asked?
“That’s a bald-faced lie,” she responded. ” When I stop and think about some of the people I could have been married to… But both men and women fall for the unattainable, the person that satisfies their fantasy. They never go for the one who’s going to be right. They tend to follow their heart, not their head.”
And how does she see herself now?
“I’m a little less energetic. I don’t have my original pep. I don’t feel the need to expend so much energy. I don’t have the fever I used to have about my position in the industry.
Does she consider herself a success?
“It’s all so relative, so ephemeral. One day you’re the most successful woman in Hollywood, the next day you’re an asswipe. You can’t put any stock in it. All you can do is keep going, but mountain climbing is exhausting. I’m at a point where I’d like to take it easier.”
What’s it like being up there?
“Exactly the same, except I have to be in hair and makeup longer. You still have to pay your taxes, sweep the floor, clean the dishes, clean your underwear. Sure you have more help, but you have to order the maid to sweep the floor.
“Maybe it’s worse. You don’t have any privacy, and you can’t go out without hair and makeup, which is really boring. The studios manufacture this idea that there’s paradise here in Hollywood. People come streaming in here because they believe it. Actually the work is mostly drudgery. They never talk about it. I’m sitting in a trailer for 2 hours saying, ‘This is so boring, I think I’m gonna kill myself’, and then you come out and have to eat the same wilted, tired lettuce sandwich.”
Beaches was about relationships. What about Hollywood relationships? Are most actors egocentric?
Jokingly she replied, “They’re the worst. Actors are horrible. I read it in a book that all actors hate other actors, living or dead, past or present. And I would say about 75% of that is true. There are a few who are kind and full of generosity, but I haven’t met too many of them.”
“I was driving in my car the other day and suddenly I had like an epiphany.I had done a group of benefits. I was glad that I had taken off the month and did them, because I met a lot of people and, I think, I helped a lot of people. I made money for AIDS, for children’s charities. I was really proud. And this is something I never said before. I said, I am good…”
That was l988, a good year.
1991 wasn’t. That’s the year she devoted to For the Boys, an expensive flop which nobody liked — except Bette.
Although still sassy and outrageous — that could never change — she seemed uncharacteristically serious. Not only was she talking about important issues, she sounded knowledgeable and sincere.
“I remember growing up in the forties and fifties. It was so polite. There was so much politeness. Then suddenly in the sixties there was no politeness, a compete breakdown in civility. People questioned all kinds of authority, I was fascinated by that.”
She was born in Hawaii. How come?
“My father went to Hawaii in l933. He was born in New Jersey, but he left to get away from his mother who was a very domineering woman. His father was a sweet and loving man, but his mother was a very tough old broad. My father couldn’t get far enough away from her, and when he got to Hawaii he loved it so much he came back, married my mother, and brought her there. They were there during Pearl Harbor.
What was growing up in Hawaii like?
“It was extraordinary, although for me it was just regular, I didn’t think twice about it, but when I speak of it to other people, they’re astonished that I grew up in a multi-cultural atmosphere, so I’m very sensitive to race.”
In what way?
“I grew up with all kinds of people, all colors, nationalities. We would always ask, What are you? What’s your nationality? Chinese, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Filipino. They were all mixed up.I grew up not thinking about race until I came here — and I never actually recovered from that.”
Does materialism bother her?
“I’ll tell you something. You don’t need a lot of money to make something beautiful. You have to have a lot of imagination. I feel I’m a very creative person. I like to look at beautiful things. Los Angeles is such an ugly town. It’s enough to destroy your soul. The buildings are ugly; there’s hardly any landscaping. It’s very depressing. I’ve lived here long enough to know. When I first came to here, I didn’t notice it, nut now I find it one big sprawl. It has no architecture, no city planning.So in my own defense, I have turned to making my own home beautiful. I’m the Picasso of my own world.”
Is she happy?
“I feel I have accomplished a lot. I haven’t had any serious setbacks.”
How is she bringing up her daughter?
“My parents didn’t pay any attention to us. We just sort of struggled up by ourselves. So I pay a lot of attention to my daughter. I talk to her a lot. I’m very interested in what she thinks” (and then characteristically she adds) “which I have to say is pretty appalling, it’s no wonder they never listened to me.
“My parents never asked me anything. They never spoke to me. I was just someone there, a mouth to feed. Occasionally I’d venture to ask them a question and I’d get pearls of wisdom, but not very often. They didn’t pay a lot of a attention so I try to pay a lot of attention.”
By l994, Bette has become almost eloquent. Unlike another superstar who works on creating an elegant facade, Bette is the genuine article. Slimmed down to ll0 pounds she looks as glamorous as Betty Grable in her heyday, but more importantly she’s sharp, witty, and surprisingly wise.
Ask her anything, even a dumb question, and you get an honest reply.
Like, how come you put on so much weight to play Mama Rose in Gypsy?
“I didn’t put on weight.” she replies. “That’s my normal weight.”
After the failure of Hocus Pocus, she chose to do a TV film of the Broadway classic Gypsy. In it she costars with Peter Riegert. The two of them lived together for three years until, I remind her, he walked out on her.
“I don’t remember,” she answers good naturedly, although the last time I mentioned it, she protested, “No man ever walked out on me.”
What was it like getting together again? I asked her.
“I was very emotional but I couldn’t really discuss it with him because… At one point we were singing together and it just got very — verklempt — my stealing from another actor. It was very moving. I thought he did a fabulous job. He was the first choice for the part. Everyone including myself was overjoyed to get him. The fact that we had old past history was good for us.”
Even though Gypsy was well received, it is her live performances on stage — at Radio City Music Hall in New York City she broke all records — that has revitalized her sagging career. Which makes one ask, Why did she ever leave the theatre and go into pop songs in the first place?
“I was despondent because the amateurs had taken over. It just wasn’t the same class of people. When Broadway decided to jump on the rock and rock bandwagon, it just wasn’t the same. I didn’t feel there was a place for me. I auditioned for three years, and I couldn’t get a job, so I decided, you have to perform. It didn’t matter whether I was in someone else’s material or not, I could do it myself. I didn’t think I was very good, but what the hell I figured why not try!”
Even though her live performance was a triumph, there were some who felt she had become politically correct.
“I don’t care for that term.” she replies angrily. “It started out as a good idea — that there should be justice in the world — but then it was turned around by the Republicans. When people talked about political correctness they meant there was an imbalance that needed to be addressed. But then it sort of swept everybody away, and the right wing took it to be a negative rather than a positive, so now I think it best if everyone just abandoned it.”
Hasn’t she become a kinder and gentler artist?
“I don’t think so. I think I’ve just grown up. I’m not wedded to four letter words. I’ve learned a few new ones. I like to be funny, and if I find something that’s funnier than four letter words I’m much happier. I think people have gotten very lazy in this country about humor. It’s not really inventive to just spew four letter words.” (and then as not to appear totally out of character, she added) “I’ve come to that conclusion after many, many years of doing it.”
Has motherhood had something to do with it?
“I suppose I’m not as snarly about people who are different as I used to be. I’m not as snobbish as I once was. I am more inclusive, the great tent, as the Republicans call it. I don’t have the same snob syndrome that I once had. I’m intrigued by people who are not like me. People don’t have to be like me.”
Has her seven year old daughter inherited her talent?
“She likes show business, in fact she loves it” (again kiddingly, she adds) “but I find show business an exceedingly tawdry professional. It’s very hard, and frankly sometimes you don’t meet the best people, although you think you do. I am hoping she’ll have a life — the problem is, it’s so full of glitter, it’s blinding. And she’s like me. I’m the Indian who sold Manhattan to the Dutch. You put bees in front of me and I’m completely mesmerized. My daughter is the same; she inherited the bee gene from me, so I’m not encouraging her, but she loves it.”
What is she like?
“She’s very dear, very bright, very sweet. She’s beautiful. She plays the piano. I can’t tell whether she sings. She won’t sing in front of me.She loves to dance, though. My husband has taught her German. He’s teaching her soccer. She’s extremely good-natured and well adjusted, and she does love the glitter of showgirls and the bright lights, unfortunately.”
For Gypsy, did she model her performance on those that went before — Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell (in the movie), Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly.
“You know the wonderful thing about the theatre is, it exists only in memory. Certain performances exist only in memory. You read about Kean or Laurette Taylor, or Jeanne Eagles, and you say what the hell did they do that caused people to write all this stuff. I find that so magical. Now it’s not like that. You can look at a videotape and say, I don’t agree with them. But when it’s only memory, it had a real magic. That’s something I’ve learned the hard way.”
How is she getting along with the Disney Organization?
(She had some harsh words for them after they reshot, then recut and virtually destroyed Hocus Pocus. But unlike Robin Williams she’s still on speaking terms with them.)
“I’ve got two pictures to go with them. They’ve been good to me, and I’ve been good to them. I’ve done favors for them, they’ve done favors for me. It’s been a nice, symbiotic relationship. The problem is, their agenda has changed. I’ve been with them eight years. On Hocus Pocus we all worked terribly hard. It was physically demanding. We worked six months solid, we contributed an enormous amount. Granted we were well paid, but we went way beyond what we were asked to do. Everyone was crazy about what we did, but in the end it was given shortshrift, cut to 90 minutes. We worked so hard, and they cut out all that work because they thought nobody would sit longer than 90 minutes. I thought it was unfair, I was angry, but I’m just an actor for hire.
“But I’m allowed to say I’m angry, and I’m still working for them.”
What makes her happy?
‘I like to be warm. I like to read. I like to cook. I love nature in spite of what it did to me. I like doing things for people without people knowing that I did it.”
Why does she think the musical has gone out of fashion?
“Musicals became unfashionable in the 60s because they were big and unwieldy. And they were unbelievable, and they were poorly made.
“The great masters are no longer alive. And before they passed away they didn’t teach anyone else how to do it. Those are skills that can’t be relearned or retaught. A couple of years ago, I went to Gene Kelly’s house and sat at his feet for a two hours. He told me how those pictures were made. They all worked as a team, took for granted what it was they were doing. They never thought they were doing anything unusual…”
And neither does she!