That Old Feeling: Best Bette Yet

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She’s nearly done it all, with a ripe and majestic flair, but there are three things Bette Midler hasn’t tried and would surely bring off superbly:

1. A starring role in a Broadway musical. Nearly 40 years ago she worked her way up from the chorus to a daughter role in “Fiddler on the Roof.” She put her “Clams on the Half Shell” revue in a Broadway house in 1975, and was pretty sensaysh playing Mama Rose in a TV “Gypsy.” But the most theatrical singer-actress of her or possibly any day has never hung her name over a book show on the Great Great Way. It’s time, past time — for Broadway’s sake, if not for hers.

2. A TV talk-and-variety show. Could the woman who repackaged star quality for the post-Vietnam age do what any successful talk show host has to: pretend to listen to other people while thinking up witty ripostes? I don’t know. The 5ft.1in. diva may be too big for the small screen, and end up with ego on her face, as she did in her short-lived prime-time TV sitcom. But remember that Bette found her first fame back in 1970 swapping double entendres with Johnny Carson, and on his last show in 1992 sent him off moist and grateful with a tweaked rendition of “You Made Me Love You.” Besides, for the chance to see Midler five hours a week, it’s worth trying.

3. Hosting the Oscars. She’s got the pizzazz to light up a long dull night. She’s got more Oscar nominations (two) than Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, David Letterman. Chevy Chase, Johnny Carson and Bob Hope put together. (Two more, in fact. Also two Golden Globe awards in 1980, for Female Newcomer and Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. Said the busty, mouthy star on receiving them: “I’ll show you a pair of Golden Globes!”) And if Bruce Vilanch, her longtime gag-writer, is to dream up annual song parodies for a veteran showbiz tummeler who’s determined to go topless, why should that old-timer be Crystal?

Midler has made a greater success of movies (patches of hits and flops amid a strong career, from “The Rose” 25 years ago to “The Stepford Wives,” due out this year) and marriage (happily wed for 20 years to Martin von Haselberg) than she or her fans thought likely. ''She has everything she ever wanted,'' Vilanch told Elaine Dutka for the Midler TIME cover story I wrote back in 1987, ''things she didn't even realize she wanted and didn't set out to get.'' But movies have rarely harnessed her supernal energy, and a happy marriage — hell, even I have that.

No, thank you. Bette (rhymes with pet, sweat, coquette and martinet but never regret) is a full-service entertainer. She would deserve her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — which, she has said, is “under a fire hydrant” — simply for her walk: the not-quite-ladylike mince, the executive sweep, the strumpet’s strut. In the 1987 movie “Big Business,” where she plays two roles, she lopes easily from City Sadie, the bitch goddess who spits out orders to her lab scientists (“Get tougher rats!”), to Country Sadie, struggling with her press-on nails (“I guess I should’ve pressed harder”) and giddy with her first sip of high life in a Plaza bathroom (“Cute little soaps in the shape of swans! Could you die!”). As a movie star, even in this efficient little comedy, Bette is heaven in high heels.

On any stage, which she fills, no matter how huge, her walk is more impressive. In her 1993 Radio City Music Hall concert series she was poetry in perpetual motion, from her prompt entrance at 8:10 (royalty is always punctual) to her exhausted departure just before 11. She must have covered about 10 miles a night in the mincing steps she took across the Music Hall expanse. Playing the tacky chanteuse Delores DeLago in mermaid fin and motorized wheelchair, she raced around like a Betty Andretti. She went supine on the stage, as if it were her analyst’s couch, then busily buffed the floor with her derriere. If there’d have been windows in this grand Art Deco auditorium, she’d have done them.

Bette does more than walk the walk; she talks the talk, and sings the freakin’ songs. That means she’s best seen on the concert stage or heard on records, as we used to call them back in 1972, when she released her first album. Her latest, a tribute to Rosemary Clooney (that’s odd!), came out last year. And now she’s toward the end of a four-month nation-wide concert run, the Kiss My Brass Tour, which concludes this Saturday in Atlantic City. So let’s do a little retrospective of Bette’s greatest hits — the albums, the shows — in tribute to the singer-comedienne who’s given me more soaring pleasure than anyone in showbiz over the past three decades plus.



PUTTING THE SHOW BACK IN SHOWBIZ

The lady knows how to make an entrance. On New Year’s Eve, 1972, she was borne onstage at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center in a sedan chair with the drapes closed, one leg peeking through to salute the audience; at midnight she returned in a diaper as Baby 1973. She has emerged from a giant mollusk in a Polynesian bikini; walked on in a knee-length frankfurter costume, mustard streaked down her front; raced across the proscenium in a mermaid’s spangled fin and a motorized wheelchair; wowed crowds with her renowned mammary-balloon ballet.

At the dawn of her solo career 15 years ago, Bette declared her intention to become a “legend.” She made good on the boast with a song-and-comedy act that elicited raucous laughs and heaving sobs on both sides of the footlights. Midler’s raunch — delivered with a great guileless smile, and a wonderfully perky diction that bleaches out the blue — made her famous as the Divine Miss M, a creature she once described as embodying “everything you were afraid your little girl would grow up to be. And your little boy.” She was the Callas of Camp, peppering her program with jokes in the bawdy spirit and booming voice of Sophie Tucker.

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