Bette Midler
Still Divine

by Otis Stokes

Bette Midler is what one might call a “one-woman show.” Having achieved success in all fields of entertainment, including theater, motion pictures, recordings, television, comedy and concerts, there’s nothing left for the “Divine Miss M” to conquer. In a career spanning almost half a century, Midler has been nominated for two Academy Awards, while winning three Grammy Awards, four Golden Globes, three Emmy Awards, a Tony Award and nine American Comedy Awards. She has sold over 30 million records worldwide and, along with that, has also received four Gold, three Platinum and three Multiplatinum albums. Just one Oscar award away from being in the exclusive “EGOT” club (having won at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award), perhaps that’s the one goal yet to attain. Winning all four major annual American entertainment awards is an achievement so select, that only 12 individuals have accomplished such a feat. But, with Midler’s wealth of talent, I wouldn’t put it past her.
Probably best known for her singing, Midler actually had her first real success in theater. She had earned money as an extra in the film “Hawaii,” and used the money to move from her native Honolulu to New York where she landed her first professional onstage role in Tom Eyen’s Off-Off-Broadway plays in 1965: “Miss Nefertiti Regrets” and “Cinderella Revisited,” a children’s play by day and an adult show by night.
From 1966 to 1969, she played the role of Tzeitel in “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway. After “Fiddler,” she joined the original cast of “Salvation” in 1969. She began singing in the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in the Ansonia Hotel, in the summer of 1970. During this time, she became close to her piano accompanist, none other than Barry Manilow before he had established his own stellar career, who produced her first two albums, 1972’s “The Divine Miss M,” and the self-titled “Bette Midler” in 1973.
“The Divine Miss M” reached Billboard’s Top 10 and became a million-selling Platinum-certified album, earning Midler the 1973 Grammy Award for “Best New Artist.” It featured three hit singles: “Do You Wanna Dance?” “Friends” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” the latter becoming Midler’s first #1 Adult Contemporary hit. Her eponymous follow up LP also reached Billboard’s Top 10 and eventually sold close to a million copies in the United States alone. Midler didn’t record again until 1976 and ‘77 with “Songs For The New Depression” and “Broken Blossom.”
In 1974, she received a Special Tony Award for her contribution to Broadway with “Clams on the Half Shell Revue” playing at the Minskoff Theater. In 1977, Midler’s first television special with the title “Ol’ Red Hair is Back” was a takeoff on Frank Sinatra’s “Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back,” premiered, featuring guest stars Dustin Hoffman and Emmett Kelly. It went on to win the Emmy Award for “Outstanding Special: Comedy-Variety or Music.”
Having established herself as a major recording artist, Midler moved into the film industry and starred in her first major motion picture in 1979, the 1960s-era rock and roll tragedy “The Rose,” portraying a drug-addicted rock star modeled after Janis Joplin. The same year, she also released her fifth studio album, “Thighs and Whispers.” This was Midler’s first foray into disco and was a commercial and critical failure that became her all-time lowest charting LP, peaking at #65 on the Billboard album chart. However, her performance in “The Rose” earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, a role for which she won the Golden Globe for “Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical.” The film’s acclaimed soundtrack album sold over two million copies, earning an RIAA Double Platinum certification. The single version of the title song, which Amanda McBroom had written and composed, held the #1 position on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart for five consecutive weeks and reached #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100. It earned Midler her first Gold single and won the Grammy award for “Best Pop Vocal Performance Female.”
Midler continued making films, but her subsequent movie in 1981, “Jinxed,” did not fare as well as “The Rose.” There were rumors that there was friction on set between co-star Ken Wahl and director Don Siegel. The film bombed at the box office and Midler went back to recording.
For the next four years she concentrated on her music career and, in 1983, released the album “No Frills,” produced by Chuck Plotkin, who was best known for his work with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Although the album was the second lowest charting record of her career, it became her best-selling studio album to date in both Continental Europe and Scandinavia. In West Germany it reached #15, in the Netherlands #10, in Norway #2 and in Sweden “No Frills” managed to reach the top spot of the albums chart, even outselling “The Rose” soundtrack, while the “Beast Of Burden” single was a Top 10 hit in most parts of Europe. The promo video for the song, made during the early MTV era, featured Mick Jagger in a cameo role playing Midler’s boyfriend.
Yo-yoing back and forth between music and film, in 1985 Midler signed a multi-picture deal with the Walt Disney Studios where she starred in a string of successful films produced by the studio’s newly formed Touchstone Pictures division. She was subsequently cast by director Paul Mazursky in “Down And Out In Beverly Hills,” beginning a successful comedic acting career.
She followed that role with “Ruthless People” (1986), “Outrageous Fortune” (1987), and “Big Business” (1988). She also scored a hit with the tearjerker “Beaches,” co-starring Barbara Hershey. The accompanying soundtrack was a massive success and remains Midler’s all-time biggest selling disc, reaching #2 on Billboard’s album chart with U.S. sales of four million copies. It featured her biggest hit, “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which went to #1 on the Hot 100, reaching Platinum status, and winning Midler her third Grammy Award for “Record of the Year,” in 1990.
Later that year, Midler released her seventh studio album, “Some People’s Lives,” which spawned the hit “From A Distance,” written by Julie Gold. Meanwhile, Midler’s next two films, “Stella” (1990) and “Scenes From A Mall,” (1991) with Woody Allen both performed poorly and the critics were not kind to either film. “Stella” earned Midler her first “Razzie Award” nomination for Worst Actress.
However, Midler bounced back with the 1991 film “For the Boys,” on which she re-teamed with “The Rose” director Mark Rydell. A historical musical drama, it tells the story of 1940s actress and singer Dixie Leonard, played by Midler, who teams up with Eddie Sparks, a famous performer to entertain American troops. While the film received a mixed reception from critics, Midler earned rave reviews for her portrayal. The following year she was awarded her second Golden Globe and received her second Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
In 1992, Midler created one of the most poignant highlights of her career when she performed on the second to last episode of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” She sang an emotion-filled “One For My Baby (and One More for the Road)” to Johnny Carson. Midler also began singing “Here's That Rainy Day,” Carson’s favorite song, while Carson joined in a few lyrics later.
After other film and television appearances, Midler’s 1997 HBO special “Diva Las Vegas” earned her a third Emmy Award for “Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Music Program.” Midler starred in her own sitcom in 2000, “Bette,” which featured Midler playing herself, a divine celebrity who is adored by her fans. Airing on CBS, initial ratings were high, marking the best sitcom debut for the network in more than five years, but viewership declined, resulting in the show’s cancellation in early 2001. Although the sitcom didn’t last, Midler was critically praised, and awarded a People’s Choice Award for her performance in the show, while receiving a Golden Globe Award nomination the following year.
During all of the films, and records throughout Midler’s career, she has always found time to tour and her performances have always played to sellout crowds. She toured almost annually from 1970 to 1983, then did not tour again until ten years later in 1993, touring every subsequent year until 2005.
In 2008, Midler reinvented herself by producing a Las Vegas show entitled “Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On” at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace. Sharing time at the same venue that Celine Dion christened, and Elton John and Cher have also had residencies, the show played its final performance on January 31, 2010, after a two-year run, and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for “Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Special” in 2011.
Ever the “showgirl,” Midler has a charitable side as well, founding the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) in 1995, a non-profit organization with the goal of revitalizing neglected neighborhood parks in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods of New York City. These include Highbridge Park, Fort Washington Park, and Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan and Roberto Clemente State Park and Bridge Park in the Bronx. When the city planned to auction 114 community gardens for commercial development, Midler led a coalition of greening organizations to save them. NYRP took ownership of 60 of the most neglected plots. Today, Midler and her organization work with local volunteers and community groups to ensure that these gardens are kept safe, clean and vibrant.
Currently back in full “Divine Miss M” mode, with her latest album, “It’s The Girls,” basking in rave reviews, Midler is preparing for her “Divine Intervention” tour. A trek that will kick off on May 8th in Hollywood, FL at The Hard Rock Live and will visit 24 cities nationwide including two nights at Madison Square Garden in New York June 25th & 26th. A word to the wise: this might be as close to divine intervention as many will ever get. It might be a good idea to partake of it.