Although I wouldn't call myself a devout fan, there's a soft spot in my heart for Bette Midler, a powerhouse of talent whose music, movies and TV appearances I've long enjoyed. (Truth be told, I was also never a rabid fan of Judy, Marilyn, Liza, Barbra or Cher). I wasn't yet living in New York during her Continental Baths years, never saw her perform live in concert, nor did I see The Rose or Beaches, but over a career that's spanned five decades I've had my share of exposure to her prolific creative output. I'm happy she's had such a successful and enduring career (some might even refer to it as "divine"). Now, with her triumphant starring role in the Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly!, this seems a perfect time to salute her through my memories.
My playlist is comprised of songs that were released between 1972-1977 and 1988-1992. But nothing after 2000.
- Friends (1972, The Divine Miss M) - Listening to it now, I find the line, "I had some friends but they're gone, someone came and took them away," chilling, since 10 years after the album was released this verse would hit home for many of us as the ravages of AIDS began decimating the gay community.
- Do You Want to Dance? (1972, The Divine Miss M) - This was Bette's first song to enter the Billboard Hot 40. I bought it as a single. In the late 1980s Bette sued the Ford Motor Co. when it used a singer with a voice very similar to hers in a TV commercial. A district court ruled against her but an appeals court overturned that decision.
- Twisted (1973, Bette Midler) - A brassy cover of a song first released in 1952, the following year it was one of the tracks on Joni Mitchell's album Court and Spark.
- I Shall be Released and Higher and Higher (1973, Bette Midler) - Both start out quietly, then build to a roar.
- Strangers in the Night (Songs from the New Depression, 1976) - Remake of Frank Sinatra's classic, but with more pizazz.
- Old Cape Cod (Songs from the New Depression, 1976) - A cover of a song from the late '50s which Patti Page made famous. When I'd walk at night in Provincetown on a moonlit night I'd have Bette's version playing in my head.
- Tragedy (Songs from the New Depression, 1976) - Not to be confused with the Bee Gees disco hit by the same name, this is beautiful, plaintive song.
- Yellow Beach Umbrella (Broken Blossom, 1977) - This one always makes me think of the Club Baths, where I first heard this tune. And it was perfect in that setting with lyrics that suggested anonymous encounters, such as "and nobody there will ever know me well", "gonna be a mystery to everyone", and "nobody there will ever find out who I am". The song was previously recorded by Perry Como, Andy Williams and Three Dog Night, which I found very peculiar because the song has such a female vibe to it.
- The Wind Beneath My Wings (1988) - Schmaltzy as hell but I always loved it, and I liked its beautiful music video as well. It was Bette's only chart topper. Three years before she made it an overplayed smash I bought a 12-inch dance version by a group called Menage.
- Miss Otis Regrets (1990, Some People's Lives) - Written by Cole Porter in 1934, Bette revisits the genre that was her trademark early in her career.
- From A Distance (1991) - Brings back memories of the first Gulf War. It peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
- Stuff Like That There and Billy-A-Dick (1991) - From the movie For the Boys, both songs were written during WWII, bringing Bette back to her roots when she was identified with tunes like the Andrew Sisters' Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and Glenn Miller's In the Mood.
- Ukulele Lady (1998, Bathhouse Betty) - A perfect, quirky with a retro feel to it that is vintage Bette.
- In These Shoes? (2000, Bette) - This is a cover of a song by the late Kirsty MacColl from her 1996 album.
MOVIES I'VE SEEN
She's appeared in more than two dozen movies but I've only seen a handful: Big Business (1988, with Lily Tomlin); Ruthless People (1986, with Danny DeVito); Down & Out in Beverly Hills (1986, with Richard Dreyfus); Outrageous Fortune (1987, with Shelly Long) and For the Boys (1991, with James Caan).
TV SHOWS, MAGAZINES, ETC.
She guest-starred on Cher's CBS special (Feb. 12, 1975) along with Elton John. This was one of the pop culture highlights of my senior year in high school.
In People Magazine's June 30, 1975 cover story, there was a photo of Bette planting flowers in front of her brownstone on Barrow St. (the block off Seventh Ave. South). I live near this street and think of this photo every time I walk on that block.
A great Vanity Fair cover as well as an amusing photo spread inside the issue (Dec. 1991).
Serenaded Johnny Carson (May 21, 1992). Perhaps the highlight of Johnny Carson's last week hosting the Tonight Show was Bette hopping on his desk and singing You Made Me Watch You. This affection was sincere since Carson launched her career when she appeared on his show for the first time in the summer of 1970 (however, her first national exposure was earlier that year on the much less popular David Frost Show).
Starred in the TV version of the musical Gypsy (Dec. 12, 1993). It took 10 years of cajoling before the show's late creator, Arthur Laurents, agreed to allow the project to go forward. The telecast was the fourth most popular show of the week and it won Bette a Golden Globe (but no Emmy). Sadly, the movie's director, Emile Ardolino, died from AIDS complications the week before the movie was telecast.
Appeared in an episode of Seinfeld (May 18, 1995). Playing herself, she's injured after Jerry slides into her at a charity softball game (his girlfriend is Bette's understudy in a musical called Rochelle, Rochelle). While recuperating in the hospital Kramer decides to take care of her, and presents here with a tiny likeness of herself made out of macaroni ("macaroni Midler").
Her love of nature and the people of New York City was the impetus behind the New York Restoration Project, a non-profit that Bette founded in July 1995. It has championed neglected community parks throughout the City, restoring them through clean-ups and the planting of trees and greenery.
Starred in a CBS sitcom in 2000-01 titled Bette. (In the pilot episode her daughter was played by 13-year-old Lindsay Lohan.) Unfortunately, this show was not a hit, and it's since been used as a prime example of how a big name doesn't necessarily mean a show will be a success with viewers.
During the 2011 holiday season Bette was featured in a commercial for the Honda Acura as an over-the-top Christmas caroler.
Finally, the Caricatures ...
And if the 22 images in this post leave you wanting more, try the 2000+ images on this Pinterest page devoted to the Divine Miss M.