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PODCAST EPISODE 45 – The Divine Miss M

Bette Midler, born December 1, 1945, is an American singer, songwriter, actress, comedian, and film producer. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Midler began her professional career in several Off-Off-Broadway plays, prior to her engagements in Fiddler on the Roof and Salvation on Broadway in the late 1960s. She came to prominence in 1970 when she began singing in the Continental Baths, a local gay bathhouse where she managed to build up a core following.

Since 1970, Midler has released 14 studio albums as a solo artist. Throughout her career, many of her songs became hits on the record charts, including her renditions of “The Rose”, “Wind Beneath My Wings”, “Do You Want to Dance”, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, and “From a Distance”. In 2008, she signed a contract with Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to perform a show titled Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On, which ended in 2010.

Midler made her motion picture debut in 1979 with The Rose, which earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress, as well as a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress. She has since starred in a number of hit films, which include: Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Ruthless People (1986), Outrageous Fortune (1987), Big Business (1988), Beaches (1988), Hocus Pocus (1993), The First Wives Club (1996), The Stepford Wives (2004), and Parental Guidance (2012). She also starred in For the Boys. 

Personal life

Bette Midler was born in Honolulu, where her family was one of the few Jewish families in a mostly Asian neighborhood. Her mother, Ruth, was a seamstress and housewife, and her father, Fred Midler worked at a Navy base in Hawaii as a painter, and was also a housepainter. Both parents were born in New Jersey. She was named after actress Bette Davis, though Davis pronounced her first name in two syllables, and Midler uses one. She was raised in Aiea and attended Radford High School, in Honolulu. She was voted “Most Talkative” in the 1961 school Hoss Election, and “Most Dramatic” in her senior year (class of 1963). Midler majored in drama at the University of Hawaii at Manoa but left after three semesters. She earned money in the 1966 film Hawaii as an extra, playing an uncredited seasick passenger named Miss David Buff.

Midler married artist Martin von Haselberg on December 16, 1984, about six weeks after their first meeting. Their daughter, Sophie von Haselberg, who is also an actress, was born on November 14, 1986.

Career

Theater

Midler with Dustin Hoffman on Bette Midler’s TV special (1977)Midler relocated to New York City in the summer of 1965, using money from her work in the film Hawaii. 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 at 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, Barry Manilow, who produced her first album in 1972, The Divine Miss M. It was during her time at the Continental Baths that she built up a core following. In the late 1990s, during the release of her album Bathhouse Betty, Midler commented on her time performing there, “Despite the way things turned out [with the AIDS crisis], I’m still proud of those days. I feel like I was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, and I hope I did my part to help it move forward. So, I kind of wear the label of ‘Bathhouse Betty’ with pride.”

Midler starred in the first professional production of the Who’s rock opera Tommy in 1971, with director Richard Pearlman and the Seattle Opera. It was during the run of Tommy that Midler first appeared on The Tonight Show.

1972–1980: The Divine Miss M and success

Midler with Dustin Hoffman on Bette Midler’s TV special (1977)

Midler released her debut album, The Divine Miss M, on Atlantic Records in December 1972. The album was co-produced by Barry Manilow, who was Bette’s arranger and music conductor at the time. It 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 third of which became Midler’s first No. 1 Adult Contemporary hit. “Bugle Boy” became a successful rock cover of the classic swing tune originally introduced and popularized in 1941 by the famous Andrews Sisters, to whom Midler has repeatedly referred as her idols and inspiration, as far back as her first appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. 

Midler told Carson in an interview that she always wanted to move like the sisters, and Patty Andrews remembered: “When I first heard the introduction on the radio, I thought it was our old record. When Bette opened at the Amphitheater in Los Angeles, Maxene and I went backstage to see her. Her first words were, ‘What else did you record?” During another Midler concert, Maxene went on stage and presented her with an honorary bugle. Bette recorded other Andrews Sisters hits, including “In the Mood” and “Lullaby of Broadway”.

Her self-titled follow-up album was released at the end of 1973. Again, the album was co-produced by Manilow. It reached Billboard’s Top 10 and eventually sold close to a million copies in the United States alone. Midler returned to recording with the 1976 and 1977 albums, 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. From 1975–1978, she also provided the voice of Woody the Spoon on the PBS educational series Vegetable Soup. In 1977, Midler’s first television special, whose 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.

Midler made her first motion picture in 1979, starring in the 1960s-era rock and roll tragedy The Rose, as a drug-addicted rock star modeled after Janis Joplin.That year, she also released her fifth studio album, Thighs and Whispers. Midler’s first foray into disco was a commercial and critical failure and went on to be her all-time lowest charting album, peaking at No. 65 on the Billboard album chart. Soon afterward, she began a world concert tour, with one of her shows in Pasadena being filmed and released as the concert film Divine Madness (1980).

Her performance in The Rose earned her a nomination for Academy Award for Best Actress, a role for which she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress (Comedy or Musical). The film’s acclaimed soundtrack album sold over two million copies in the United States alone, earning a Double Platinum certification. The single version of the title song, which Amanda McBroom had written and composed, held the No. 1 position on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart for five consecutive weeks and reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100. It earned Midler her first Gold single and won the Grammy award for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.

1981–1989: “Wind Beneath My Wings”, Beaches, and chart comeback

Midler worked on the troubled comedy project Jinxed! in 1981. However, during production, there was friction with co-star Ken Wahl and the film’s director, Don Siegel. Released in 1982, the film was a major flop.  Midler did not appear in any other films until 1986. During those 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. The album included three single releases: the ballad “All I Need to Know”, a cover of Detroit native Marshall Crenshaw’s “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time”—which Midler fell in love with after flipping his 45 of “Someday Someway”—and Midler’s take on the Rolling Stones cover “Beast of Burden”. She also released an all-comedy album (with a few songs tied into the comedy) called “Mud Will Be Flung Tonight” in 1985.

Midler performed on USA for Africa’s 1985 fund-raising single “We Are the World”, and participated at the Live Aid event at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Also in 1985, she 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 also produced them through her production banner, All Girl Productions with producing partner Bonnie Bruckheimer. 

She was cast by director Paul Mazursky in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, beginning a successful comedic acting career. She followed that role with several more Touchstone comedies, Ruthless People (1986), Outrageous Fortune (1987), and Big Business (1988). Later in 1988, Midler lent her voice to the animated character Georgette, a snobbish poodle, in Disney’s Oliver & Company, and had a hit with the tearjerker Beaches, co-starring Barbara Hershey. The accompanying soundtrack remains Midler’s all-time biggest selling disc, reaching No. 2 on Billboard’s album chart and with U.S. sales of four million copies. It featured her biggest hit, “Wind Beneath My Wings”, which went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, achieved Platinum status, and won Midler her third Grammy Award – for Record of the Year – at the 1990 telecast. 

Midler won two additional Golden Globe Awards and receiving a second Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for the former.

In a career spanning almost half a century, Midler has won three Grammy Awards, four Golden Globes, three Emmy Awards, and two Tony Awards. She has sold over 30 million records worldwide, and has received four Gold, three Platinum, and three Multiplatinum albums by RIAA.

Midler’s latest work included appearing on Broadway in a revival of Hello, Dolly!, which began preview performances on March 15, 2017 and premiered at the Shubert Theatre on April 20, 2017. It was her first leading role in a Broadway musical. On June 11, 2017, Midler received the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the title role in Hello, Dolly!.

2000–2005: Bette sitcom, tribute albums, and Kiss My Brass tour

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 viewers percentage soon declined, resulting in the show’s cancellation in early 2001. Midler openly griped about the show’s demanding shooting schedule, while the show itself was also reportedly rocked by backstage turmoil, involving the replacement of co-star Kevin Dunn whose departure was attributed to his behind-the scenes bickering with Midler by the media. However, Midler, critically praised, was awarded a People’s Choice Award for her performance in the show and received a Golden Globe Award nomination the following year. Also in 2000, Midler made an uncredited cameo appearance in Nancy Meyers’ fantasy rom–com What Women Want, starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. In the film, she portrayed a therapist who realizes that central character Nick, played by Gibson, is able to understand women’s thoughts. Released to generally mixed reviews, it became the then-most successful film ever directed by a woman, taking in $183 million in the United States, and grossing upward of $370 million worldwide.

The same year Midler starred in Isn’t She Great and Drowning Mona. In Andrew Bergman’s Isn’t She Great, a highly fictionalized account of the life and career of author Jacqueline Susann, she played alongside Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing, portraying Susann with her early struggles as an aspiring actress relentlessly hungry for fame, her relationship with press agent Irving Mansfield, her success as the author of Valley of the Dolls, and her battle with and subsequent death from breast cancer. The comedy garnered largely negative reviews by critics, who dismissed it as “bland material that produces entirely forgettable comic performances.” 

For her performance in the film, Midler received her second Golden Raspberry Award nomination for Worst Actress at the 21st ceremony. In Nick Gomez’s dark comedy Drowning Mona, Midler appeared along with Danny DeVito and Jamie Lee Curtis, playing title character Mona Dearly, a spiteful, loud-mouthed, cruel and highly unpopular woman, whose mysterious death is investigated. Another critical fiasco, reviewers noted that the film “drowns itself in humor that never rises above sitcom level.”

After nearly three decades of erratic record sales, Midler was dropped from the Warner Music Group in 2001. Following a reported long-standing feud with Barry Manilow, the two joined forces after many years in 2003 to record Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook. Now signed to Columbia Records, the album was an instant success, being certified gold by RIAA. One of the Clooney Songbook selections, “This Ole House”, became Midler’s first Christian radio single shipped by Rick Hendrix and his positive music movement. The album was nominated for a Grammy the following year.

Throughout 2003 and 2004, Midler toured the United States in her new show, Kiss My Brass, to sell-out audiences. Also in 2004, she appeared in a supporting role in Frank Oz’ science fiction satire The Stepford Wives, a remake of the 1975 film of the same name also based on the Ira Levin novel. Also starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken and Glenn Close, Midler played Bobbie Markowitz, a writer and recovering alcoholic. The project underwent numerous production problems that occurred throughout its shooting schedule, with reports of problems on-set between director Oz and the actors being rampant in the press. Oz later blamed Midler — who was amid recording her next album and rehearsing for her tour — for being under a lot of stress by other projects and making “the mistake of bringing her stress on the set.” While the original book and film had tremendous cultural impact, the remake was marked by poor reviews by many critics, and a financial loss of approximately $40 million at the box office.

Midler joined forces again with Manilow for another tribute album, Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook. Released in October 2005, the album sold 55,000 copies the first week of release, returned Midler to the top ten of US Billboard 200, and was nominated for a Grammy Award.

2006–2011:

Midler released a new Christmas album titled Cool Yule in 2006, which featured a duet of Christmastime pop standards “Winter Wonderland”/”Let It Snow” with Johnny Mathis. Well-received, the album garnered a Grammy Award nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album in 2007. The same year, Midler returned to the big screen, appearing in Then She Found Me, Helen Hunt’s feature film directorial debut. Also starring Hunt along with Matthew Broderick and Colin Firth, the comedy-drama film tells the story of a 39-year-old Brooklyn elementary school teacher, who after years is contacted by the flamboyant host of a local talk show, played by Midler, who introduces herself as her biological mother. Critical response to the film was mixed; whereas some critics praised the film for having strong performances, others felt the film was bogged down by a weak script and technical issues.

Midler debuted her Vegas show titled Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace on February 20, 2008. It comprised The Staggering Harlettes, 20 female dancers called The Caesar Salad Girls and a 13-piece band. The show played its final performance on January 31, 2010,[57] and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Special in 2011. Also in 2008, another compilation album by Midler, Jackpot: The Best Bette, was released. It reached number 66 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, and number six in the United Kingdom, where it was certified platinum for sales of over 300,000 copies. As her only film appearance that year, Midler had a small role in Diane English’s comedy film The Women, starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and Eva Mendes among others. An updated version of the George Cukor-directed 1939 film of the same name based on a 1936 play by Clare Boothe Luce, the film was widely panned by critics, who found it “…a toothless remake of the 1939 classic, lacking the charm, wit and compelling protagonists of the original.”

Midler appeared on the Bravo TV show My Life on the D-List with Kathy Griffin in an episode that aired in June 2009. In December of the same year, she appeared in the Royal Variety Performance, an annual British charity event attended by Queen Elizabeth II. Midler performed “In My Life” and “Wind Beneath My Wings” as the closing act. In 2010, Midler voiced the character Kitty Galore in the animated film Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. The film was a success, grossing $112 million worldwide. In November 2010, Midler released Memories of You, another compilation of lesser known tracks from her catalog. Midler was one of the producers of the Broadway production of the musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which opened in February 2011.

2012–present: Parental Guidance, I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers, It’s the Girls!, and Hello, Dolly!

In June 2012, Midler received the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York in recognition of her having “captivated the world” with her “stylish presentation and unmistakable voice.” The same year, she co-starred alongside Billy Crystal in the family movie Parental Guidance (2012), playing a couple of old school grandparents trying to adapt to their daughter’s 21st-Century parenting style. Despite generally negative reviews by critics, who felt the film was “sweet but milquetoast”, box office totals for the movie were higher than initially expected.

In 2013, Midler performed on Broadway for the first time in more than 30 years in a play about the Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers. The play, titled I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers and dramatized by John Logan, opened on April 24, 2013 at the Booth Theatre. After the show’s success in New York, recouping its initial $2.4 million investment, it was decided to perform the play in Los Angeles at the Geffen Playhouse. In December, it was announced that Midler would portray actress Mae West in an HBO movie biopic, written by Harvey Fierstein and directed by William Friedkin.

In March 2014, she performed at the 86th Academy Awards telecast at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, singing “Wind Beneath My Wings” during the in memoriam section.[69] In November 2014, Midler released her 25th overall album, It’s the Girls!, through Warner Bros. Records. The album spans seven decades of famous girl groups, from 1930s trios The Boswell Sisters and The Andrews Sisters to 1990s R&B legends such as TLC and their single “Waterfalls”.

In March 2017, she began playing the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi, continuing through January 2018, in the Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! for which she won her second Tony Award. In 2017 she also appeared in the role of Muv in the 2017 film Freak Show. On April 20, 2018 it was announced that Midler will be returning to Hello, Dolly! on July 17 to close out the run of the successful revival.

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