Yes, we have a friend, in Bette.
Acquired Tastes, XXXXV: Bette Midler
“You gotta have friends…” exclaims the Mark "Moogy" Klingman / Buzzy Linhart song that helped cement Bette’s longstanding relationship with the gay community.
Bathhouse Betty has been on the scene since 1970, when she honed her skills at the bathhouses of New York City. Granted, a line from that song (“I used to have me some friends, but something came and took them away.”) took on a whole new meaning by 1984, but The Divine Ms. M. never abandoned the gay community and considered herself to be on the forefront of the gay rights movement.
Like many of the gay community’s sainted diva deities (Cher, Madonna, Diana Ross), she has been hot and then… not. Her career is in the midst of a hard won third act, and there appears to be no stopping the sequined firestorm, the big noise from Winnetka, the girl who is on to you, the rose, the divine one known as…
Scope of Activity:
A brief examination of the life and career of Bette Midler and her longstanding relationship with the gay community.
The Official Line:
She began singing in the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in the city, 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"
Is she the ultimate fag hag? Our mother? Our favorite pseudo drag queen?
What is the enduring appeal of Ms. Midler for the gay community?
Well, she makes us laugh. Because she gets us. She appreciates what we appreciate, be it kitsch, clever dirty jokes, casual sex, celebrity impressions, borscht belt bawdy humor, maudlin ballads, up-tempo footlight fare, or the occasional poignant moment of self-realization.
Her live shows were and remain legendary. The lady gives her all, holding little back. She shares that mischievous twinkle that dances in her eyes by letting us, the gay community, in on every joke.
She was there to entertain us from the very beginning, catering to our sense of humor in one of the few public social gathering places for gay men that were not bars or discos. We fed her our laughter and our love, and, in return, she made us feel legitimate as a people; attention and entertainment worthy. That kind of love and acknowledgement was rare in those days for a community many still considered ‘perverted’. And while she may have chafed at the bit a bit later in her career, sick and tired of every article written about her beginning with “She began singing in the Continental Baths…”, she also knew who her audience was and who would be there, buying her records and attending her concerts, when the whims of fashion shifted and times were not so good.
We have always been there for her. And she’s been there for us.
A novice when it becomes the divine one? Where to begin?
Her debut album, ‘The Divine Ms. M.’ (1972) remains an all-time classic. This is the music she honed to a fine finish during her stint in the baths. The song selection could not be finer (‘Daytime Hustler’ being the sole song I could live without). There is an energy, focus, and magic that happens, possibly due to the excitement of recording a debut album, but I think it is also a case of catching lightening in a bottle.
Standout Tracks: ‘Hello, In There’ (Heartbreaking.), ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ (Sexy as hell.), and ‘Friends’
‘Delta Dawn’ was included because they hoped to beat Tanya Tucker and Helen Reddy to the punch. Listen to it and you will understand that Bette’s version came in third for good reason.
Also: Bette owes a lot of the magic of this album to the careful, restrained work of Mr. Manilow. They had a huge falling out during the sessions of her follow-up (Bette is notorious for burning bridges) and would not work together again until her 2003 Rosemary Clooney project. Bette has never had a more simpatico accompanist than Barry.
‘Live at Last’ (1977) marks her next triumph. Capturing the magic of live shows on vinyl is always a risky venture, but in this case, it works. Midler is best live; a consummate performer. Her manic, machine gun delivery and earthy balm counteract each other to great effect, keeping the audience, whether in the theatre or, in this case, on vinyl, on the edge of their seats, thoroughly engaged.
Standout Tracks: You really must listen to this whole album in sequence to truly appreciate the experience. The amazing thing? It is one of the few comedy albums that holds up to repeated listening. The bonus cut, the non-live ‘I’m Moving Out Today’, is total gem of a song Midler wrote with two of my all-time favorite songwriters, Carole Bayer Sager and Bruce Roberts.
And check to see if you’re missing your funny bone if Bette’s Sophie Tucker jokes and the Vicki Eydie Show fail to bring a smile to your face.
When Bette took on the mystique of Janis Joplin, no one knew what to expect. ‘The Rose (Original Soundtrack)’ (1979) captures a side of this woman no one saw coming. So raw, so vulnerable, so electric, there is no denying the many risks Midler took as a singer in the creation of this bigger than life character. She comes out a winner, with some the grittiest performances of her singing career.
Standout Tracks: Following the monologue, the final trio (Stay with Me / Let Me Call You Sweetheart / The Rose) really need to be listened to in sequence. It is a harrowing, haunting ride. Her version of ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ kicks ass, as do all the rest of the cuts.
‘Beaches (Original Soundtrack)’ (1989) marked a sales highpoint for Bette and gave her the big comeback she was looking for musically. While the eclectic song selection serves the film well, it makes for a hit-and-miss listening experience. Midler was ready to embrace an adult contemporary audience and her fans went along for the ride.
Standout Tracks: “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” is pure magic.
Continuing on in her quest for A/C respectability, 1990’s ‘Some People’s Lives’ represents a crowning achievement, accomplishing exactly that.
The edge may be gone, but in its place is a much more accomplished singer. Her tone, pitch, intonation, placement, and breath control, have never been better. Turns out, maturity suits Ms. Midler.
Standout Tracks: Janis Ian’s ‘Some People’s Lives’, the sly ‘The Girl Is On To You’, and the heartbreaking ‘Since You Stayed Here’
There isn’t a bad cut on the whole album.
‘No Frills’ (1983) finds Midler at her most adventurous. I love the song choices. It may sound dated now, but the production was pretty cutting edge at the time and a surprise to many of her fans.
Standout Tracks: The opening two tracks – ‘Is It Love’ (Nick Gilder and Jimmy McCulloch) and Marshall Crenshaw’s glorious ‘Favorite Waste of Time’ - are a great way to kick off the album, just as ‘Let Me Drive’ and Moon Martin’s ‘My Eye on You’ are a great way to get things started on side two.
One could argue that the album loses steam near the end, especially with the overwrought ‘Come Back, Jimmy Dean’, but overall I think this a mighty fun listen. She cherry-picked some fine tunes written by some (then) up and coming songwriters.
Much like ‘No Frills’, 1995’s ‘Bette of Roses’ finds Midler casting a wide net in order to snag some cutting edge songwriters and songs. Sure, most of those edges are dulled or smothered, lost beneath the layers and layers of production provided by Arif Mardin, but it’s a winning set anyway.
Standout Tracks: ‘In This Life’ never fails to bring a tear to my eye, and the-shoulda-been hit ‘To Deserve You’ thrills me to this day.
Okay, truth be told, the second half is pretty dire, and I never listen to it… but half a good Bette Midler album is good enough for me.
‘Thighs and Whispers’ (1978) is pretty much a mess (lots of hollow disco), the comedy album ‘Mud Will Be Flung Tonight’ with it topical humor was stale upon release, and, sadly, ‘Bathhouse Betty’ fails to capture the magic it so desperately wished to recreate.
Must See: The Rose (1979), Outrageous Fortune (1987)
Popular: Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Ruthless People (1988), Big Business (1988), The First Wives Club (1996), For The Boys (1991), and Beaches (1988)
I hate ‘Beaches’. I think it is absolute trash, and not great, fun trash, either. The film is as full of collagen as Barbara Hershey’s lips. I think it’s ripe for a parody (called 'Bitches') - a stage production starring a pair of drag queens. (If anyone is interested, let me know. I’ll shave.)
Low Points: Stella (1990), Scenes from A Mall (1991), Isn’t She Great (2000) and Then She Found Me (2007)
‘Isn’t She Great’? No, she isn’t. A wonderful opportunity horribly wasted. And ‘Then She Found Me’? Another great opportunity wasted.
Personal Favorites: Jinxed (1982)
Yeah, I have heard all the stories. I don’t care. I still think it’s good fun (I saw it in the theatre during its initial run) and it’s a great companion film to ‘Outrageous Fortune’
My first exposure came in 1972, in Denver Colorado. I was visiting my cousins whom I always thought of as ‘The Brady Bunch’. The boys (my older brother included) had no time for me. ‘Marsha’ played with my older sister, ‘Cyndi’ with my other two younger sisters. That left the black sheep of the family, ‘Jan’. Jan took me into her father’s bar in the basement and played me Bette’s debut album. We listened to it over and over again and I was enthralled. I was very young and promptly forgot about it, never owning a copy until much later in life.
Whatever it was about Bette Midler that spoke to me then, still speaks to me today. When Bette is good - she is very, very good. And when Bette is bad…
An ex-friend of mine once said, “Cher should act and not sing. Bette should sing, but not act.”
I don’t know if I agree with his assessment regarding Cher (I love her ‘truck driver in drag’ approach to singing), but he nailed poor Bette to the floor.
She is a terrible, terrible actress who will chew up the scenery, her co-stars, the script, her director, and anything else within grasp. She also has a horrible reputation of being difficult to work with, unprofessional, and disrespectful. She’s demanding, shrill, overbearing, spiteful, and mean.
But she’s talented, a force of nature, harder on herself than she is on others, and a hard worker.
I love a lot of her music. She has a tendency to fall for mush and treacle – no doubt in the hopes of finding another ‘Hello, In There’ or ‘Shiver Me Timbers’, but as a singer, she has always had great instincts and serviceable pipes. About 1988 she developed into a great singer, full of nuance and substance.
I dislike most standards albums, so I have avoided both her Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee tributes, but I bet she is in fine form on both.
These days, I also admire her for her charity work and dedication to the environment (don’t litter). Find out more about it here: http://www.bettemidler.com/rescue
FYI: On June 30th she finished a run on Broadway portraying Sue Mengers in the one woman show, ‘I’ll Eat You Last’ and is currently in talks to bring the show to L.A.
Bette earned her place in the hallowed hall of gay divas. While I appreciate those divas who float above us, cool to the touch, my heart will always be with those that put themselves out there and work up a sweat; Bette definitely belongs to the latter – that’s the borscht belt tradition. It’s what makes her real to us, as real as the heartbreak she can bring to a song, or the gales of laughter she can produce with a mere woggle of her arm fat.
A major gay icon, The Divine Ms. M. holds a special place in the hearts of those who ‘remember way back when’. She will, no doubt, one day join the ranks of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Maria Callas and the like, taking on the mystique granted so many classic performers long cherished by the gay community.
Yes, we have a friend, in Bette.
Yes, we have a friend, in Bette.
'Hello, In There' - Bette Midler
'My Eye On You' - Bette Midler
'My Favorite Waste of Time' - Bette Midler
'In This Life' - Bette Midler
'To Deserve You' - Bette Midler
'Friends' - Bette Midler