There are so many words that describe Bette Midler, but one word you will never hear is "ordinary." From the first time you became conscious of this woman, she was a force to be reckoned with.
My memories of Bette Midler begin in the winter of '73 when a friend of mine played a new album for me. The first track was "Do You Want To Dance?" and though I was familiar with the more upbeat tone of this song from the early 60's, I had never heard it done quite this way. It was slow, sexy and very adult. I was barely 15 and I recall quite well how she made me aware that dancing was just a metaphor for what she was actually singing about. By the time the album had finished, Midler had taken me through a wide array of emotions. The tracks ranged from torch songs of the 30's to wartime 40's romps to 60's pop classics to original songs of the modern day. The highlights are too many to mention, BUT if I had to select a couple, they would include a breathtaking original take on the Carpenters' "Superstar," along with the haunting and sad "Hello In There." She was able to perform familiar classics and yet make them her very own. Bette Midler's first album, The Divine Miss M, had amazing range, just like the personality I came to know within that very first year I discovered her.
More times than not when an artist hits this big with their first record album, it's nearly impossible to repeat the success. In Bette Midler's case, she's repeated it several times - not just on record, but on the Broadway and concert stage, on television and on the silver screen. Through it all, she has amassed Grammy's (including her first as Best New Artist 1973), Emmy's, a Tony, Golden Globes and two Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. All of this and more are brilliantly documented on the fabulous new DVD release, The Divine Bette Midler.
Much of this documentary aired on A&E last year, but what sets this apart from the "Biography" special are the DVD bonus features including extended interviews, deleted scenes and Midler's complete musical performances of "From A Distance" (from the 1997 Diva Las Vegas TV special) and "Do You Want To Dance" (from the 1977 Ol' Red Hair Is Back TV special).
The retrospective takes us through her introverted childhood in Hawaii, and the triumphs and tragedies of this magnificent performer and humanitarian. Throughout the 90 minute special we are treated to interviews from those who know her best. There are over a dozen, including her collaborators Barry Manilow; Bruce Vilanch; Glenn Close; Danny Devito; Barbara Hershey; her husband Martin von Hasselberg and Bette herself.
Other extras include Bette's performances from the 1967 Tony Awards with Bette singing "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," the Continental Baths in 1970, concert footage, key scenes from her films and more than 17 song performances including such highlights as scrapped song rehearsals through her historic and heartfelt Emmy Award-winning performance of "One For My Baby" as Johnny Carson's last guest on May 21, 1992. It's followed by performances throughout the 90's and her triumphs right up to the current day. This retrospective is so comprehensive, it hasn't left a thing out. Let me take you through some of the highlights you can expect to see in this jam-packed presentation.
After the commentary and rare photos of Bette's humble beginnings, the documentary follows Midler's move to New York where she got her first big break in the Broadway show, Fiddler On The Roof, playing the role of the eldest sister. She remained in the show for three years. In 1968, her sister Judith Midler came to see her for the first time in a Broadway show. Judy was struck by a car in the theater district and was killed instantly. This changed Bette's life forever. She now needed to prove herself even more and become a star, not just for herself, but for her beloved sister. "Fiddler" also introduced Bette to actress Marta Heflin who was playing her understudy. The meeting turned into a friendship that has remained solid ever since. One night in 1969, Marta was performing at a club in Manhattan when Midler asked to tag along and Marta said "Sure, just get up and sing a song." Marta continues, "She got up and sang "God Bless The Child." Now I've only heard her sing her stuff from the show [Fiddler On The Roof], who knew?! After she sang, there was this hush in the audience, then everybody stood up and applauded, like a roar! Oh My God, I'm getting chills right now. A Star Is Born right in front of me!" Bette explains the experience, "My heart stopped and I was somewhere where I did not know who I was or what I was doing there and it was very exciting."
In July 1970, Bette's career was about to hit another high note. The irony of it was that the high note came from the basement of a New York City hotel. It was the Continental Baths and Bette was soon headlining a show at 1AM for an audience of gay men wearing nothing but towels around their waist. She had found the perfect audience for her outrageous comedy and musical revue. She realized she "had to be more outrageous than her surroundings." As her musical accompanist, Barry Manilow described her as "this hurricane of talent." The gay men of New York dubbed Bette Midler as "The Divine."
While appearing at a Manhattan club, Ahmet Ertegun, the founder and chairman of Atlantic Records came to see her show. Ertegun knew a star when he saw one, and Bette was one of the best performers he had ever seen. This led to her recording contract.
Midler made three attempts to record her first album, but the magic of her performances was lost in the recordings Atlantic had called "stiff and lifeless." Midler and Manilow used their own money to stage a one-night performance concert at Carnegie Hall. Midler became the first woman in history to sell out Carnegie Hall without ever having a song released. This caught the attention of many important show business people, and before she knew it, Johnny Carson came-a-calling and asked her to be a guest on his show. That was it. Toni Basil, Bette's choreographer for the past 30 years, describes seeing her for the first time on Johnny Carson and wondering `What is this that's storming on to my TV screen?' There's a great clip of her first appearance on Carson when he said to her "You're going to be someone to contend with. You're going to be a big star because you are unique and you are different." Bette describes that moment as "The living end - You couldn't do any better than that." Carson became her biggest supporter giving her numerous guest appearances on his show. Her tremendous exposure enabled Midler to gain a huge national fanbase and led to her first national tour. Before the tour began, Bette still needed to record an album that Atlantic would release. Barry had played the Carnegie Hall tapes for Ertegun. He was flabbergasted. Ertegun said "That's the album I want!" With that, he hired Manilow and the two of them "reproduced" Bette's first album, The Divine Miss M. Bette was now on the cover of every magazine around the world, including Rolling Stone where editor and publisher Jann Webber described her as "an artist that could sing rock to ballads to show tunes. She was the most versatile performer I have ever seen."
While in Europe, Manilow scored his own Number One hit and when Bette was ready to go back to work, Manilow had his own career that was just beginning to skyrocket. Bette felt abandoned.
Bette's new one-woman concert on Broadway, Clams On The Half Shell Revue, opened on April 14, 1974 at the Palace Theatre and was a blockbuster. The run of "Clams" was extended from four weeks to ten weeks and made Bette the queen of Broadway. After the sold-out success, her champion, Johnny Carson, presented her with a special Tony Award. The year was 1974.
This is the point of this column that I call "the tease." This is where I lead my readers to their favorite retailer, or Amazon.com to pick up a copy of this extraordinary DVD to see The Divine Bette Midler in all its glory. What I've described is just the beginning. There is so much more to see and hear; such as performance footage from Bette's first television special, documented footage of conquering Hollywood, her very public fall from grace, her career resurrection, the disaster of her sitcom, her stunning and heart-wrenching performance at Yankee Stadium just after 9-11, and much, much, much more!
Whether it's laughs or tears, charm or bawdiness, The Divine Bette Midler has it all. This DVD is one of the finest in-depth retrospectives of one of the most extraordinary performers of all time. Craig Zadan, the producer of Gypsy, calls Bette Midler "the finest live performer of our generation." That is not an understatement. This DVD is proof.