Who is Bette Midler? There’s her onstage alter ego, The Divine Miss M, the brash and bawdy chanteuse with risqué sequin-clad décolletage she invented back in the 1970s at Manhattan’s Continental Baths gay spa. And the hilariously over-the-top characters she’s played in such films as “Ruthless People,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “The First Wives Club.”
But in a telephone interview from her New York home, the 67-year-old Oscar-nominated actress and Grammy-winning performer came off as low-key, no-nonsense, almost aristocratic, eschewing the vaguely New Yawk accent of her comic characters for crisp thespian tones. Midler can certainly be amusing: Ask about the secret to the success of her 28-year marriage to former commodities broker Martin von Haselberg, and she quips: “Be away a lot.”
“ ‘Home Alone’ for grandparents” is how she describes her new movie, “Parental Guidance,” in which she and Billy Crystal play a couple unexpectedly asked to baby-sit their estranged grandchildren. (The film opens Dec. 25.)
But as she speaks, Midler seems settled into her role as a homebody: as a longtime wife and mother to her 26-year-old daughter, Sophie, as well as an avid reader, gardener, cook, philanthropist and Twitter enthusiast. Last Passover she tweeted: “The brisket’s in the oven and the Alka-Seltzer by the sink! Charge!”
She also seems genuinely pleased, even honored, to hear she is considered a Jewish icon of sorts. Midler once told Johnny Carson that she had a Venus flytrap: “I don’t have any flies, so I gave it bacon. It spit it out! A Jewish Venus Flytrap, I suppose.” In another gag, she claimed to be working on a sequel to the X-rated film “Emmanuelle,” which would feature lots of kissing of mezuzahs as well as a risqué encounter with a kreplach.
“I’m glad I’m called any kind of icon,” she said with a throaty laugh. “It’s very sweet, very nice for people to want to claim me. Much better than the other way around, like ‘Uch, she doesn’t belong to us.’ ” Midler once aspired to become a legend: “Ambition used to eat me up alive,” she recalled. “But with age, things change. Certain things come to the forefront, and others recede.” From 2008 to 2010, Midler headlined in “The Showgirl Must Go On” in Las Vegas — a city she dubbed onstage as “the only town that could teach Kraft something about cheese” — but she admits her film career has been one of the casualties of age. Back in the 1980s, Midler was reportedly one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, but the calls from producers have not been coming as much in recent years.
Then came the chance to star in “Parental Guidance,” a Fox studio film directed by Andy Fickman. “I loved the script,” she said. “It’s a kind of second-chance movie — the idea that there’s this man who’s so self-involved that his own daughter won’t even let him in the house near her children. He goes, against his will, kicking and screaming, to meet these dragons, who are really his grandchildren. And then he has to go through this journey where he comes out on the other side transformed into the good person his wife always suspected he could be.”
Just as Midler’s character of Diane, the generous grandmother, has overtones of the Jewish mother, Midler has often used her Judaism as part of her persona. But her tribal sense of humor – and identity – was honed in a distinctly non-Jewish milieu: a low-income part of Honolulu, where Midler grew up in the only white, or haole, family in the neighborhood. “I did feel very much alien, an outsider,” she said of her time there. “People knew what a white person was — they didn’t like them — but they had no idea of what a Jew was. In fact, when my father made us stay home for Yom Kippur, the school wouldn’t allow it because they thought it was some kind of fake, made-up holiday. I’m sure if people had known what a Jew was, things would have been worse,” she added.
Midler got by because her mostly Asian and Polynesian classmates assumed she was Portuguese. “Not to stereotype, but the Portuguese were very outspoken people who talked a lot and really loud, and I did the same thing,” she said.
Even though her home was mostly non-religious, she continued, “In the seventh grade, I was struck by Judaism. I took Hebrew lessons and tried to get through the five books of Moses. I think it was hormones,” she joked, before adding, “at some point you do have a kind of awakening, and wonder who and what you are.”
While outdoors the landscape was “paradise,” she said, “indoors, not so much.” Her father, a housepainter, was controlling and a screamer — “I was afraid of him until I turned 14, and then it was just silly,” she said, adding that she later cared for him as he was dying of heart issues in the mid-1980s, while she was pregnant with Sophie.
Midler’s mother, an avid movie-star fan who named Midler after Bette Davis, was a timid soul who tried to shelter her three daughters and developmentally disabled son from the world. “My mother’s family was incredibly superstitious,” Midler recalled. “They were old-country Jews who never laughed, because, they said, ‘You’re going to attract the evil eye.’ They’d been through two world wars, the Depression and the Nazi slaughter in Europe. So my mother was an extremely frightened person, almost to the point where it was crazy, and I picked that up as well. I think I’ve allowed myself to be isolated as a person of note, or whatever you want to call me, for a very long time, and I’ve realized that’s terrible; I’ve got to learn how to do things for myself. … I also tend to imagine other people’s reactions when they’re not really thinking that sort of thing at all; it’s called over-thinking.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — her own problematic childhood, Midler developed what she calls “tremendous perseverance.”
“I discovered that if I stood up for myself, there weren’t that many people who would try to stand me down.”
She got one of her first breaks rising from the chorus to play Tzeitel, Tevye’s oldest daughter, in “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway in 1970 — no matter that the casting director had initially deemed her, bizarrely, as too Jewish for the part.
When roles dried up, Midler burst into the popular culture at the Continental Baths in the basement of Manhattan’s Ansonia Hotel, where her torch songs lured the gay patrons — many of them wearing only towels — from more carnal activities and solidified what would become her gay fan base.
Then came her first album, “The Divine Miss M,” released in 1972; Midler’s Oscar-nominated turn as a self-destructive rock star in “The Rose” (1979) was followed by more than 30 other movies, including the sudsy “Beaches,” in which she played a self-centered singer opposite Barbara Hershey.
As for why Midler identified with the Janis Joplin-esque character she portrayed in “The Rose,” she said it was, in part, “Your parents telling you you’re never going to amount to a hill of beans, and don’t do this or that, and you’d better be a teacher so you have something to fall back on.”
She described her own parenting style as firm and loving, but not overprotective, and perhaps as a result, her daughter is “fearless,” she said. Sophie skydives, rides dirt bikes and even trekked through China for three months on her own. And even though Midler told Sophie as a child that she would never speak to her again if she went into show business (“I wanted to spare her the pain,” she said), her daughter is now studying drama at an Ivy League school. “But don’t say which one,” Midler asked, slipping into protective mode for a moment. “It would kill me.”