Bette Midler - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
The Divine Miss M is one of the more unlikely show business success stories of the latter 20th century. Blessed with a robust singing voice and a wide range of acting chops, Midler can pull off comedic, dramatic, and musical rolls with equal aplomb and has often performed all three simultaneously in her various live shows and films. Unlike many of her peers who also got their start in the early 70’s, Midler built an impressive show business resume based purely on talent. Lacking the requisite beauty of a superstar ingénue, Midler honed a keen wit and feminine sassiness into infectious, eclectic, and
highly professional showmanship that touched on every facet of her vast array of talents. Her more notable Hollywood film rolls like The Rose, Beaches, and For the Boys also followed this winning formula of mixing comedy, drama, and music in equal measure. Having won multiple Grammy Awards, a couple of Emmy’s, a Tony Award, and a handful of Golden Globes, with two Academy Award nominations for Best Actress thrown in for good measure, Bette Midler embodies just how far talent and tenacity can take you in show business. In her near 40 year career, Bette has done it all by often making unlikely yet chameleonic comebacks like taking on heavy drama when she was better known for comedies or embarking on a highly successful and elaborate Vegas stage show in the twilight of her career. It just goes to show, the moment you underestimate “Bathhouse Betty” she comes out of left field with another hit song, film, stage show or a brave combination of all three that puts her back in the spotlight.
Bette Davis Midler was born in Paterson, New Jersey on December 1, 1945 but was raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. Taking an interest in the theatrical arts Midler moved to New York City in the early 60’s to make her mark on Broadway. After a few lean years she arguably succeeded when she began her first run on Broadway playing Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof from 1966 to 1969. The following year Midler turned to a music career and developed a nightclub act with an unknown pianist and accompanist named Barry Manilow, who would go on to carve out his own highly successful solo career a few years later. Setting up shop at a gay bathhouse called The Continental Baths, a career choice that subsequently earned her the nickname “Bathhouse Betty”, Midler’s act was reminiscent of a Broadway revue show combining bawdy adult oriented comedy and vaudevillian shtick with Motown standards and show tunes delivered with a swing era Andrews Sisters bent. After a few years on the club circuit Midler signed to Atlantic Records and began recording her debut full length album with Manilow producing. The Divine Miss M (1972 Atlantic) successfully replicated her nightclub act and spawned an unlikely Top 10 hit with her rendition of the Andrews Sisters classic, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, earning Midler her first Grammy Award for Best Newcomer. The follow up full length, Bette Midler (1973 Atlantic) essentially followed the same covers formula albeit from a more eclectic catalogue featuring material written by Hoagie Carmichael, Bertolt Brecht, and Bob Dylan amongst others. Midler returned to Broadway in 1974 with a hugely successful musical revue show titled Clams on a Half Shell Revue, which garnered Midler a special Tony Award “for adding luster to the Broadway season.”
Midler returned to a recording career in 1976, issuing another eclectic revue album, Songs from the New Depression (Atlantic). Despite featuring big name guest artists, most notably a duet with Bob Dylan on “Bucket’s of Rain”, the album wasn’t as commercially successful as previous efforts and Midler’s career began to slide throughout the rest of the decade. After a misguided attempt as disco with Thighs and Whispers (1979 Atlantic), Midler was in desperate need of a hit, and made a triumphant comeback later that year in her big screen debut, The Rose, playing the part of Mary Rose Foster, a character loosely based on Janis Joplin. Midler sang all of the songs for the film herself with the subsequent raw and bluesy soundtrack, The Rose (1979 Atlantic) spawning one of the signature songs of her career with the title track. The Rose also snagged Midler her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. On a hot streak, Midler scored another commercial hit with the live album, Divine Madness and its subsequent concert film of the same name. The often hilarious and perceptive autobiographical tales that comprised her first book, A View from a Broad (1980 Simon & Schuster) also became a best seller and Midler finished 1980 as one of the biggest stars of the year. After the lackluster covers album, No Frills (1983 Atlantic) and the surprisingly astute yet underrated comedy album, Mud Will Be Flung Tonight (1985 Atlantic) became commercial flops Midler largely hung up her recording career for the rest of the 80’s to pursue Hollywood film roles, successfully reinventing herself as a comedic actress with the blockbuster comedies Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and Ruthless People (1986).
After a five year hiatus, Midler dropped the bawdy theatrical chanteuse persona that made her a star in the 70’s and returned to her recording career as a mainstream adult contemporary diva. Around this time she also began steering her acting career away from comedies toward heavy drama. Much like her huge comeback with The Rose over a decade earlier, the hit film Beaches re-established Midler as queen of the charts and the box office in one deft stroke. Not only did the film garner Midler critical acclaim as a dramatic actress but the soundtrack also spawned the biggest song of her career with the #1 hit ballad “Wind Beneath My Wings”, for which she won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. Her first full length album in five years, Some People’s Lives (1990 Atlantic) was also one of the best received and most successful of her career, spawning another classic hit with the adult contemporary ballad, “From A Distance”. Midler made a brief return to her Andrews Sisters roots in 1991 with her Oscar nominated turn as a USO entertainer in the World War II drama For the Boys, starring opposite James Caan. The film’s soundtrack, mostly featuring Midler performing early 40’s era material, also became a moderate hit. Riding high on a career resurgence Midler picked up an Emmy Award in 1992 for her appearance as the final guest of Johnny Carson’s tenure on the Tonight Show, singing a moving rendition of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”.
The greatest hits package, Experience the Divine: Greatest Hits (1993 Atlantic) was surprisingly her first North American greatest hits compilation of her (then) twenty year career in the music industry. Later that year, Midler starred in the made for TV movie of the Broadway classic Gypsy, spawning another successful soundtrack. Midler returned to her adult contemporary recording persona with Bette of Roses (1995 Atlantic), her first full length solo album in five years. Despite strong critical praise the album was only a moderate commercial success and marked the end of Midler’s reign at the top of the charts. Midler again placed her recording career on hold over the next three years to concentrate on her Hollywood career, churning out another box office smash with The First Wives Club in 1996. After a successful 26 year partnership, Midler and Atlantic Records went their separate ways in 1998 with Midler subsequently signing to the Warner Brothers label. In a misguided effort, Midler attempted to straddle all her various musical personas on, Bathhouse Betty (1998 Warner Bros.), a critical and commercial flop. Midler subsequently turned her attention toward a short lived television sitcom called Bette in 2000. Released in conjunction with the show, Midler teamed up with legendary producer Don Was for the full length album, Bette (2000 Warner Bros.). Packed with standards from The Temptations, Teddy Pendergrass, and The Manhattans the album earned Midler some of her best reviews in 10 years. When the sitcom flopped however, so did the album and Midler was subsequently dropped from the Warner Brothers label in 2001.
Entering the twilight of her career with film roles and album sales dwindling Midler made a modest come back by issuing a pair of covers albums with Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook (2003 Sony) and Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook (2005 Columbia) and embarked on the highly successful Kiss My Brass tours, reminiscent of her bawdy Broadway revue’s of the 70’s. Midler’s first holiday album, Cool Yule (2006 Columbia) was also surprisingly successful, earning her a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. In 2008, Midler crossed over from Hollywood actress and recording artist to Las Vegas diva with her five night a week live show The Showgirl Must Go On, staged at the legendary Caesars Palace. Featuring a thirteen piece band and twenty dancers the show runs the gambit of Midler’s various musical personas of the past 40 years.