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Interview with Bette Midler

TORONTO, CANADA - About halfway into "Divine Madness," Bette Midler is doing a series of dirty jokes and somebody in the audience shouts out that she should tell the taco joke. "The taco joke?" Bette asks. "You think I'm crazy? I know what the movie audience will go for, how much I can get away with.... Remember, this is the time-capsule version."

And so the taco joke remains forever unpreserved. But "Divine Madness" is a time capsule of sorts; a record of the last production of the basic concert Midler has been doing, in one form or another, for more than five years. The trademarks are all there: Bette sings "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," introduces the Harlettes, wears the outrageous costumes, plays the dreamy, old bag-lady and does a comedy routine with targets ranging from Hitler to the Queen ("That lady is sooooo white! What does she carry in her purse?").

The movie had its world premiere eight days ago before a wildly enthusiastic audience on the closing night of Toronto's Festival of Festivals, and it opens Friday in Chicago. It's a concert movie, all right, but it's different from most concert movies in two ways.

First, it's not locked into the dreary documentary style of most concert movies, with the camera glued into position at the feet of the singer, whose face is usually obscured by the microphone. The director of "Divine Madness," Michael Ritchie, used 20 cameras, shot three complete performances, and claims to have exposed twice as much film as Francis Coppola shot, for "Apocalypse Now." He choreographed his cameras so carefully that the audience never sees a camera onscreen, and the movie sometimes feels more like a studio musical than the record of a live concert.

The second difference has to do with Bette Midler's performance itself. Most concert films, however good, tend to grow monotonous because the performers are locked into the same stuff for two hours. There are two ways out of that trap of stylistic sameness: You can make a documentary of the concert, as Michael Wadleigh did with "Woodstock," or you can find a performer like Midler, whose material itself is so varied that her concerts feel more like variety shows than two hours of one performer.

It's possible, though, that "Divine Madness" marks the end of the all-over-the-map Midler concert. In the last year she has been edging more and more into straight rock 'n' roll. And she told people in Toronto that she'll probably never again do stage shows as elaborate as the "Divine Madness" production, which grew out of her "Clams on the Half Shell" and its variations.

"This show is the end of what I've been doing for five years on the stage," Midler said at a jammed press conference held in a hotel disco before the premiere. "A girl has to move on. I seem to be getting into rock 'n' roll. And I want to do some more straight acting roles in the movies. On the other hand, I may just retire, and become a literature teacher... "

At the press conference and later on, when I talked with Midler in her hotel suite, she seemed to be almost half-serious about retiring from singing: "I'm really a student type of person," she mused. "When I'm not working, I have one pair of old white painter's pants I've had for 10 years, with holes in the seat, and that's what I wear. I sit around all the time reading. I'm real quiet. I'm nothing like I am on stage. When I have to go out and do one of these premiere things, I have no idea what to wear, and I buy all this conservative stuff as if I were trying to impress everybody."

In that case, where do your outrageous costumes and stage persona come from? "It's a performance. It's a character that has developed over the years. When l started out, I didn't want to be a singer, I wanted to be an actress. But they wouldn't even let me inside the door before they threw me out. I was the Jewish Tinker Bell. It never occurred to me to just sing. When I started singing, many moons ago, I thought I was doing OK, but I still wanted to be an actress. That comes out in my act. "And of course, for a year at the beginning I worked at the Continental Baths, and those boys wouldn't sit still for just singing...I had to do everything to keep their attention."

The Continental was a notorious New York bathhouse whose gay patrons made Bette a cult figure. Midler played high camp, and in a widely quoted negative review, Arthur Bell of the Village Voice said she resembled "a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman."

"Does that mean I play a drag queen?" Midler asked the Toronto press conference audience. "People still ask me if I'm a fairy. I mean, I'm not gay or bisexual or lesbian or any of that stuff, but I have a good ear for speech patterns. When I was working at the baths I could go there and feel right at home. I picked up the gay sense of humor, almost like a sponge. Since I moved out into the world a whole lot more, my personality has changed and even the sound of my voice has changed."

They changed so successfully that she was rather astonishing in her 1979 movie debut in "The Rose," which won her an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of a doomed, doper rock 'n' roll queen not unlike Janis Joplin. "I really wanted that Oscar," she said. "I thought for five minutes that maybe I had a chance. After I lost it, though...I sort of lost interest. It's funny how that happens."

She waited until "The Rose" to make her film debut, she said, because she didn't want her first movie role to be a supporting character. "I was offered the Stockard Channing role in 'The Fortune,' with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, but that was a supporting role.

"One supporting role I should have taken, if my then-manager hadn't turned it down, was the Talia Shire role in 'Rocky.' I'd still like to work with Sylvester Stallone. There's something about those beefy Italians that turns me on. But when he sent over the 'Rocky' screenplay, my manager told me it was a nice role, a nice movie, but not for me. When I saw 'Rocky,' I was really sad that I'd lost the chance to play that girl."

Other projects she has been mentioned for are the screen version of "Annie" and a remake of "Gypsy." "I turned down 'Annie.' They wanted me for Miss Hannigan, the villainess you hate but love. I didn't know if I could do that. I just thought they'd hate me. And I have to age another five years for 'Gypsy' before I could play that role."

Which role? Gypsy, or her mother?

"Both roles. With split screen."

Her next movie, she said, will probably be "Dry Hustle," based on Sarah Kernochan's book about two Times Square dance parlor girls. "It's a kind of female 'Midnight Cowboy,' with two women who get 'em hot and don't give 'em anything," she explained.

"We're looking for the other girl. She has to be young, around 20. It's hard to cast."

Midler's other recent project has been the publication of A View from a Broad, her first book. She made it clear at the press conference that she wrote it all herself: "I'm probably prouder of that than anything else I've done. It took me a year. There are times when I think of myself as basically a writer."

In the area of regrets, she said, she's maybe just a little repentant of the way she treated England's Royal Family in her "Divine Madness" comedy monologue (in Bette's version, when Princess Anne is asked how old she is, she responds by pawing the ground). If she had it all to do over again, how would she approach the Royal Family the next time?

"On my hands and knees."

What about a career in politics?

"Well, I mean, why not? I'm 30, uh, cough, cough...well, 34 years old, I've got a lot of energy, I'm intelligent. I don't see anything wrong with actors getting into politics. Well, certain actors. I certainly don't think Reagan should win on the basis of his acting, that is. But I think he means well. I mean, what's wrong with recognizing Taiwan? At least, recognizing it as Taiwan. Are they telling us those poor slobs don't even exist? Somebody must be over there."

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