Better and Better
Bette Midler incarnates the phrase, “star of stage, screen, and TV.” A quick look at her list of accomplishments in the entertainment industry would take most performers to new heights of jealousy. After all, she’s had hit movies, hit records, hit concerts, and hit television specials. She’s twice been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and her trophy case holds four Golden Globes, four Grammys, two Emmys, a Tony, and countless other accolades. In addition, she’s a well-respected humanitarian and the author of two best-selling children’s books. It would seem that there is nothing this woman doesn’t do well.
But if you look closely enough at her resume, you’ll see that this isn’t completely true. For every powerhouse film like The Rose, there is a dud like Jinxed. While “Wind Beneath My Wings” soared, her sophomore album, Bette Midler, was roundly panned. The hits have been plentiful, but so have the misses. So it was no guarantee that her new CBS sitcom would fall into the “hit” category, despite the flurry of press surrounding its debut. Could a woman whose career started with entertaining the patrons of New York’s gay bathhouses find success with a thirty-minute TV show scheduled during the sacred “family hour”? And now, as if to highlight the dichotomy between Midler’s raunchy persona of years past and her recent reign as queen of Disney flicks (Hocus Pocus , Touchstone’s Big Business  and Down and Out in Beverly Hills ), Midler is playing a singer-actress named Bette Midler in a sitcom that focuses attention on all phases of her career, high and low and in-the-middle.
That’s right: in Bette, Midler plays herself and approaches the role with the same irreverance that has always been her trademark. In an e-mail to her fan club, she notes that the part of “Bette Midler” wasn’t a lock for the actress: “I had to fight like a dog to get this part, you know. It was a struggle with a lot of competition. Thank God that bitch Vanessa Redgrave can’t sing.” Thank God, indeed, for not even the brilliant Redgrave could adequately duplicate Midler’s spitfire delivery.
While Midler may be irreplaceable, the rest of her family apparently isn’t. For Bette, Midler’s husband, German performance artist Martin Von Haselberg (played by Kevin Dunn), has been renamed Roy, and works as a college professor. Marina Malota plays fictional daughter Rose, who closely resembles real daughter Sophie. Completing Midler’s fictional world are her agent, Connie (the always dependable Joanna Gleason) and her musical director, Oscar (James Dreyfus). While Midler has long maintained in interviews that her personal life is rather uneventful, presenting herself and her family as the all-American family who live next door, her television family has the unenviable and unending job of keeping Bette from blasting herself into the stratosphere.
If the pilot episode is any indication, that should be a formidable task. It opens with Bette in a panic before a concert, convinced that she can no longer put on a crowd-pleasing show. It takes a dose of reverse psychology from Roy to get her out on stage, where she is, of course, dynamic. Later, Bette’s panic at feeling “over-the-hill” is heightened when Roy falls asleep early in the evening on her first night home after touring. Bette reacts to this incident by convincing herself that she needs to make herself over the new, improved, hip Bette Midler is about to be born. This determination leads to a rather far-fetched visit to a plastic surgeon, a trip to the mall with her embarrassed daughter, and a hilarious workout on a convoluted Swedish exercise machine that she describes as a “leather bar without the two drink minimum.” Bette also decides to update her act, performing a delightful boogie-woogie rendition of a Kid Rock song (frankly, this was the first time I realized there was any musicality to Kid Rock’s songs). Once again, it is up to Roy to convince Bette that she is acting irrationally and to rein in her excessive behavior.
But as anyone who has seen one of Midler’s concerts knows, excessive behavior is her forte. And throughout the show, she remains manic, expressing herself through “broad” physical humor. Standing at only 5’1”, she relies on outrageous gestures and extreme facial expressions to dominate any space or situation she’s in. And in this sense, Midler appears prepared to follow in the footsteps of Lucille Ball, Imogene Coca, and Carol Burnett as one of television’s great physical comediennes. Because she can so easily steal the focus from those around her, the show’s success or failure will depend on how well she is able to make use of this center stage. After all, most viewers aren’t going to be tuning in because they are huge Kevin Dunn fans, regardless of how likable he is. There’s an obvious downside to the show’s rather zealous focus on Midler it allows little room for development of the other characters. But she has always willingly shared the spotlight when a script called for it (think of Beaches  or For the Boys ). So there’s hope that Roy, Rose, Connie, and Oscar will also get interesting storylines as the series progresses. It would be especially nice to see Connie get a life outside of her association with Bette, because Gleason, one of TV’s most consistent actresses, has yet to find a role that allows her to display fully her considerable talent.
Such hopeful thinking can’t quite get past the basic fact of the show: Midler is playing herself, or more precisely, a fictional version of herself. This is certainly nothing new in the history of sitcoms. Jack Benny, the Nelson family, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld all had hit shows portraying themselves, and countless other actors, such as Bill Cosby and Roseanne, have played characters loosely based on their public personas. In Midler’s case, this lets her use her scathing wit to skewer both her contemporaries and those occassions in her own career that have been critical or financial disappointments. For instance, Sally Field takes a particularly harsh thrashing through repeated jokes in the pilot. At one point, Bette is questioned by Roy after using dialogue from The Rose to seduce him. She responds, “Hey, I was nominated for that! Sally Field, my ass!” Of course, the joke only works if the viewer knows that Midler lost the Academy Award to Field; viewers who are not “Midler savvy” may miss it.
Midler’s potshots at herself and her place in the industry also emphasize one of the advantages performers have in playing themselves, that being the opportunity to reinforce perceptions that fans have come to embrace. This can be a delicate business: sometimes these perceptions aren’t all-good. Jack Benny made a reputation as a miser through his TV show, despite the reality that he was a very generous man. Gracie Allen, famously intelligent offscreen, made her career playing a ditz and master of malapropisms. In Bette, however, Midler often breaks with this tradition, offering up an image of herself that’s less than glorious. In most of her previous work, she has presented herself as a confident, assertive woman in charge of the world around her, but in the series premiere, TV-Bette is an insecure, temperamental diva in need of constant validation. This difference from her public image may prove problematic in the long run, as viewers expecting the same old, boundlessly energetic Midler, may be surprised to find another, less familiar personality. Midler compounds the how-to-read-her dilemma by continuing to present herself in interviews and other public venues, such as the e-mail passage quoted above, with her usual wise-cracking and self-mocking tone. Both old fans and new viewers are likely to be confused when they see insecure Bette at 8:00 and then sassy Bette a few hours later on Leno or Letterman. Then again, her ability to change up so apparently easily is testament to her ever-developing range.
It could be that this TV representation is more accurate than we know, but one can’t wonder why Midler has chosen to reveal this vulnerable side of her personality after working so hard in the past to deny it, or at least keep it from fans’ eyes. The inconsistency between presentation and perception may drive away some Midler fans, who are looking for what they know already. As for this Midler fan, I will probably continue to view the series for a number of reasons to hear Midler sing (which she will do weekly), to see the parade of promised guest stars (friend and frequent co-star Danny DeVito plays himself in the pilot), and to savor Midler’s biting sarcasm. I don’t know that Bette will live up to all my expectations, but I do know that I found myself laughing out loud several times during the premiere. Considering that some long-running sitcoms have yet to elicit so much as a chuckle from me, I would have to say that that puts Bette exactly where she likes to be out front and in the spotlight.