Born on December 1, 1945, in Honolulu, HI; daughter of Fred (a house painter) and Ruth Midler; married Martin von Haselberg (a commodities trader and performance artist), December, 1984; children: Sophie. Education: Attended University of Hawaii. Addresses: Record company--Warner Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505-4694. Website--Bette Midler Official Website: http://www.bettemidler.com.
In her early years she was known as "The Divine Miss M.," a campy, raucous vocalist at home in many forms of jazz, swing, and pop. Since then Bette Midler has become a respected film star and a spokesperson for research into acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), an illness that has killed dozens of her friends. For several years in the mid-1980s, Midler preferred starring in and producing movies to singing, but she resurfaced as a pop music superstar, releasing a Grammy-winning single, "Wind Beneath My Wings," in 1989. Combining her theatrical talents with her music, she starred in successive musical comedies in the early 1990s, including For the Boys, and Gypsy, and earned a Golden Globe for each performance. After signing with Warner Bros. in 1998 she released two new albums by the end of the decade, and each achieved gold sales.
In Vanity Fair, Joe Roth, the chairman of Twentieth Century-Fox, described Bette Midler as "one of the few superstars who connect emotionally with an audience as well as entertaining them--only a handful of people are capable of that." Few performers, especially women, sustain pop music careers into their middle years. Midler managed the feat by virtue of her wide range of vocal stylings and her good rapport with fans of all ages. Time magazine contributor Richard Corliss called Midler "the most dynamic and poignant singer-actress of her time."
Midler was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on December 1, 1945. Her father painted houses for the U.S. Navy. Named after the great screen actress Bette Davis, Midler grew up in rural Aiea, Hawaii, a lonely girl who found solace in old Hollywood musicals and the thought that she might become a performer some day. She recalled in Time: "I'd sing Lullaby of Broadway at the top of my lungs in the tin shower--it had really good reverb. People used to gather outside to call up requests or yell that I was lousy."
Midler's parents did not see eye to eye about their daughter's ambitions. Fred Midler was a strict disciplinarian who felt that stage work was for loose women. He never saw Midler in a live performance, even after she became famous. Midler's mother, on the other hand, encouraged all of her daughters to take music and dancing lessons. "My mother was all for my starting on this journey and going full-speed ahead," Midler remarked in Time.
First Foray into Showbiz
After graduating from high school--where she was class president--Midler attended the University of Hawaii for a year. She also took a variety of part-time jobs, including sorting pineapple slices at a food processing plant. In 1965 she earned a place as an extra on the set of the film Hawaii. When the production company moved back to Hollywood to complete the movie, she went along. In Los Angeles she found work with United Artists as an extra, saving her wages to finance a trip to New York City.
After some months of odd jobs and small parts in Catskill Mountains productions, Midler auditioned for the Broadway play Fiddler on the Roof. She earned a chorus role in the New York company in 1966, but quickly graduated to the major part of Tzeitel, the eldest daughter. She stayed with Fiddler on the Roof for the next three years, augmenting her Broadway work with singing stints in clubs, including the famous Improvisation.
Midler used her club dates to experiment with different musical styles. She seemed most successful as a torch singer, but she noticed that the audiences liked to hear jokes between numbers. Slowly she developed the style that would become her trademark--strong vocals mixed with bawdy humor and a campy stage presence. She left the cast of Fiddler on the Roof in 1969 for an entirely new challenge.
One of Midler's acting teachers suggested that she apply to sing at the Continental Baths, a public bathhouse catering to gay men. She was hired at $50 per night, and there she and her pianist-arranger Barry Manilow honed an outrageous and entertaining show that pulled musical numbers from every decade between 1930 and 1970. In her autobiography A View From a Broad, Midler recalled of the bathhouse: "I was able to take chances on that stage that I could never have taken anywhere else. The more outrageous I was, the more [the patrons] liked it. It loosened me up."
Became "The Divine Miss M."
Billing herself as "The Divine Miss M.--Flash with class and sleaze with ease," Midler began to attract attention outside the gay community. By 1971 she had signed with an ambitious manager who promoted her to television talk shows and bigger stage revues. Almost a decade before the emergence of pop icon Madonna, Midler dared to flirt, make bawdy jokes, and dress flamboyantly in her act. By 1972 she had released an album and was singing in Las Vegas and at the Lincoln Center.
One of Midler's first big hits was an Andrews Sisters song, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." New Republic correspondent Richard Poirier commented that the entertainer "has the vocal resources to sing in the style of any woman vocalist of the past 30 years.... Midler doesn't imitate or parody a specific singer through an entire song, however. Rather, like a person truly haunted, Midler in the phrasing of a song will suddenly veer off from one coloration into another. It sometimes happens with an air of true discovery. As with most great jazz singers, she therefore never does a song exactly the same way twice. The avenue of experimentation is always left open."
Her success as a singer assured, Midler moved on into film. Her first movie was The Rose, a serious work about a self-destructive rock star. The film was a success, earning Midler two Golden Globe Awards, including New Female Motion Picture Star of the Year. Also in this role she was recognized with an Academy Award nomination, and she received the Grammy Award for Best Vocal Performance by a Female for the title song. Flush with success, Midler felt invincible. Then her career took a nosedive. A concert film, Divine Madness, did not perform as expected at the box office. Worse, Midler's next movie, Jinxed, earned her a reputation for temperamental behavior that took years to live down. Her live appearances lacked the zest of earlier years, and she entered a prolonged depression. "I couldn't face the world," she admitted in Time. "I was drinking to excess--I was miserable."
Midler's 1984 marriage to businessperson and performance artist Martin von Haselberg helped her to regain her equilibrium. Around the same time she signed a contract with Touchstone Films, a division of Walt Disney Studios. Through Touchstone Midler starred in several well-received comedy films, including Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People, and Outrageous Fortune. Together these movies earned more than $60 million and revived Midler's flagging career.
Midler has not lacked film roles since then. She has starred in such vehicles as Beaches, Big Business, filmmaker Woody Allen's Scenes From a Mall, and a movie she produced herself, For the Boys. The latter film was that rarest of all types of modern motion pictures--a musical--with Midler appearing as a U.S.O. performer through three wars. This project earned Midler the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Midler might have given up recording entirely, given her busy schedule in the film industry. Instead she released a 1991 album, Some People's Lives, featuring the inspirational track, "From a Distance," for which she had earned a Grammy nomination in 1990. The song topped the charts during the Desert Storm hostilities, in which several nations, including the United States, intervened in a dispute between Iraq and Kuwait; the lyrics present a view of the world from space, noting how peaceful earth seems.
Returning to her Broadway roots again in 1993 she appeared in the made-for-television version of the musical comedy, Gypsy, earning a fourth Golden Globe Award in the process. As the decade progressed, so too did Midler's acting career. She starred as Brenda Cushman in Hugh Wilson's 1996 feature film First Wives Club, and contributed a cameo performance in Barry Sonnenfeld's light crime drama, Get Shorty, with John Travolta and Gene Hackman.
Socially Active and Aware
Following the release of Bette of Roses in 1995, Midler ended her affiliation with Atlantic Records, after more than twenty years. She signed with Warner Bros. in 1998, and made her label debut that same year, with Bathhouse Betty. As sales of this album surpassed the one-half million mark, she focused again on acting and produced Bette, a situation comedy series for television, based on her life. In the summer of 2004 she appeared among the star-studded cast of the Frank Oz film version of Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives.
Midler in 2000 released a self-titled album that achieved gold-level sales, and in 2004 the singer headlined a road show, called Kiss My Brass. In an interview with Vanity Fair she acknowledged that her resurgence in the pop music field in the 1990s had come as a surprise to her, said "It was not planned at all.... Not for one second. If it disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn't be surprised, either."
Still, she confessed in the same profile, "I feel I have to create. I have to dig in the earth. I have to make something grow. I have to bake something. I have to write something. I have to sing something. I have to put something out. It's not a need to prove anything. It's just my way of life."
Singing, she has discovered, is one way in which she can communicate her concern for AIDS victims. "In her early divine crassness, She shared with her audiences the lighthearted freedom she was discovering in herself as a moxie-mouthing soubrette," wrote Kevin Sessums in Vanity Fair in 1991. "Now [she] ... is heavier-hearted, and no longer endows her fans with a frivolous sense of hope, but instead instills in them a survivor's hard-won dignity." When the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center left New York City, (and the world), in anguish in 2001, Midler stifled her tears as she comforted mourners with an especially poignant rendition of "Wind Beneath My Wings," which she performed live at an official memorial service for the victims. She also helped raise millions of dollars for the victims of the attack. In late spring 2004 she made time to perform in two benefit concerts with Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, to collect funds for the Democratic presidential campaign that year.
by Anne Janette Johnson and G. Cooksey
Bette Midler's Career
Principal stage appearances include Fiddler on the Roof, 1966-69; Salvation, 1970; Tommy, 1971; and Clams on the Half Shell Revue, 1973-74. Principal film appearances include The Rose, 1979; Divine Madness, 1980; Jinxed, 1982; Down and Out in Beverly Hills, 1986; Ruthless People, 1986; Outrageous Fortune, 1987; Big Business, 1988; Beaches, 1988; Scenes From a Mall, 1991; Stella, 1991; For the Boys, 1992; Hocus Pocus, 1993; First Wives Club, 1996; Isn't She Great, 2000; Drowning Mona, 2000; Stepford Wives, 2004. Signed with Atlanta Records, early 1970s; signed with Warner Bros. Records, 1998.
Bette Midler's Awards
Grammy Awards, Best New Artist, 1973; Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Female, 1980; Record of the Year for "Wind Beneath My Wings," 1989; Tony Award, 1973; Emmy Award, Outstanding Television Special, 1978; Golden Globe Awards, Best Motion Picture Actress in a Musical Comedy, New Female Motion Picture Star of the Year, both for The Rose, 1980; Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical Motion Picture for For the Boys, 1992; Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Made for Television for Gypsy, 1993; American Comedy Awards, Funniest Female Performer in a Television Special for Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, 1993; Funniest Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture for Get Shorty, 1996; shared National Board of Review (NBR) Award, Best Ensemble Performance for First Wives Club, 1996; Emmy Award, Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Music Program for Bette Midler in Concert: Diva Las Vegas, 1997; People's Choice Award, Favorite Female Performer in a New Television Series for Bette, 2001; TV Guide Award, Actress of the Year in a Comedy Series for Bette, 2001.
- Selected discography
- The Divine Miss M. Atlantic, 1972.
- Bette Midler Atlantic, 1973.
- Broken Blossom Atlantic, 1977.
- Live at Last Atlantic, 1977.
- Thighs and Whispers Atlantic, 1979.
- Songs for the New Depression Atlantic, 1979.
- Divine Madness Atlantic, 1980.
- No Frills Atlantic, 1984.
- Mud Will Be Flung Tonight (comedy), Atlantic, 1985.
- Some People's Lives Atlantic, 1991.
- For the Boys (motion picture soundtrack), Atlantic, 1992.
- Experience the Divine Atlantic, 1993; reissued, Wea International, 2000.
- Bette of Roses Atlantic, 1995.
- Bathhouse Betty Warner Bros., 1998.
- Bette Warner Bros., 2000.
- Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook Sony, 2003.
- From a Distance Atlantic, 2003.
- Selected writings
- A View From a Broad Simon & Schuster, 1980.
- The Saga of Baby Divine Crown, 1983.
- Billboard, November 3, 2001, p. 10.
- Hollywood Reporter (International Edition), January 20, 2004, p. 60.
- New Republic, August 2, 1975.
- Newsweek, May 22, 1972; June 30, 1986; January 26, 1987.
- New York Times, December 3, 1972; December 29, 1972; January 14, 1973.
- People, November 14, 1983; February 3, 1986; June 21, 2004, p. 29.
- Rolling Stone, February 5, 2004, p. 24; June 10, 2004, p. 20.
- Time, March 2, 1987.
- Vanity Fair, December 1991.
- "Bette Midler," Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0000541/ (July 19, 2004).
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