Wednesday, October 19, 2016

LIZ SMITH: The Divine Miss M

"Pretty Legs, great big knockers/That's what sells them tickets at the door!"
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

"The Divine Miss M" — Refreshed, Re-Mastered, Re-Released ... Arden's Velva Cream For Christine Ebersole, But What Does Patti LuPone Get — Chopped Liver?

“SHOOBY doo-whop, wa da ...”

"That is the pits ending to a really terrific song!"

So laughed Bette Midler, as she finished up her snazzy 1972 version of “Chapel of Love.” The Dixie Cups had made the song famous in 1964.

Bette’s off-the-cuff critique, which included the sounds of her band mates chortling in agreement, made it onto the finished album version of the song. That little moment became as famous as Bette’s driving musical insistence that she was “gonna get married!”

The album was “The Divine Miss M.”
Cover illustration by Richard Amsel.
THIS YEAR — October 21st in fact — marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Bette Midler’s first album, “The Divine Miss M.”

Bette at the Continental Club bath house, 1972
Midler was already well-known, if not world famous, by the time she put down those eleven perfect tracks. Her highly publicized stint at New York’s Continental Baths (with Barry Manilow accompanying her), and two years on the road — nightclubs, TV, bars — had honed her talent and defined the character she would play: the outrageous, flame-haired, profane, pomposity-pricking Miss M.

As unique as Bette has remained, as much as she has refined and redefined herself over the years, you simply had to be there, in 1972, when her album broke big. A wacky “character” whom many didn’t take seriously was suddenly and literally, a national institution.

Like Marilyn and Elvis, once Bette was upon us, you couldn’t recall the American landscape before her. Hadn’t she always been a part of our lives? It happened that fast and that passionately. (Sure, there were some who didn’t care for her unabashed truth-telling, what we would now refer to as her “lack of political correctness.” But, in what I consider to be one the great remarks of all time, Bette declared, “Screw ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”)

In her love of nostalgia — which was conveniently having a major revival in the '70s — Bette was an affectionately winking throwback, with her turbans and platform heels and homage to The Andrews Sisters.
But Midler was also something new and exciting; brash, candid, witty, seemingly unpolished, unvarnished, even dangerous.

Beneath the then-wild mop of russet curls and the broad little-girl smile, she was — and is — a serious woman with serious career goals and life agenda. To know her privately is to have a totally different experience. Less “divine” perhaps, but more satisfying, human, accessible.
The wisecracking, cleavage-shaking Divine Miss M, belting or crooning in a voice that could belong to no other, was a far cry from the private woman, even back in her halcyon days. (She once called this office and declared that her life was her own, we didn’t know what we were writing about, and to please refrain from mentioning her ever again. We just let her go on, and kept writing. Now we plant gardens together!)
DESPITE Midler’s wildly successful “Disney era” of hit films, which revitalized her in the 1980’s (“Beaches,” “Ruthless People,” “Big Business,” etc), Bette reached her apogee as an actress in 1979’s “The Rose,” playing a tender/raucous version of Janis Joplin. (I’ve said it a million times, fictionalized or not, this is as close as anybody is ever going to get, regarding Joplin — and perhaps some to aspects of Bette herself, at the time. Nobody is going to top this performance. She was brilliant and more than deserved her Oscar nomination. What I’m saying is — don’t waste your time, Michelle Williams.)

“The Rose” closed out the '70s, which Midler had dominated in so many ways. Much would follow, and much lies ahead (the expected triumph of “Hello, Dolly!”)
Bette's phone booth scene in "The Rose." The scene that should have won her an Oscar.
But few pop cultural happenings will ever top the release of “The Divine Miss M.” It ushered in a woman, a star, a point of view. One that has been consistent in joy, poignancy, professionalism and the great need all sublime talent has — to share the best of that talent with an audience that looked, pointed and said, “She speaks to us, she knows us, we want her.
That audience, by the way, will be happy to know that Bette’s freshman disc is now freshly remastered — everything from “Am I Blue” to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” sounding better than ever. The CD also includes nine bonus tracks. (An early version of Bette’s exquisite “In Old Cape Cod” is one of the extras.)

Miss Midler was interviewed by Kevin O’Donnell for Entertainment Weekly. He asked about her presence on Twitter. “I look at it as entertainment” she said. “But I don’t need much entertainment in my life. Then you feel like you’re missing out on your life. I don’t have that much time left, so I’m going to spend it looking around and observing and thinking and memorizing poetry.”
As I said, the real Bette is a whole different deal.

However, honey; you are, at 70, remarkably vital. And as we all know, 70 is the new 50. So let’s not talk about time slipping away quite so soon. Or at least don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.
OKAY, here’s something I think Miss Midler would appreciate. We received a note from one of our constant readers, Matthew Harris, after he saw our item here about the Broadway-bound musical “War Paint.” This will star Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. (I can only dream that there is perhaps a number called “Maquillage” that resembles the classic showstopper from “The Dolly Sisters.” In this, a bevy of girls appear dressed to interpret mascara, rouge, and powder. Camp was never higher.)
Anyway, in August, Matthew and a friend flew to Chicago to see the show. They report that it and the ladies are spectacular. Matthew, who is a big Ebersole fan, sent Christine “a small jar of ancient Arden cream I’d found in an antique mall years ago. Recently, I received a wonderful thank-you note from her. I replied, telling her that as soon as the show got to Broadway I’d send her more Arden. I mean, shouldn’t she have all this vintage stuff on her dressing table? And just imagine what a little Velva Cream will do for her performance?”
Miss Ebersole likely has plenty of stuff on her dressing table, but, yeah, who doesn’t covet a bit of Velva Cream?

Hmmm ... no Helena Rubinstein products for Patti? I see trouble. I see foundation that isn’t blended!
ENDTHOUGHT: Now, let me get this straight. Natasha Fatale claims that her then-59-year-old hubby, Boris Badenov — who wants to be America’s Fearless Leader — was helplessly influenced into uncharacteristic naughty talk by ... entertainment reporter Billy Bush? Sigh! Moose and Squirrel have quite a task ahead of them.

And if Boris pulls a rabbit out of his hat, so do we!

Contact Liz here.