I will never forget it, you know. Back in 1982 when I was a precocious gay teen taking drama at the local college, one of my "gay" professors (in the 80s, teachers didn’t announce their sexual identity) insisted I see Bette Midler in concert. I admit I was hesitant; I’d seen The Rose and was indifferent to the star. Harvey was adamant, and to prove it he imitated her, rolling around the Green Room floor of the drama department and telling dirty jokes, his big eyes popping out farther as he said something about a mermaid in a wheelchair. I took his advice, grabbed some friends and headed to the Concord Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater near the suburbs where I grew up. We didn’t have good seats and it didn’t matter.
Never before, and not since, have I seen a performer so connected to the audience that even the person in the worst seat on the highest level was indoctrinated into another world. Midler was filthy, bawdy, outrageous, hysterical, shocking, raunchy, sweet, and so touching I wanted to rush the stage so I could rip out her emotions and let them heal my own.
She called herself The Divine Miss M, she told Sophie Tucker jokes that would make a drunken sailor head to church, and she sang her slow songs like an open wound, a room without walls or privacy or an escape hatch. When I read the next day that, post-show, she headed, not to a private, star-studded event, but to the local Denny’s, she’d sealed the deal. Midler was everything we were, rolled up in a five-feet-plus Jewish chick from Hawaii with big tits and a high-heeled walk that soared like the Concorde. She still is.
The only other memory I have from that night was men, gorgeous men, gay couples holding hands and laughing and feeling at home even though most had obviously made the trek from San Francisco to a place 45 minutes east where gay acceptance didn’t exist. Midler made one joke that alluded to a new disease making the rounds, and it got a huge laugh. "In the 70s," she said, and I’m paraphrasing, "we had war, we had famine, but at least we had sex!" And then she was off, talking about Sally Ride’s suitable astronaut name and wondering why’d she ever want to talk to "that asshole" Ronald Reagan. Midler doesn’t mince words.
Within a year, my new friends in San Francisco were sick and "gay" was a three-letter punch line for "Got Aids Yet." I would often wonder how many men at that concert were gone. An era ended, and Midler’s time as the bathhouse queen, where she began, stopped, gay men turning back into pumpkins, Prince Charming a serial killer.
College came, men discovered Latex, and Midler reappeared, this time wrapped in celluloid. She’d disappeared from the stage and morphed into Disney’s biggest star, making the cover of Time magazine with hits like Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. If some thought her transformation too conservative, I saw it as natural and necessary, part of any artist’s — and adult’s — growth. Midler had a husband and a child, and she said at one point she wasn’t sure she wanted her daughter to grow up around the admitted camp factory that had been Mom. Besides, she’d achieved what that other magnificently talented Jewish girl with imperfect features and an aching voice had accomplished before her — she was a movie star.
What film could never do with Midler is the same it (almost) couldn’t do with Liza Minnelli — show her every dimension. The best performers in the world can’t be captured in just one medium, and Midler’s a hot mess of a composite. Minnelli hit gold with Cabaret because Bob Fosse filmed her back to front, top to bottom, from floor to ceiling and in furious quick cuts that made Liza come to the life you see onstage. Midler’s never had that movie, yet. By the time Midler returned to the stage in 1993, she had a mixed bag of movies and, thanks to her expanded popularity and Beaches, a new batch of songs.
But Midler hadn’t grown up; she’d only grown. The aptly titled "Experience the Divine" tour proved that talent doesn’t die or dry up; it just simmers. "It’s like she’s been in formaldehyde," a friend of mine said after witnessing her Radio City show, alluding to her reinvigorated stage presence. "Time flies when you’re on Prozac," Midler announced of her return, ushering in a new era for all of us.
Gay men had grown, too, as outwardly square and conventional as the Chelsea New York streets we’d moved into and that replaced the Greenwich Village slanted lanes that launched us. "You’re waiting for the ballads, aren’t you?" Midler joked throughout the show. "Later!" In the 90s, we wanted our jokes but understood mortality too. Midler now had a finer voice, an instrument that took itself as seriously as its captor took responsibility. "Wind Beneath My Wings, "From a Distance," and "The Rose" cemented the star’s sold gold stature, while "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" kept her in the vaudeville mist. Midler’s show celebrated both dramatic masks. Her smile, as infectious as a summit-meeting handshake and permanently drawn onto her features in both sadness and celebration, carried the weight of the world in all its heartbreaking glory.
When Madonna, whom I adore, rolls around the floor, it’s for show. When Midler does it, it’s pure adolescent play, an invitation to the sandbox. I’ve seen her keep an audience in tears at a bawdy joke so exquisitely executed it would turn Joan Rivers into a wallflower, then leap headfirst into "Stay With Me," switching the tears’ reflections as effortlessly as one switches the faucet from hot to cold. Midler’s the girl at the slumber party whom you have to invite, not because she’s the prettiest or the smartest or the sweetest; you invite her because you know she’s going to bring the most fun and start the most trouble and keep you up all night with the giggles. But she’ll also be there in the morning, helping to clean up and letting you cry on her shoulder over the boyfriend who dumped you.
Midler’s been touring since, on and off, did a stint in Vegas wearing a 3,200 pound headdress, covered Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee tunes and made an album called "Bathhouse Betty," even had her own short-lived TV show, Bette, which could have been the funniest comedy in ages. What Midler forgot that another wise-cracking female-centric woman, Roseanne, understood perfectly, is that no matter how clever you are on your own, the key to situation comedy is to make sure everyone else on the set is also outstanding.
No one else on Bette was remotely interesting, and Midler’s larger-than-life persona has always been difficult to place in a scripted box. You can’t take your eyes off of her, and in cinema and television that’s not always a good thing. Part of the reason why the genius Madeline Kahn fared so well in movies was because she rarely played the lead; she came in briefly like a breath of intoxicated air. Midler’s a star who’s also the underdog, the misfit and the outsider who’s too smart for everyone’s good. Near the opening of her "Kiss My Brass" tour, she took aim at Christina Aguilera and the new generation of "slut"-dressing pop stars at her own, typical expense. "After all, I was the one who paved the way for mediocre singers with big tits," she said, wondering aloud why she never gets a thank-you. By the time she got around to "I Think It’s Going to Rain Today," the joke and the onus of how we reward stardom was on us.
Last year Midler appeared on Broadway in I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, in a role that finally fit the star to her T. As I wrote at the time, if they added a musical score it could have been Midler’s Funny Girl. Midler played over-the-top outrageous and filthy mouthed agent Sue Mengers in a script that was as much about the late Hollywood agent as it was about Midler. The story went from humor to pathos to humor again, and the actor ingeniously pulled off a concert performance without the concert. The only thing missing was an encore and lighters held high. I’ll Eat You Last had plenty of other characters, but we only saw them inside Midler’s carousal head. Midler didn’t even get a Tony nomination for the show, an almost bookend compliment to the kind of unconventional star she’s always been. Midler’s ordinary in the most extraordinary way, and we’re more apt to reward the people we can’t reach.
On the Academy Awards this year, Midler sang "Wind Beneath My Wings" during the In Memoriam segment, and that sound you didn’t hear was an artist blowing the dust off the other entertainment. Walking out after the image of Philip Seymour Hoffman faded, and, at 68, looking better than she ever has, Midler’s light hovered over the theater without the help of technology. Alongside of her came elegance and class. Only the pretentious think sophistication has no layers, and they have no time for grit. Midler didn’t just honor the people Hollywood lost this year; she honored all of us, and all of our forgotten. There was a statuesque quality to the tiny woman’s frame, after all this time placed above us, divine, finally, by our definition.
In those words, that smile, that voice of a thousand faces, she "Midlered" the crowd, and we took away from it our own heroes. If I thought of my late drama teacher who somehow lived to see old age, or my friend Mark who insisted we go see For the Boys right before his final hospital stay and time on earth, or my friend Doug who’s profoundly still with us, and who used to sing along drunk to her records and may be the one man who could give her a match for her showbiz money, or our mutual friend Todd who shared those nights with us and who we lost for years only to find him again in an old L.A. obit, or if I saw everyone else who never saw gay marriage or gay television or gay mainstream, but who did see a light at the end of their own dark tunnel, then I hope she wouldn’t mind. We love the song because in it we see ourselves and we see her.
Bette Midler is not a specific artist; she doesn’t grab the spotlight in those individual categories we love to fill and define and that so many amazing artists hold. But there’s one thing she has that all the others don’t. And in that one thing is everything.
Photo by Kevin Winter, Courtesy of Getty Images