I go back a long way with Bette Midler -- to the time, about a decade ago, when a slightly funny-looking redhead walked out of the Continental Baths and onto the set of "The Tonight Show," taking Johnny Carson, and me, by storm. The point is that, save for the frequenters of the baths where Midler got her start, I count myself among her earliest fans, and so have a certain proprietary feeling. Her current success -- the SRO concerts, the best selling albums and her portrayal of "The Rose" (a role for which she has won a Golden Globe and finished second in the balloting of the New York Film Critics Circle) -- doesn't surprise me at all. I told you so, I say, and go back to see "The Rose" for a third time. a
"A Veiw From a Broad," purported to be a diary of Midler's first world tour, though, I suspect, written after the fact, seems designed by her publisher to capitalize on that success. But I wouldn't be surprised to find that it was taken much more seriously by, its author. Full of "artsy" photographs by Sean Russell, the book is, like Midler herself, a curious mixture of the ridiculous and the sublime -- moving from rapid-fire jokes that appear to be verbatim transcripts of the opening of her concert act; to pages written in the voices of her various "characters," such as "Dolores de Lago, the Toast of Chicago," a sequined mermaid who sings while whizzing around stage in a wheelchair to a fantasy about a romantic idyll with a muscular young native on a desert island; to serious reflections about how she felt to be a Jew performing in Germany or on the fragile existance of life in Thailand.
On stage, Midler projects the same kind of dual personality. She is able to switch from joke-telling, very blue, to dressing up in a hot-dog costume, complete with mustard and relish on top, to being a quite remarkable singer of very poignant, emotionally weighty ballads and looking beautiful and fragile as she does so. It is, on the one hand, a performance that seems carefully designed to appeal, and, on the other, an extension of the real Bette Midler -- the pure little soul that lurks beneath this lurid exterior," as she herself puts it, tongue in cheek, trying to figure which is more real, or which came first.
Over the years, this has made Midler something of a cult figure, with a huge camp following. Truth is, Midler appeals to the outsider, the misfit, the extremist, in all of us; to all those ugly ducklings who became swans, or want to.
The point is that this doesn't translate to the printed page extremely well. Oh, it's enjoyable enough for an hour or two entertainment. There are some amusing, even insightful lines. To wit: "I'm certain that whatever I may do in my life, whatever I may achieve, the headline of my obiturary in The New York Times will read: BETTE MIDLER DEAD: Began CAREER AT CONTINENTAL BATHS." Or this, on audiences in Germany, where the women's faces had a "mannequin-like composure. Very Helmut Newton. The men tended to have a bit more expression but also a lot more leather. And they came in irons of every imaginable variety from metal-studded chokers to handcuffs. Sitting in my dressing room and listening to the clanging of metal as the audience came in, I thought I was about to perform for a chain-link fence." On the more serious side, Midler questions how she felt about that German audience -- ". . . did I really believe that bygones should be bygones?" -- and reflects on the nature of group conformity, recalling a "particularly horrible example of that when I was growing up in Hawii," the persection of a Chinese-Puerto Rican boy named Angel Wong who committed suicide because, said the note he left behind, "I'm tired of being the punch line."
"A View From a Broad" has, of course, a built-in readership -- those not familiar with Bette Midler probably aren't going to buy it, but, her True-Beliver fans are going to spend the $12.50 no matter what a book reviewer says, and they probably should. Still, it isn't quite as good as The Real Thing, live, on stage or screen. As for me, I may not pick up this book again, but I am going back to see "The Rose" -- a fourth time. t