Advertisement

The Divine Bottom Line : How Bette Midler and the Disney executives turned Miss M into the ultimate studio star

“What kind of perfume does Bette Midler wear?” asked a customer at the Disney studio store.

“Power,” said the clerk. “But you can’t buy it.”

“I want to do that job,” Bette Midler said blithely. She pointed to a local magazine cover featuring Columbia Pictures president Dawn Steel as one of California’s eight terrible bosses. Midler scowled as though she didn’t like the headline. “The Queen of Mean,” she said reading the cover line aloud. “I don’t think she’s so mean. But I would do the executive job completely different. I’d be unorthodox.” Midler stopped to reconsider a minute. “But then I guess I’d be in the David Puttnam position.”

Better Bette be in her own position than that of the dethroned Puttnam. She defines bankable. Five Disney comedies in three years have earned a cumulative $252.2 million in U.S. grosses for the studio. In Hollywood there’s a mostly unspoken elementary-school grading system and--as one ex-Creative Artists agent put it--"Bette is getting a B-plus every day. Or an A-minus.” In March, she begins shooting a version of the Barbara Stanwyck classic “Stella Dallas” because Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg spent 18 months negotiating with Sam Goldwyn Jr. for the remake rights. Disney pays as much attention to Bette as Ronald Reagan pays to Nancy.

Advertisement

“Every executive on this lot--every day--drives to work, and the first thing on their minds is-- you have to believe me --Bette Midler.” Jeffrey Katzenberg was trying to be specific about his star as an asset. The image was striking--all those BMWs curving in on Dopey Drive on the Disney lot with Midler movies on their minds. Katzenberg the businessman was exposing his vulnerability to a creative resource--to a piece of talent.

It’s ironic that Bette Midler, of all people, is the ‘80s version of the quintessential studio star--the executive’s pet, the bankable favorite. A well-behaved Divine Miss M is casting against type. One thinks of words like artist and volatile . That she became a movie star doesn’t surprise anyone; that she had to become a well-behaved studio employee to do so is a stunner.

“Do you know how the parent of an only child is fiercely protective? Paternal?” asked John Erman, who will direct “Stella Dallas” on location in Toronto. “At Disney it’s ‘Are you sure Bette is being taken care of in this situation?,’ ‘Is this the right costume designer for Bette?,’ ‘Will that cameraman photograph Bette correctly?’ and ‘Remember Bette is from Hawaii and she will be shooting in Canada--is it too cold?’ She is protected by mother lions, and she delivers for them. Every time. I guess that’s what a star is.”

This accidental cyclical Hollywood marriage was born on Oscar Night 1983, when an unemployed Midler stole the telecast--and Katzenberg and Disney CEO Michael Eisner were still at Paramount. The executives talked that night about rediscovering Miss M for the movies. When the team went to Disney, their first success was Paul Mazursky’s “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” and the star was reborn. Katzenberg is grateful for the financial hits that followed: “Ruthless People, “Outrageous Fortune,” “Big Business” and now “Beaches,” which even with very mixed reviews has grossed $25.8 million domestically in 50 days in wide release.

Advertisement

“Even myself,” said Katzenberg, “I drive past Crescent Heights and Sunset Boulevard, and I see her on a billboard and I think, ‘Well, there’s an obligation here. An obligation to be enthusiastic.’ This whole success is 98% her and 2% us.” The numbers may be off, but this is a business of hyperbole. And Katzenberg, who’s not yet 40, knows it as well as any executive of his generation. He began his career at 13, observing the campaign of N.Y. Mayor John Lindsay, and he’s still watching everything--relentlessly. His high-school-sweetheart marriage and trademark Mustang convertible, and endless diet Cokes, put him closer to his audiences than to cliche executives--he goes to movies in Westwood, not screenings--but don’t be fooled. None of Katzenberg’s 600 weekly phone calls are wasted.

“We go to Jeffrey’s office for a meeting, and it’s wild,” said Bonnie Bruckheimer Martel, the producer (“Beaches”), who’s probably Midler’s closest friend and was for a long time her assistant. “Fourteen things are going on, and we’re on our way somewhere else--one of us is, anyway--and we talk in shorthand. I don’t think it’s formal like people think. Jeffrey and Bette both have this sense of humor.”

That doesn’t mean these two are alike. “Do you think alike?” Katzenberg was asked. He replied with a rather prolonged laugh. When Bruckheimer-Martel was asked, “Are they alike?,” she responded, “Nobody’s like Jeffrey.” Only Midler, in the first of several interviews, thought before she responded. “Jeffrey and I are very much . . . two equals. He never pulls rank on me, and I never pull rank on him. We never threaten each other, and we never blackmail each other. And we never talk about personalities. It never gets to that level. We never say ‘I hate so and so.’ We never talk like that. He’s very amusing, but it’s never anything personal or dirty. Also, it’s not that intimate. Because I don’t think it can be . . . It shouldn’t be.”

“She’s very amusing,” said Katzenberg, using Midler’s word, “and so is her husband (commodities trader and performance artist) Martin von Hasselberg. And we go to concerts or movies, we have a good time. And,” he added carefully, “I would say that even in business we have not had any moments of contentiousness.”

Cautious Use

There are all kinds of misconception s about Bette Midler, but the major one is that she gave away her power, to the powers at Disney. “She handed her career to Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner,” is the way one agent puts it. “And then the power came back to her.” Midler opened one interview session with that subject.

“The power, hmm . . .,” she said, tugging at an orange cashmere turtleneck , and thinking. “I didn’t give it away, I gave it up. ‘Gave it away’ means I actually gave it to someone, that someone received it. No--I just gave it up.”

And, she agreed, it’s come back to her: “I would say that that was true.” Midler is one of those people, like Cher, who show mood swings like most people show charms on a bracelet; she’s unworried about Image. She compensates for occasionally overplaying onscreen by underplaying offscreen, kind of a reverse Margo Channing. She’s completely on the table.

Advertisement

“I’m much more cautious about the use of power now,” she said. “I’m not interested in misusing it. That would be easy. I’m not even really interested in using it.” Midler made a distinction: “One has to be in charge of where one’s career is going, but that’s personal power. That’s not getting other people to do what you want. On ‘Beaches’ it was different because I was obliged to say more. But if I had my way, I wouldn’t have said anything. I was obliged to do the job, I did the job. I cared, and I think it shows on the screen, but. . . . “

But: “The truth is that it pays not to care,” Midler said plainly. “It’s better if you don’t have your soul on the line. I haven’t found anything that I’m ready to sell my soul for. If I do, I will, but I haven’t yet. Not so far with these people. Although I like them, I’m enjoying myself. I mean, I love the relationship we have.”

There’s love, and there’s love. What is sometimes missing in Midler’s voice is a kind of passion, and she knows it. On TV interviews, she talks about “just showing up for work” and simultaneously one can see the artist in her waiting to burst out again. Bette Midler as Lotte Lenya. Bette Midler as Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” “But I just don’t have the fever now,” she’ll say, when pressed. So that’s one Midler misconception cleared up--the one about her still being a careerist at all costs. But there are other misperceptions about Bette Midler, movie star:

1. The Queen misconception: Does she revel in playing queen of the lot? Use the phrase and she looks at you like you are crazy. “I hear that, and I don’t know who they’re talking about. It’s like some balloon over there"--she pointed out a window--"It’s like this ephemeral cloud of vapor. Do you think I should behave like the queen of the lot? Sometimes I’d like to. I see pictures of Gloria Swanson, in a limousine with a bodyguard, and I think ‘Oh, I really should do that.’ But I don’t want to meet any new body builders. Debra Winger says every six months she puts some dirt (gossip) out there--that’s what a star does. I thought ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ But then I knew I’d have to make something up. And that would be like playing another role, and I don’t have the time.”

2. The “get-even” misconception. In the lean Hollywood years after her debut in Mark Rydell’s “The Rose,” did Midler acquire a “get-even” philosophy? “No,” she countered. “I don’t have any axes to grind. I don’t need my enemies, and it’s very freeing. Not to have another agenda is very freeing. Think of the amount of time you spend trying to knife the people who stiffed you. Or trying to get back at them. . . . I’m not saying I’ve forgiven anybody. I hold a grudge, definitely, absolutely. I just don’t need my enemies any longer. When I was younger I needed them. I was mad, and I’m not even sure why I was so mad. It’s from when I was a kid. It got me through many, many years in New York, that anger, from like ’65 to ’75. Ten years of it, and I grew out of it. This (stardom) is like a major payback. I used all that anger,” she said almost convincingly. “I’ve really used it all up.”

3. The “it’s a ball” misconception. Is it fun when the cream rises and you’re the cream? “Wrong,” corrected Midler. “All this is work. You don’t know what it’s like to think about hair and makeup. When Joan Collins says she’s a product of the old studio system and she never goes out without hair or makeup--it’s like four hours to do that. You could be in the garden. Growing something. It’s like why bother? Bette Davis asked me one night how could I come to a party looking like that ? I looked perfectly respectable! I had on a nice black dress, I combed my hair. I said to myself, ‘Well that’s the way Bette Davis does things.’ But I would never be so mean-spirited as to say that about somebody. I don’t think she was always like that. Maybe it’s her getting older. In the ‘40s when she broke her contract, and went to England, I thought that was powerful. That was a strong thing to do.” (Irony: Bette Midler was named for Bette Davis.)

4. The “star” misconception. Is Midler as star part of a peer group? This time she really looks at you like you are crazy. “Most of the time you are so wrapped up in yourself, you don’t really look or see. Suddenly I opened my eyes and saw that there are people out here in the same position I’m in. But most of us are so self-involved, looking at ourselves through a microscope. I’m always self-consciously prejudging, and judging my own actions.”

5. The “blinders” misconception. Since her admitted nervous breakdown five years ago, has Midler put on blinders about her movie stardom and become completely gung-ho? “No, I still have my withdrawing days. Definitely. But it’s a balance. If there’s a crisis on the lot, I know how to jump out of bed, quick, rush over and put my two cents in. But only if I’m needed. It’s a tough, hard lesson to learn that other people have imagination and vision, too--but I learned it. Mostly from being in the music business, where you deal with more gangsterish-type people. Not gangsterish--maybe they’re just tougher, more from the street. The budgets in music aren’t as huge as in pictures. People in the movie business are more elegant; they have a shinier veneer. But once you scratch the veneer, the bottom line is the thing that counts. Sometimes I get a little vague,” Midler said vaguely, “but I always know where the bottom line is.”

Advertisement

6. The “stingy” misconception. Is Midler, a seven-figure movie star, still tight with a dollar? Her laugh was from Ala Moana Boulevard in Honolulu. “You mean that I’m cheap? I am quite cheap. I don’t own shopping centers, I don’t have any tax shelters, I don’t have stock in any bank, I don’t do any wheeling and dealing. But I can get very agitated, and I can say ‘Where’s the money?’ I’m interested to see how they work these schemes in business. And then when I find out, I want to practically throw myself on a funeral pyre, because I think ‘Omigod, I’m broke.’ But I’m conservative about money because I see constant waste around me. People are so damned mindless, brainwashed almost, about buying up everything. People want to be on the top of the trend. With these leveraged buyouts, stock market gambits, and ways of buying money, people are just going nuts.”

A Legendary Ambition

The need for power must come finally from ambition, thwarted maybe or trampled-on, but somehow there. Twice in interviews Midler became teary talking about her original ambition to be a legend. In front of you she becomes the loneliest, homeliest pre-swan duckling, with all the rough edges showing. So you have to ask her about wanting the power of movie stardom.

“I intended to be a movie star because I thought it was the high end,” she said simply. “I thought it was where the work would survive, that if you had something beautiful and good to offer, it was worth the effort. I still feel that way, but not as strongly. Because I know how hard it is to make something good and beautiful. With your own personal vision. You almost have to be a giant of some sort.”

No, she wasn’t talking about “Yentl,” the movie most actresses talk about in terms of a star having a vision. Midler was asked to drop a name. “OK, Orson Welles,” she responded in a flash. “A giant who was beaten down by the system, and couldn’t survive. I’m not saying he didn’t contribute to his own demise, but he should have found the way to survive. He should have found the path. He didn’t, he couldn’t. And if he couldn’t, who of us can?”

But Orson Welles didn’t have the resources of the Disney empire behind him. “So are you saying I have an obligation to force my views on the studio?” Midler retorted. No, but this phase of her career should feel like a dream-come-true, at least a little. “It does,” Midler admitted. “But my situation is one I don’t want to jeopardize by beating them with a stick of my ego and my personality. My situation is one that I want to remain calm and polite. So the steps I take are cautious ones.”

‘It’s Give-and-Take’

So she’s paying strict attention, ignoring the emotional roller-coaster that made “The Rose” such a signature film. There is a Hollywood proverb about seven years lucky and seven years unlucky: “The Rose” was 1979 and her comeback movie “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” was seven years later. Now, in the middle of a lucky period, Midler has become a political animal. Without malice but very straightforwardly she said: “My steps are very considered. I think a lot about what I’m doing with these people.”

More to the point: “I think a lot about the things I want the studio to do for me. And I know they think a lot about the things they want me to do for them. It’s give-and-take.” Whether it’s the animation movie (“Oliver & Company”) for which she did a voice “as a kind of favor” or the tour film she did for Disney’s EPCOT Center. “I did ‘Oliver & Company’ for almost nothing. Not nothing, but almost no money. I’m doing this little tour picture for them, for EPCOT. I did a little Mickey thing for Michael (Eisner). Little things, you know, here and there.” She makes it sound like day work.

But what does Disney do for Bette? “They listen,” she said, like it was a gift from God. Somebody in Hollywood listens. “They’re obliged to listen to pitches, but they also bend over backwards to see my point of view.” Midler cracked up at her own phrasing, and her eyes went mock-lewd. She looked for a minute kind of like Donna Mills at an awards show. “They’ll listen again and again and again. It’s like whittling away at the people who are under Jeffrey.”

At one point Midler said, “I’m not a gentle person” and because Katzenberg is not considered soft, the chemistry became clear. One way they are alike is in their willingness to intrude, in terms of the final cut of a picture. “Beaches” director Garry Marshall calls Disney a “studio with both hands on and sometimes even an elbow.” Both Midler and Katzenberg are knowing observers about editing and razoring scenes. As Norman Mailer put it, if two people can kill equally--they can love each other.

Said Midler: “In certain cases the directors and Jeffrey have both asked me, ‘What do you think?’ I’ll say, ‘Oh, I think you shaved too much off this scene.’ Example: The yodeling scene in “Big Business.” “I wanted it redone,” remembered Midler. “The little orchestra was unprepared. I thought, ‘I cannot let it go out that way.’

Right now Disney is thinking “drama” as a career switch for Midler. The comedies have given her a sure footing, a niche that anyone but Clint Eastwood would envy. Five hits at one studio . So now there’s a comfort zone. (She even has projects at 20th Century Fox and Tri-Star.) “Beaches” was conceived as Midler’s first Disney drama, and “Stella” is completely dramatic. “Jeffrey said, ‘It’s enough. It’s time for a change. What have you got?’ Well, he knew we had ‘Beaches’ because he bought ‘Beaches.’ ”

The Serious Side

One day arriving slightly late for an afternoon interview at her All-Girl production office, Midler was almost unrecognizable. The wiry librarian glasses, the shapeless butterscotch sweater, the pleated ‘50s sophomore skirt, the quietude of her personality that day. Talia Shire in the original “Rocky.” Offscreen, she has a sense of wardrobe, of color and texture, not always apparent on the screen. She talks about gaining enormous amounts of weight “between pictures, even now, and then going to exercise class, and everybody’s shocked how fast I take it off.”

But it’s not the weight or the schoolgirlish looks--it’s the seriousness of Bette Midler that’s surprising. “The emotional swings in the last few years are less frequent,” says Bonnie Bruckheimer, but one senses that Midler’s still capable of changing moods in the middle of a corridor.

And indeed she seems to sense when a curvy question is coming. The Disney comedies blur in some peoples’ minds-- Big Ruthless Outrageous Fortune in Beverly Hills. All too often she plays the dominant character--Disney uses her as Howard Hawks used Cary Grant in the ‘30s, as a role reversal. Grant played passive to strong heroines, like Katharine Hepburn; Midler plays aggressive to passive co-stars. She dominated Barbara Hershey and Lily Tomlin and Shelley Long and even Richard Dreyfuss (playing a wimp) because as producer Craig Zadan (“Sing”) puts it, “She can act almost anyone off the screen.” (Zadan has spent several years acquiring the movie rights to the dramatic Lenya saga from the Kurt Weill Foundation--for Midler.)

But didn’t Midler hesitate--ever--before saying yes to the comedies? “I had hesitation, oh yes I did,” she insisted. “But I was in an I-want-to-work mode. I would have done cameos, I just wanted to get my feet wet again. I did ponder over ‘Ruthless People.’ I thought, ‘Oh God, I can’t do this, it’s so vulgar.’ Then I thought, ‘Oh, the hell with it, who cares? They all think I’m totally vulgar anyway. Why not really go for it?’ I didn’t look good in it at all, and I was definitely confused. I wasn’t all there. Lucky it was a hit. I don’t think I got a lot of guidance on that one.”

Guidance. Career moves. Actresses desperate for direction. One either works all the time, like Jane Fonda, or waits for what seems like forever, like Barbra Streisand. Midler didn’t want to wait six years again between movies. She didn’t want to wait for another “Rose.” “I’m not that kind of person,” she admitted. “If I waited, I wouldn’t have a body of work, and I wanted a body of work.”

Again Midler got a little teary on the topic of stardom. “I’m not surprised because I know I have it. I have what it takes. I’m a hard worker, too. But I’m surprised at the strength of the popularity. Or not so much surprised as relieved. Not to be in the unemployment line. You don’t ever forget that phase of your life.”

This phase--the 1928 Spanish house in Coldwater Canyon, the land in Hawaii, the husband and daughter, the baby showers for friends, the balance -- is a little cushy for die-hard Midler fans who remember her when . Who remember the risks, the live shows that were possibly the most extraordinary one-woman concerts ever.

This new fortysomething life wasn’t what Midler originally envisioned for herself. Again, ask her to drop a name, and she says, “Anita Loos, or Dorothy Parker. Alone at the end. I could see myself heading that way. I didn’t want it to happen, though. I didn’t want to end up on the last bar stool. With a drink in my hand. I may yet, though,” she added with a kind of knowing look -- the old divine Miss M twinkle--that encompasses many possibilities. “Or maybe I’m too bourgeois to end up on the bar stool.”

She thought a minute then added: “This period is giving me a chance to really solidify my instincts. I’m finding out what I care deeply and passionately about.”

And?

“I’m finding out that sequins are still my life.”

And?

“I’m finding out that I’m completely and totally superficial.”

And?

“I’m finding out that movies are like propaganda. They are like instruction, like messages, and you can’t be vague about what you are saying. If you don’t have a vision, you are just acting someone else’s point of view. So what I have to do is solidify my point of view. Every five years or so I go through a life change.”

That’s one reason why Jeffrey Katzenberg is paying such close attention to Bette Midler.


Advertisement