Bette Midler on the Pandemic, Feminism, Racism and Politics
It is always a pleasure to interview Bette Midler and this last time was no exception. She spoke to the HFPA virtually from her home in New York about the NetflThe Politician created by Ryan Murphy, where she plays Chief of Staff to a seasoned State Senator from New York (Judith Light) running for re-election against a millennial (Ben Platt) whose mother (Gwyneth Paltrow) is running for Governor of California. She also plays feminist leader Bella Abzug in The Glorias directed by Julie Taymor with Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander as Gloria Steinem in different periods of her life.
The Divine Miss M was the title of Midler’s first album, released in 1972, produced by Barry Manilow and inspired by her idols, the Andrew Sisters. It has remained a frequent nickname for the talented singer, winner of three Grammy awards. She is also a Broadway star who earned a Tony for the 2017 revival of the musical that was first performed on stage by Carol Channing in 1964 and made into a 1969 film starring Barbra Streisand. Midler earned two Golden Globes (New Star of the Year and Best Actress) for her film debut in The Rose (1979) directed by Mark Rydell, where she played a singer modeled after Janis Joplin. She remembers that moment, “It was a night I’ll never forget, I thought I had arrived, that whole experience of The Rose was great, a real joy.” She earned another Globe as Best Actress in For the Boys (1981) co-starring James Caan, where she played a singer performing for the troops during World War II, also directed by Mark Rydell and photographed by legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. She received a Golden Globe nomination for her comedic performance opposite Richard Dreyfuss and Nick Nolte in Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1988) directed by Paul Mazursky. The soundtrack of the drama Beaches (1988) directed by Garry Marshall, where she acted with Barbara Hershey, became her most successful album and the single “Wind Beneath My Wings” her most popular song. She starred with Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton in The First Wives Club, a delicious comedy about three divorced women who seek revenge on their ex-husbands for having left them for younger wives. In 1997 the three actresses received the Women in Film Crystal Award.
One of three sisters, Midler always believed in women’s rights, she says, “Thanks to Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique a lot of women suddenly realized, there is another path for me.” She recently tweeted: “Now that the Supreme Court has guaranteed employment rights to the LGBTQ community, I am reminded that the ERA Amendment has yet to be ratified.” Midler plays feminist activist Bella Abzug in Taymor’s The Glorias which premiered in Sundance this year. (Margo Martindale also recently played Abzug in the Hulu miniseries Mrs. America.) “I was in New York when she was working as a politician, and she was tremendous, I always admired her,” Midler says of Abzug. “She was a very plainspoken person, but also hilarious and as funny as you could possibly be.”
Midler, who has a bawdy sense of humor herself, enjoyed the wicked satire of The Politician. As her favorite politician she picks former US President Obama, “one of our guiding lights, he really ran a great ship, he was a tremendous Commander-in-Chief. It was wonderful to feel that you were safe.” She often tweets about the current President, “I get really nasty reactions from Trump supporters, but I don’t really care.” She loves her costar, the marvelous Judith Light, who shined in the Amazon series Transparent created by Jill Soloway, she calls her “a magical performer, very generous. We just bonded, it was as if I had known her all my life, we were besties in no time flat.” She admires Ryan Murphy, “because he is so intent on inclusiveness, there are so many people on that set that have been marginalized and are finally being seen.”
In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and the rightful protests against racism of Black Lives Matter, Midler says, “I support the marches and people taking down institutional racism because it’s unfair and it’s un-American,” and she is most proud of the work she has done with her greening organization, the New York Restoration Project, founded in 1995 with the goal of revitalizing neglected neighborhood parks in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. “We have community gardens where people grow their own food, we teach children environmental science, we are partnering with certain groups around town to distribute food during this terrible time.” And concludes: “There’s a lot in my life that brings me great joy. I am very lucky.”