The Best of Bette Midler
What you call her—The Divine Miss M, The Rose, Bathhouse Betty—or how you think of her—singer, entertainer, actress, activist—might just depend on when you first discovered her.
After all, Bette Midler has had a rich and fascinating career, from her groundbreaking stint at NYC’s Continental Baths in the ’70s to her omnipresence in a plethora of ’80s films to her string of beloved ’90s pop hits to starting a nonprofit to revitalize New York City’s outdoor spaces. And now, she can add Kennedy Center Honoree to her list of accomplishments.
To know Bette is to love her. So it’s time to take a tour through some of her memorable movie moments. From the well known to the unexpected surprises, be prepared for some great entertainment. And you can stream all but one of this Best of Bette list!
The Bette classics
“The Rose” (1979)
Midler’s first major film role as the star in this huge hit quickly established her as Hollywood royalty and earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Loosely based on the life of Janis Joplin, Rose is a self-destructive ’60s rock star grappling with the pressures and demons of her rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Midler’s performance is physically and vocally remarkable, delivering incomparable versions of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the heart-wrenching anthem “Stay With Me” and, of course, the unforgettable Grammy-winning title track.
Sadly, this film is not available to stream, so keep an eye out for any channel that may be airing it!
By far the weepiest of Midler’s films, “Beaches” chronicles the life-long friendship of CC Bloom (Midler) and Hillary (Barbara Hershey). Starting with their chance meeting as disenchanted children, they remain in touch as pen pals. They come back together years later—CC, an aspiring entertainer, and Hillary, a lawyer. Despite being worlds apart in their personal and professional pursuits, their friendship endures through success, failure, laughter and tears. Midler garnered a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Record of the Year for the film’s anthem, “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
“Hocus Pocus” (1993)
A perennial Halloween favorite, Midler co-stars with Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy as the Sanderson Sisters—17th-century witches accidentally brought back from the dead in 20th-century Salem, Massachusetts, by a teenage boy. It’s witches against kids as the plot unfolds in a race against time and immortality. This cult favorite has a much-anticipated sequel coming to Disney+, but no premiere date has been announced as of yet.
In this TV film adaptation of the classic Broadway musical (which itself was based on the autobiography of notorious vaudeville stripper Gypsy Rose Lee), “Gypsy” focuses on Lee’s rise to stardom, pushed by her influential and attention-starved mother. Midler takes on what is considered the King Lear of female musical theater characters: Mama Rose. Midler joins a long line of celebrated stars who tackled the role memorably on stage (Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly among them), but with her acting chops and vocal power, Midler undeniably makes the part her own.
The comedy gems
“Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986)
Midler is in rare comedy form as Barbara Whiteman, the bored, perfectly coiffed wife of Dave (Richard Dreyfuss). The Whitemans, a nouveau riche Beverly Hills family, have their world turned upside down when Jerry (Nick Nolte), a streetwalking vagrant, recuperates in their home after being saved from an attempted drowning in their pool. The entire family—including the dog—become smitten with Jerry’s innate charm and charisma, as he regales the clan with stories and provides some much-needed philosophical (and carnal) fulfillment.
“Ruthless People” (1986)
This ’80s dark comedy teams Midler with Danny DeVito as married millionaires, Barbara and Sam Stone. Sam plans to murder Barbara, whom he despises, but his plan is thrown off course when she is kidnapped. The incompetent abductors demand a ransom in exchange for Barbara’s return or else they’ll kill her. Sam’s loathing is so deep, he goes to great lengths to ignore all demands and warnings in hopes the kidnappers make good on their promise to off his wife, allowing him to inherit her family fortune.
“Big Business” (1988)
Although Midler shares screen time equally with co-star Lily Tomlin, she also shares screen time with herself: Midler and Tomlin play two sets of mismatched identical twins—accidentally switched at birth—from families of different social classes. The wealthy Sadie and Rose Shelton (Midler and Tomlin, respectively) are principals in the corporate family business. Sadie, despite the protestations of Rose, plans to offload the furniture company acquired by their father in Jupiter Hollow, West Virginia—their birthplace and still rustic hometown of Sadie and Rose Ratliff (also Midler and Tomlin). Rose Ratliff, determined to save the furniture company, jets off to New York City to give the shareholders a piece of her mind, with Sadie tagging along to fulfill her inner longing of escaping her rural life. Despite continued hilarious mishaps and mistaken identity crises, all of the sisters find their true happiness by the story’s end.
“The First Wives Club” (1996)
Midler stars here with Hollywood heavyweights Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn as former college friends reunited after 30 years at a friend’s funeral (she committed suicide, distraught over her husband’s infidelity). When the three friends discover they’re all in the same boat—their husbands have left them for younger women—they form the First Wives Club to exact revenge and collect restitution from their exes. Keaton and Hawn brilliantly go toe to toe and note for note with Midler in the triumphant final scene with a cover of Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.”
Bette to discover
“Drowning Mona” (2000)
Mona Dearly (Midler) is hated by family and neighbors. When she drives off a cliff, any speculation of an accident is quickly dismissed by the local police’s Chief Rash (Danny DeVito, again). The Chief suspects murder. When it becomes clear to him just how many residents despised Mona, the entire town is suddenly rife with potential suspects. With a supporting cast of Casey Affleck, Jamie Lee Curtis and Neve Campbell, this quirky whodunit keeps you guessing until the end.
“For the Boys” (1991)
Bette picked up a second Academy Award nomination for her performance as USO entertainer Dixie Leonard. Set in the early ’90s, Dixie’s young escort arrives to take her to a ceremony honoring her and her longtime onstage singing and comedy partner, Eddie Sparks (James Caan). She refuses to attend, still harboring a grudge against Eddie. She reveals, through flashbacks, their long history, spanning from WWII to the Korean War, and finally Vietnam, where Dixie and Eddie experience incredible loss. The soundtrack is filled with glorious standards such as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “P.S. I Love You” and Midler’s cover of The Beatles classic “In My Life.”
“Freak Show” (2017)
Okay, Midler is not front and center here, but her presence is felt throughout this heartbreaker of a film. Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) stars as a flamboyant gay teen forced to move in with his stuffy father (Larry Pine) and attend an ultraconservative high school. While the plot is focused on Billy’s struggle for acceptance, Midler makes multiple appearances in flashbacks as his eccentric and loving mother and returns in later scenes to make good on a long-promised agreement.
Bette in performance
“Divine Madness” (1980)
This is Midler at her most brash, outspoken and hilarious! Shot in 1980, this concert is a treasure trove of classic Bette songs and material, which she performs with her backup trio, The Harlettes. Midler pulls out all of the stops vocally and comically (some of which is rated R), and her alter ego, Delores De Lago makes an appearance in Act II. A must-see for the die-hard Bette fan—but of course, any die-hard fan has most certainly already seen it.
Through the years, Midler has made numerous small screen appearances that can be found on the interwebs—she was Johnny Carson’s final guest on “The Tonight Show” (pre-Fallon and pre-Leno). And at 75 years young, her resume is still growing: In 2020 alone, she appeared in “The Glorias,” “Coastal Elites” and “The Politician”.
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