Friday, February 10, 2017

Bet on Bette

Bette Midler, actress, chanteuse, film producer.  Ms. Midler started out as a singer, but has managed to imprint herself on the world in other endeavors as well.   My first introduction to Midler was, as with probably many of you, in the film The Rose, a biography of a self-destructive pop singer, based loosely on the life of Janis Joplin.  Not only can she sing her ass off, she's a pretty decent actress, too.

Turns out she's one hell of a comedienne, too.  Two movies, both coming out in 1986, and of two decidedly different styles of comedy, Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People, featured the "Divine Miss M."  (1986 was a pretty good year for comedies, too.  Also coming out that year were Ferris Bueller's Day Off, ­­¡Three Amigos!, the first Crocodile Dundee, Back to School and the Michael Keaton movie Gung Ho, (at least I thought it was funny, despite how it was reviewed by the critics...)

The Paul Mazursky  directed Down and Out in Beverly Hills is typical of the dry wit and social issues for which he was known.  This was the guy who directed the comedy about sexual mores in the late 60's-early 70's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and the Robin Williams film about a defecting Russian trying to adapt in America Moscow on the Hudson. Typical of his movies, D & O, deals with homeless people and how more affluent people look at and accept (or not accept) them, as well as how we as people allow our prejudices affect our abilities to view individuals as individuals.

On the other side of the scale is the broad, sometimes raunchy comedy we come to expect from an Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker (ZAZ) film.  Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker make up the team.  These are the guys responsible for inflicting the riotously funny classics such as Airplane!, Top Secret!, Hot Shots! (and Hot Shots! Part Deux), The Naked Gun: Files from the Police Squad!  (You get the idea that ZAZ really likes "!"s?)

The Divine Miss M plays a spoiled rich bitch in both, but despite that fact they are two entirely different characters and she plays both with such extreme gusto. By the way, I don't know if this had anything significant to do with it, but it turns out that the casting director for both movies was the same person: Ellen Chenoweth....

 (An early warning:  I tried to give both of these movies an even-steven share of the commentary, but even so I imagine it will be obvious which of the two I really prefer.)

Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)

Midler plays Barbara Whiteman, the wife of the self-proclaimed coat hanger king Dave Whiteman (Richard Dreyfuss).  Spoiled rotten, and a bit self important (and also a sucker for every mubo-jumbo new age thing to come down the pike.  She has a psychiatrist for the dog, for crying out loud...)  Into this staid world comes Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte), a homeless man whose best friend, his dog (named Kerouac, now isn't that fitting?) has left him.  After a fruitless search, Jerry decides to committ suicide by jumping into the Whiteman's pool.

Dave rescues him, and decides that the best thing to do is take Jerry under his wing, so to speak, cleaning him up and making him a guest at his home.  Nobody else at the Whiteman house likes this one bit.  Barbara is inundated with all sorts of stereotypical prejudices against him because he is homeless.  Carmen (Elizabeth Pena), the Whitemans live in maid, objects to him because he is filthy.  Dave's son, Max (Evan Richards), although not openly hostile to Jerry, clearly does not like his father's attitudes towards him, and may be standoffish as a result to Jerry.  When Dave's daughter, Jenny (Tracy Nelson), shows up for Christmas and finds the arrangement, she too exhibits hostility to Jerry.  The only person who shows any regard for Jerry is Dave.

But that changes over the course of the movie.  Jerry is a consummate liar, claiming to be, at alternate times, an actor, a concert pianist, a former resident of an ashram in Oregon, and other things, as suits whatever situation with which he is confronted. Through these subterfuges he manages to convince and win over everyone in the house, at the expense of alienating his first true friend in the household, Dave.

Admittedly, part of his ability to win over the hearts of the females in the house is he manages to bed each one of them.  Barbara, who suffers fro migraines, and has tried just about every wacko new age fad in the world, eventually succumbs to Jerry's ministrations as a masseuse (ostensibly learned at the ashram) and ends up in bed with him.  Carmen, who is easily manipulated by Jerry's Communist knowlege (he bought the books he gave her at a supermarket), ends up in bed with him.  Jenny, admittedly hostile at the outset, ends up in bed with him.  Max doesn't end up in bed with him, but Jerry encourages him in his homosexual (or at least his cross-dressing) tendencies.

Added into this mix is the Whiteman's next door neigbor, Orvis Goodnight (Little Richard) whose antics come off as rather an obvious parody of someone reminiscent of Al Sharpton.  Orvis is a record producer who bewails his unequal treatment compared to his white neighbor, but he does go to the Whitemans NYE party, so maybe its all just a ploy...

Midler is a gas in this one, especially when she gets into her self-righteous mode, demanding that Dave get his head on straight and gets rid of Jerry before the homeless man murders them all in their sleep.  Likewise when she finally comes over to Jerry's side of the table, and champions him (with a brief lapse when she learns that Jerry has two-timed her with Carmen), she can be overly emotional.  (Be sure to not miss the scene where she has gotten plastered while Dave is out.  Barbara is a vegetarian, but makes the excuse she can drink vodka because it's made from the potato...)

Ruthless People (1986)

Once again, Midler plays another spoiled rotten rich bitch, Barbara Stone (you think Bette has an unresolved resentment against someone named "Barabara"?  Or is it just a coincidence that two of her most obnoxious roles involve a woman with that name?).  She is the wife of an unscrupulous businessman, Sam Stone (Danny De Vito).  Sam has an intense desire to rid himself of his wife, and plans to kill her.

Fortunately for Sam, two kidnappers, Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater), have kidnapped Barbara and threaten to kill her if their ransom demands are not met.  Sam, for his part, has no intention of paying the ransom, even going so far as to go against all the warnings the kidnappers have set up that supposedly will result in them killing Barbara outright if they are not met.

Sam has a mistress, Carol (Anita Morris), to whom he is planning to get married after he disposes of Barbara, and whom knows of Sam's plans to kill his wife.  Carol is cheating on Sam on the side with a male bimbo, accurately described by another character as the "stupidest person on the face of the Earth".  With Earl (Bill Pullman), Carol plans to film Sam's murder of his wife and blackmail him for mucho dinero.

Meanwhile, the kidnappers, who are really the most sympathetic characters in the movie, have done just about everything they can to wheedle money out of Sam, even going so far as to reduce the money they demand from $100,000 to $50,000 to $10,000.  They just want to hurt Sam for cheating them after Sam has stolen Sandy's idea (she being a wanna-be designer herself) and claimed it as his own.

Barbara makes life hell for the kidnappers, being a screeching, demanding captor.  She demands certain foods and health products (she being a failed fitness freak, trying to lose weight, but being very unsuccessful) .  If I were truly the ruthless kidnapper I claimed to be, it wouldn't take long to follow through on my threats at this point, but the Kessler's are really good-hearted people who just want to be recompensed by Sam for his unscrupulous actions.

Carol sends Earl to the supposed site where Sam is going to kill Barbara, but instead of filming the murder, Earl films the police chief (William G. Schilling) having a sexual liaison with a hooker.  But Earl, being the dimwitted soul he is, actually thinks he is filming the murder.  So when Carol and Earl send the tape to the police chief, thinking it is Barbara's murder, and demanding that he arrest Sam, the chief is at a loss, and worried about his marriage and career if the tape is made public.

There is more confusion and double-cross in this movie than an entire fleet of classic Three Stooges reels.  Will Sam succeed in ridding himself of Barbara?  Will the Kessler's succeed in extorting money from Sam?  Will Carol and Earl succeed in extorting money from Sam?  Will Earl get a brain from the Wizard of Oz? (Sorry wrong movie...)  This, and all other questions you may have from reading this review will be answered when you actually watch the movie.

As much as I hate to admit it, Bette Midler has stolen my heart, despite the mostly obnoxious women she plays in these two movies.  What does that say about me...?  Drive home safely, folks.



  1. Hi Quiggy - these two amazing comedic performances by Bette Midler basically saved her career. After she stunned the cinema world with her amazing portrayal of The Rose, Midler made a series of flops and became box office poison, until she retooled her image with these great roles. "I've been kidnapped by KMART!"
    By the way, I HIGHLY recommend the Rose if you have not seen it lately.

    1. I keep looking for The Rose but I haven't seen it at either the used shop I frequent or in the library stacks. I missed it at the theater, but I've heard the title song hundreds of times. It's what made me realize she was a dynamic singer. (I have the album "Divine Madness" up on the shelf in my closet, but since I haven't got a turntable it's been years since I've heard it.) Thanks, Chris.

  2. I saw Bette live in concert for the first time at the Hard Rock in Hollywood FL last year--she is dynamic as ever. And is headed back to Broadway this spring in Hello Dolly! And she is like 70, wow!


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