Bette Midler - Showgirl still purring with delight

As Bette Midler returns to the screen voicing a power-crazed cat, she tells Gill Pringle how time has mellowed her
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The Independent Culture

The Seyfried syndrome" is how one LA producer describes the increasing trend for young Hollywood stars to mix making big blockbusters with appearing in low-budget indie films. He was referring to the 24-year-old actress Amanda Seyfried, who switches between acting in undemanding studio rom-coms (Mamma Mia, Dear John) and small, little-seen, edgy independent movies (Chloe, Boogie Woogie).

Once one of the most outrageous stars of her day, nobody can be more surprised than Bette Midler herself to reflect back on a life that today sees her mellowed into marriage and motherhood for the past 25 years.

"Really? Twenty-five years . . ." she sighs in disbelief.

"And I have been very settled. Yes, its true, and that's just the way it happened. It was not what I expected. But it's been a real surprise. It's turned into a real love affair," says Midler, 64, who wed Argentinian-born former performance artist-turned stock-broker Martin von Haselberg, now 61, literally six weeks after meeting, and are today proud parents of a Yale graduate daughter.

"But, you know, we really worked at it and we never gave up. It wasn't the easiest marriage ever but its turned into something really kind of amazing."

Struggling to recollect their 25th wedding anniversary last December, she says: "I think we took one of our trips. We travel a lot. We do a lot of travelling together when nobody's looking. We pack up the car and go to the country or we get on a plane and go to Paris and do things just to get away from the phones. And we've managed to sustain it and its very interesting because we're very quiet around each other, and we're very quiet in our world. We seem to be on the same wavelength. After all these years, I guess we're pretty much the same person."

Having entertained us for more than four decades with her music, comedy and films, Midler has four Golden Globes, three Emmys, three Grammys and a Tony, although is perhaps best remembered for hit movies Beaches, The Rose and The First Wives Club.

"I'm not sure if people care about being movie stars anymore. In the old days, you had to have a talent to act or sing or dance, and your fame came out of your talent. All of the standards for what people want to see have changed. We are in a very bleak time. It's not a good time for talent. It's a time for shamelessness. I used to say 'shame has gone missing – and that's a goddamn shame'. Its like a bottomless well.

"I saw some of them go off the deep-end like Lindsay and Brittany but it's mostly the girls rather than the men. Because of the internet everybody knows their failures and you can't have your meltdowns and failures in private anymore. Maybe the thing that makes them creative is the same thing that makes them unreasonable. I sometimes wish I was less reasonable so I could know that craziness and that complete dementedness that people are somehow allowed. I think sometimes that would make things better – maybe that would make my work better – if I were crazier. With my luck? Can you imagine my mug-shot?!" laughs Midler who, after a two-year absence, returns to the screen, not in person, but voicing an evil pussy in family film Cats & Dogs: the Revenge of Kitty Galore.

"It's ironic that I voice this wicked cat, Kitty Galore, because, in real life, I'm such a dog person," she purrs. "My own dog was such a genius. I thought she was the greatest living creature. She gave me so much joy. I've never even had a cat. I wouldn't have known a dog if my daughter hadn't asked for one when she was five and my husband got her a Jack Russell terrier and then she didn't like it."

Like a true actress, she's even researched the "back story" in portraying Kitty Galore, a cat with megalomaniac tendencies, saying, "Kitty has an accident and she's been rejected by her family, and of course any kind of rejection always hurts and it leaves a wound and, in her case, an open wound and she decides she's going to take over the world.

"But I do understand. I've recently been reading about Napoleon. The writer said he had no religion and no conscience and no interest in his fellow man. He was only interested in seeing that his will was done. The idea that a person would have no conscience is fascinating. And I know that's true – I know there are a lot of people out there with no conscience, but I'm not exactly sure why? Nobody knows why people turn out to be the way they are."

Cats & Dogs may be children's fare but Midler shows no signs of going soft, having taken a couple of years off for a two-year engagement in Las Vegas, reportedly paid $40m per year for her 200 performances of Bette Midler: the Showgirl Must Go On.

"The first year-and-a-half was great and then I got so tired," she reflects wearily. "I had to have a vitamin B12 every night and I couldn't see anybody because I was too tired. I was on the treadmill every day like it was Groundhog Day. Every day was the same day. I ate the same thing every day – oatmeal for breakfast and soup for lunch and then a salad or a piece of chicken after the show."

One of the few 50-plus actresses still hired in Hollywood, Midler isn't alone on blaming the dearth of work on Meryl Streep. "But, no, we don't hate Meryl. We just wish she'd turn down a few more things. But she's a great girl although I do say to her, 'Meryl, you've got to turn some things down.' But she loves to work and fortunately she's a genius. And Meryl sells tickets. She's a proven commodity. And the boys in the front office cannot risk spending that much money on a person who is not a guarantee to put the butts on seats. So they make the same movie over and over again because that's the same movie like the last time. It's a vicious circle.

"But I've had a good run in pictures. Most of the women that I came up with don't really have the kind of jobs they once had. I don't think anyone my age is working – except for Meryl and a few guys."

Against all those odds, she encourages her own 23-year-old daughter's recent decision to follow in her mother's footsteps. A sociology graduate, Sophie von Haselberg – using her father's name rather than trading on her mother's celebrity – worked for an advertising agency in Beijing before recently joining the Williamstown Playhouse in Massachusetts.

"It can be so much fun putting on all these characters and playing all these games. Basically just playing in the sand-box. Who can blame her? People don't want to sit in a cubicle in front of a computer all their lives. It's bad for your bowels.

"So I have my fingers crossed and hope that everything works out. It's all about hard work, talent and a lot of luck. My husband says she really sings well but she doesn't sing for me. But it's OK. All in good time.

"Sophie hasn't really asked for my advice but, if she did, I'd tell her not to believe anything you read about yourself. Don't read your press. I made the mistake very early on of reading my press and it made me very sick for a long time so I never read it anymore. If you read the good you have to read the bad and if you read the bad you won't survive because you'll get sick from it because it's meant to injure and hurt and destroy. And it's cruel and un-survivable and I know people who follow all that crap and follow what people say about them on the internet and they get so ill and so frantic from it, trying to do something about it. What you don't know is not going to hurt you, unfortunately what you do know will."

Compliment Midler on her youthful appearance, she laughs. "Thank you, but I do it all. I do a little bit of everything and I have a great make-up artist and a great hairdresser and I really try not to pig out. And the booze really packs it on. The booze is a killer. I do the facials; I do the pilates and I do the yoga. And I run. I'm one of those people who really likes to sweat. And I like it.

"As to plastic surgery? I think that if you want it and you need it, you should go for it. The techniques are really great now. Do I do Botox? I do Botox. I haven't done it in a while as you can see! But I think it's an interesting big world."

If Midler appears as irrepressible as ever, she says, "I'm a little bit sour but I don't seek world domination any more. I got older and my hormones dried up and once those hormones go, boy, world domination is like, 'Ah, forget it'. I got tired and thought, 'Who really wants to be chased by the paparazzi?' It's not that much fun."

'Cats & Dogs: the Revenge of Kitty Galore' opens on 4 August

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