The trashy Queen of Camp's dark side has always flirted with the Great Beyond. In her first hit, 'Hello in There', old folk restlessly await the Reaper's scythe. And her version of Tom Waits' 'Shiver Me Timbers' turns into a long goodbye, a luxuriant lament not for a loser's life, but for a life lost.
Increasingly, from The Rose (1979) up to Beaches (1988), the funereal has infected her kitsch celebration of hedonistic fun. And the songs kept pace: 'It must have been cold there in my shadow / to never have sunlight on your face'. 'From a Distance' goes even further: a remembrance to a dying planet whose immune system has ceased to work and where the (polluted) air of calm is an illusion only believable if seen from light years away: 'God is watching us.'
For the Boys fuses these preoccupations, and something else: Midler's much publicised off-screen Aids activism. Watch it as an Aids movie in disguise and it immediately makes sense, campy title and all. It's Midler's coded tribute to the subculture that discovered her (her obituary, she sometimes jokes, will read: 'Bette Dead - Began Career at Continental Baths'. Camp and death in the same sentiment again).
Of course, Hollywood wouldn't finance a project that reflected a female performer's symbiotic relationship with her fevered, pervert fans, so For the Boys is, from necessity, in khaki drag. That's fine: gay men, as Bette well knows, prefer their entertainment oblique rather than blatant.
Taken thus, the film's faults evaporate. It's a mood piece, an elegy that dare not speak its name. And Midler is obviously in on the secret. Minutes before the end, she turns to the fresh-faced soldiers around her and sings: 'Some are dead and some are living / but in my life / I loved them all.' And suddenly her brand of glitz and grief speaks directly to the initiated. Death's Diva, Oblivion's Balladeer, saying it's okay, time to let go, time to move on.
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