The Divine Miss M’s infamous initial no longer stands for Manic or Mischievous. Suddenly it stands for Mainstream and Mature, even for Mother. After many raucous years of posturing as a rebel without a pause, Bette Midler has reached new status as a rep of the status quo. “It was an extraordinary year,” says Midler, 41. “I had two hit movies and a baby. The year went from the ridiculous to the sublime, or rather from the ridiculous to the divine, because my little girl is such a doll.”
In a turn of events as unpredictable as the lady, the mass market has become a Midler market. Bette salvaged a flagging acting career when her Down and Out in Beverly Hills became the second biggest film hit (after Splash) in the history of Disney Studios last February. Her renaissance continued four months later, when her Ruthless People became the most successful Disney movie. The comedienne who couldn’t cop a comedy only a year before has emerged as 1986’s top female draw, eclipsing such box-office standards as Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep and Debra Winger. “I had remained a fairly unknown commodity,” says Midler. “My work had either been onstage or cable. With these comedies, people finally got to see what they had heard I did.”
For Midler, success brought vindication. At the time she married commodities trader/performance artist Martin von Haselberg in 1984, she found herself at a career crossroads. “I’ll tell you, I didn’t know which way to turn,” she says. “[Actress] Billie Burke once said that when you reach a certain age as a woman you have to turn the corner and decide to be funny, because you only have so many years as an ingenue or leading lady. My husband asked me what I wanted to do and I told him, ‘Be hysterically funny.’ He really encouraged me. He said if I could concentrate on that, I’d probably be in good shape.”
The Nov. 14 birth of baby Sophie has put Midler in fine spirits. “It’s good to be able to put movies aside and look into her eyes,” says Bette. “The joy is overwhelming, but the work is pretty overwhelming too. I was surprised at how pooped you are as a new mother.” For her next project, she jokes, “I’m going to try and finish breast-feeding the baby.” In January Midler co-stars with Shelley Long in another Disney comedy, Outrageous Fortune. “The Disney people want to keep working with me, which is great. They have access to all that Mickey and Minnie stuff, which I can’t raise my child without.” This is not the wacked-out Midler of yore. These days necessity has become the mother of convention.