By Carol Wallace
February 03, 1986 12:00 PM

Sunlight spills through the windows of Bette Midler’s four-bedroom “imitation Mediterranean” house perched on a slope in Coldwater Canyon. The lady of the manor is poured into white calf-length knit pants, a white T-shirt and an oversize neon yellow cardigan that hides the remains of a 20-pound weight gain. The huge, beam-ceilinged living room, once featured in Architectural Digest, now looks like a before ad for homeowners’ disaster insurance. She’s at it again. The room is barren except for painters, plasterers, drop cloths and scaffolding. “The house is like a canvas to me,” says Bette, who calls some of her furniture “early recycle…. I have a nesting instinct that didn’t come out until I bought it [in 1982] and now seems to be overwhelming me.”

Like her house, her life is in the throes of a makeover. There is a new movie (her first in four years), a new album, a new age (she turned 40 last month)—but most of all, a new husband, with whom she celebrated a first anniversary on Dec. 16. “I’ll tell you something,” she says quietly and with unexpected earnestness, “since I got married, I say every night, ‘Thank you,’ to God or whoever it is who’s listening up there.” She puffs on a turquoise cocktail cigarette. “The word blessing: I never paid much attention to it, but I’ve been so happy the last year, in a way I didn’t think was humanly possible. So I do say thank you for singling me out.”

Minutes later a car door slams in the driveway. She jumps up, yells an enthusiastic “Hi!” to her husband, Harry Kipper, 37, and plants a kiss on his lips. Kipper, a commodities trader and sometime performance artist whose real name is Martin von Haselberg, smiles warmly. He has short, spiky hair, a calm, charming manner and wry wit. As Bette disappears into the kitchen to scrounge lunch, Kipper settles onto a couch. “Okay, Bette,” he teases, “what have you been saying?”

“I said I was happy and that every night I say thank you,” she responds.

“No, I meant where did you say we met? Which version?”

“I said we met first when a gang of us went out to the Roxy for a King Crimson [an avant-garde rock group] show.”

“That sounds disgusting,” winces Harry playfully. “It sounds like we were down on the dance floor.”

Bette peeks in and scrunches her nose. “Well,” she huffs in mock indignation, “it’s better than saying we met at a Motley Crüe show!”

“We were introduced by Toni Basil,” declares Harry.

“I know-o-o-o-ow,” pleads Bette. “At the King Crimson show!”

Kipper laughs, enjoying his wife’s playful insistence at having the last word. He waxes tenderly about life with Bette. In other involvements, “I always had the feeling there would be another relationship with a person who would be more perfect,” says the divorced Kipper, who calls his wife funny, fair and unspoiled by her wealth. “I don’t have that feeling at all now. This is the epitome of perfection.” Eavesdropping, Bette leans into the room and says to her visitor, “And you wonder why I feel secure.”

Is there a doctor in the house? Will somebody puhleeze check this woman’s pulse? Can the angst-rid-den, ever-rebellious, breast-flashing, sassy-mouthed, outrageous diva really be getting all heated up over love, marriage, homespun values and maybe even motherhood? Is there an apple pie in the oven, too? The symptoms confirm the diagnosis: temporary insanity due to a marriage and movie comeback. For some crazy reason, things are going right for Bette Midler, and nobody is more surprised than she. “For a change,” says Bette, “it’s very nice.”

This week her comedy, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, the first R-rated movie from Disney Studios, opens nationally. Filming has already started on her next Disney movie, Ruthless People(her All Girls Productions has been signed to a multi-picture deal at the studio). And her first all comedy album, Mud Will Be Flung Tonight!, has hit the charts. Later this year she’s planning to return to the stage with her first musical revue in more than two years.

To understand how great things are now, it is well to remember how not-so-great they were a few years ago. To call her experience in 1982’s Jinxeda personality clash between Bette and director Don (Dirty Harry) Siegal and co-star Ken (Fort Apache, The Bronx) Wahl is to call World War II a scuffle. They said she was temperamental, insecure and unpleasant. Siegal claimed Midler hit him. “They would give interviews, and one would say what a hateful bitch I was, and the other would say I was causing a Heaven’s Gate.”

The painful episode led to Bette’s nervous breakdown, propelled her for a period into therapy and, even though she had earned an Oscar nomination for 1979’s The Rose, left her unemployable. “Nobody wanted to hire me. They thought I was untouchable,” she says. “I went into therapy to get the guts to go back to work.” When she resumed her career, it was for a director she admired, Paul (An Unmarried Woman) Mazursky. “I did my best to make sure she didn’t have a rough time,” says Mazursky. “I also told her my ground rules. I said, ‘Bette, no hitting.’ ” Midler plays a shop-happy Beverly Hills housewife. “If you don’t have a desire to have a life of the mind, conspicuous consumption must be a lot of fun,” says the non-material girl of the role. “But basically, I don’t think it’s right to run amok in Neiman-Marcus.” Midler co-stars with Richard Dreyfuss, whom she calls “the pint-sized Paul Newman,” and Nick Nolte. They got along famously rather than infamously. “I was very glad not to have to carry this picture, because I don’t think my first time back I could have taken the pressure,” she says. “I’m still, well, fragile.”

Mazursky must have felt like a camp counselor to a grown-up version of the Little Rascals. He nicknamed his stars “the Betty Ford Kids” because of their earlier, well-publicized problems. “That hurt our feelings,” notes Bette. Yet there was no denying that “we all had these strange reputations. I was supposed to be impossible to work with, Richard had certain drug or alcohol-related problems and God only knows what they said about Nick.” Nolte, who calls Bette “a pleasure to work with,” remembers: “The three of us would sit around gossiping about our wilder days. We all tried to top each other, but that got old real quick.” Raves Mazursky: “If Bette could tap everything she has as an actress, she could play Lady Macbeth.” Perhaps it was fitting that she teamed with Disney for a movie comeback. “I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Disney baby,” she exults. “I thought Annette was the greatest thing since sliced bread.” But she frowned on the “crass commercialism” of Mouseketeer ears. “I thought you had to be a real jerk to wear those.”

If the Jinxed episode taught her anything, it was caution. That does little to explain why, two months after their first real date in 1984, she and Harry found themselves in the Candlelight Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas at 2 a.m. marching up the aisle to say “I do” in front of the Elvis impersonator who married them. “He said he would send us his single,” recalls Bette.

She had certainly experienced her share of romances—including those with her ex-manager Aaron Russo and actor Peter (Local Hero) Riegert—but marriage had never been a priority. “There was always the possibility of a wrong choice, and I didn’t want to go through the ugliness of a divorce,” says Bette. “I decided it was easier or more fun just to live with somebody.” Then Harry came along, and “I had to make room for marriage, because he was too wonderful to give up.” The romance “was at such a feverish pitch that the only way to express how we felt was to get married.”

The pair knew alarmingly little about each other. Harry had never even seen her films or revues and barely knew her songs. After they wed he was surprised to learn that she was born in Hawaii. Says Bette: “For the first couple of weeks after we got married, it was ‘Uh-oh, what did we do?’ There were some rough spots, but we did our talking, we did our compromising. Fortunately we liked what we got to know.”

Midler, who is Jewish, had to come to terms with Harry’s German background. (Harry, educated in England, was born in Buenos Aires to German parents who returned to Germany a year after Harry was born. He moved to L.A. in 1976. She deflects her feelings with jokes like the one on her latest album: “I married a Kraut. Every night I get dressed up like Poland and he invades me.” But in private, she allows, “I have to say it was a trouble spot.” She picks her words cautiously. “Harry has shown great restraint and patience when I’ve talked to him about it. He says all Germans don’t hate Jews, and he does insist upon it,” says Bette. “I make my own decisions. I’m still not all that comfortable being in Germany. There are so many things I don’t like. The truth is that even if we were married forever, I don’t think he could change my mind about it. But I don’t resent him because of his nationality. He is an individual first and the citizen of a country last.”

In Harry, she has found a strong-willed, supremely self-assured companion who can look after her and stand up to her. “This is not a wimp,” she says. He also possesses traits that have always been elusive to Bette: “He’s secure. He’s stable. He’s not wrapped up in the business. He’s an adult.” Kipper, a success in his own right, is satisfied on the sidelines. “I’m not an interesting public figure the way Bette is,” he says. Adds Bette: “I don’t want him to become an appendage of me.” At night they tend to hang out at home. “There’s no reason to go out now,” says Bette. “The only reason you went out was to find somebody to bring home.”

Both are eager for children. “I know I have to move fast,” she says. “My clock and all that.” Harry says—with a smile—that he’d like a “few dozen.” Bette will settle for a homo sapien. “Between his nose and my nose, I think we’ll have an eight-pound nose,” she says laughing. Bette thinks they will make good parents. “We’re both old-fashioned,” she says. “In your young life, you rebel against values you think are square. After you’ve lived a while, you realize they are good values and there’s a reason they’ve been around for thousands of years.”

Bette is still miffed because her marriage was voted least likely to succeed by PEOPLE readers in a last April’s poll. (She was pitted against Sally Field, Olivia Newton-John and Mariel Hemingway.) “It really upset me,” she says. “I guess many people just didn’t think I had it in me.” She pauses. “So there!” Then, feigning envy, she adds, “I’m sure nobody voted against Sally Field. Even though it’s her third. Or maybe it’s her second. I don’t know. It’s her third Oscar and her second husband. No, it’s her second husband and third Oscar. No, that’s wrong, too.” Bette stops herself and turns on the charm, then chirps sweetly, “She must be the loveliest soul.”

Turning 40 has clearly brought out Midler’s reflective side. “I decided it was time to do some serious growing up,” she says. She has patched up her once-rocky relationship with her father, Fred, 75, a retired house painter for the Navy, who still lives in Honolulu. “I resented him for a lot of my adolescence but I made my peace with him,” she says. “Now I look forward to seeing him.” (Her mother, Ruth, died of cancer in 1979.) There are some regrets as well. “I wish I hadn’t been so mean to some people in my name-calling days. And I wish I had been a better friend.” Of less cosmic importance is one other regret, a rather obvious one. If marriage made her more content, it also, for a while, made her zaftig; she gained 20 pounds during her first year of marriage. The poor girl just couldn’t help herself. Harry loves to cook, they both love to eat and these things happen. “Harry did say I was really fat,” says Bette with a chuckle. “He watched me on Johnny Carson and said, ‘It’s a good thing you were talking about fat, because b-o-o-o-o-o-oy!’ But I was so happy I didn’t care. I was having too much fun.” With movies beckoning again, she is determined to shed the extra baggage—and has surrendered her form divine to “Body by Jake” Steinfeld and other Beverly Hills exercise czars. Suddenly she glances at her watch. Time for weightlifting class. How much weight is she raising? “Ten pounds,” she cracks. She slips into workout garb, climbs into her gray Honda and disappears down the sycamore-lined drive. For the moment at least, her T-shirt is testimony to her blissful state. It reads: NO SWEAT.