In lots of ways 13-year-old Mayim Bialik is like no other teenager. She apologizes for her messy bedroom, bemoans a report card in which the B’s outnumber the A’s (four to two), thinks The Princess Bride might be her favorite movie, loves the Beatles and believes George Harrison is the coolest dude on the planet. That’s not all. Her favorite book is The Odyssey, which hasn’t been on a bestseller list for a few millennia. And, with a curly red wig to top off her inborn brashness, she can turn into a pint-size Bette Midler on cue.
For proof of the latter, just checkout Beaches, the new movie about a friendship between two women that stars Bette Sr. and Barbara Hershey. Bette and Bialik play the part of C.C. Bloom, a Brooklyn-born entertainer who gets her start singing at her father’s dry-cleaning conventions. In her opening scene, Bialik is Bloom at 11, lounging beneath the slats of the Atlantic City boardwalk, wielding a lighted cigarette in her red-nailed fingers and wearing a rose-color satin bodysuit, black fishnets, a feather boa and tap shoes. Absolutely Divine. “I really don’t know why they picked me,” says Bialik, a green-eyed brunet who plays a brown-eyed carrot top. “They changed my hair color, they changed the color of my eyes, and they didn’t like my singing voice. Beats me.”
Bialik, who stands 4’7″ and barely cracks 72 lbs., was chosen from scores of would-be Bettes during a grueling three-month series of auditions on both coasts. For her first interview with director Garry Marshall she arrived sporting a garish red wig, a pack of cigarettes and as much confidence as she could muster. The final cut was conducted in front of the film’s two stars, which, Bialik admits, “made me pretty nervous.” In the end it wasn’t Bialik’s props but her Bette-like brass that persuaded Marshall to sign her. “Mayim was shy at first, but the second time we saw her, she was cooking,” says the director. “In the film she went fiat out.”
Bialik had prepared for the audition for months. Her mother, Barbara, an ex-nursery school director, and her father, Barry, a high school drama teacher, had been underground filmmakers in the 1960s and had shot footage of Midler during her raucous early days performing at New York’s Continental Baths. “It gave me an idea of what she was like,” Bialik says. Although Midler never said whether she thought Bialik’s interpretation hit the target, she did personally supervise all Mayim’s dance scenes and, after disapproving of a choreographer’s routine, taught her one entirely new sequence herself. “That,” says Bialik, “was the hardest part of the whole movie. Here I’ve auditioned for her, and she’s chosen me, and I didn’t want her to think I was some shlock. I wanted her to know that I was quick.”
Precocious might be a better word. Bialik was all of 6 when she announced to her parents that she wanted to start acting. “It interested me for the same reasons it interests everybody else,” she says. “Acting seemed glamorous and fun.” Although her parents tried to discourage her (“We thought it would be too hard,” says Mom), Mayim’s method mimicry was unstoppable, and by fifth grade she was doing a mean Rod Stewart impression. “She’s always been very funny,” says Barbara. “She was a breech baby and came out backwards and never turned around.”
When Mayim hit sixth grade, Barbara left her job and devoted her time to boosting her daughter’s career. She sent out a wad of glossies billing Bialik as a “Bette Midler-Barbra Streisand type,” she remembers, and soon Mayim got a part in the still-to-be-released horror flick Pumpkin Heads. Then came work on TV’s Beauty and the Beast and a starring role last year in a new Facts of Life pilot that the network eventually rejected. Last April, she landed the role as Bette’s adolescent alter ego.
Public praise—even her 17-year-old brother, Isaac, says he’s impressed—apparently has not gone to her head. “I hate to say it, but I’m not conceited,” Bialik is quick to point out. “I keep all my responsibilities around the house, like cleaning my room [okay, not always] and oiling the furniture and ironing.” She also manages eighth-grade classes (“I’m in the gifted program”) along with auditions, piano lessons and, on Wednesdays for the past eight years, Hebrew school. This season she will beef up that schedule even more with a semiregular role on the syndicated TV series Webster. (“I just got a raise,” she says, sotto voce. “Don’t talk about money,” reprimands her mother.)
While there’s no doubt that Beaches was one big deal for Bialik, it has already been eclipsed in her own mind by another event of even greater importance—her recent bas mitzvah. “I prepared for Beaches for six months, but I’ve gone to Hebrew school since kindergarten,” she says, putting the two celebrations in perspective.
The future is not quite so easy to bring into focus, however. Five years from now, “I hope to be in college studying marine biology,” she says. “I’m concerned about the ocean and the environment. And I love whales.” Maybe, but some think she’s more inclined toward stars. “At the Beaches wrap party, Bette said I had a very bright future in acting,” Mayim acknowledges. “That would be fun, too.”
—Todd Gold in Los Angeles