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Long before Reese Witherspoon or Nicole Kidman produced their own material, Bette Midler was calling all the shots on her productions. In 1985, she signed a blockbuster multi-movie deal at Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, making her the highest-paid actress of her time. But in addition to a massive paycheck, she also wanted to be empowered to make decisions. Midler launched her company All Girl Prods. to steer her own soon-to-be hits, such as “Beaches,” “For the Boys” and “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”
“I had always felt from the time I started in the business that there was a kind of bias against women in positions of power,” Midler tells Variety on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles. “If you went to a pitch meeting, you’d often be the only female in the room.”
Midler, now 73, loved the feminist name of her new enterprise. Her producing partner, Bonnie Bruckheimer, came up with their business motto: “We hold a grudge.”
“All the men were holding grudges,” Midler explains. “We were women, and we were going to hold a grudge, too, because it was just this constant push and pull of tension between men and women where there was no respect. More than anything, we wanted our respect.”
Midler, who was born in Honolulu and named after Bette Davis, has earned that much in an industry famous for its serpentine rules, usually established by male executives and producers. Over a career that spans five decades, she’s headlined more than 20 movies, from the 1979 film “The Rose” to broad comedies (“The First Wives Club”) to cult classics (“Hocus Pocus”). She’s released 15 albums (including her 1972 debut, “The Divine Miss M”) that have sold 30 million records worldwide, and she’s won three Grammys, four Golden Globes, three Emmys and a Tony for her smash run in the 2017 Broadway revival of “Hello, Dolly!” Midler, one of Variety’s 2019 Power of Women, New York, honorees, spoke candidly about the industry, feminism and Donald Trump.
You were really ahead of your time when you launched a female-focused production company 34 years ago.
We had some good ones. We had some bad ones. We had a lot of projects. Working with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner was terrific. But there were other people below them that were not as clever. It was like the usual A students trying to get a rise out of the C students. So it was very hard, and I was doing a lot of work on the pictures. At the time, I was the highest-paid female in town, which I never said. I was proud of it, but I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want to incur any wrath.
How did you find out you were the highest paid?
They told me when they gave me the deal. They said, “There’s no deal like this in town.”
Do you think your success contributed to more women starring in their own movies in the late ’80s and ’90s?
I can’t really say that. I raised awareness, but I don’t think I raised rage. I think actually it’s Donald Trump that did it, because the way he spoke about women confirmed what women believed men said about them behind their backs all along. And so that enraged them. Then the Women’s March came in and people started telling their stories.
Are you encouraged by the dialogue that we’re having right now in Hollywood about female equality?
I don’t know which way it’s going to go. A few months ago, I felt that there was a lot of hostility from men in the business against women. Has it lessened? I can’t really say.
Have you always been a feminist?
Yes, I have. My father had three girls and one boy. And the boy was developmentally disabled. My father was a very practical man. He said, “You better learn to do something, because you’re not going to get married.” And my mom would say, “What do you want to get married for?” This was in the ’50s. So we were all raised independently. What they said was you must learn to count on yourself. You must not be afraid to be alone. You must learn to support yourself. And when I read “The Feminine Mystique” in 1965, it changed my life. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a housewife. I think all work is honorable. Being a mother is fantastic. But if you have a passion for something and a talent for something, you should be able to follow your bliss.
Do you think we’ll elect a female president in the near future?
Do I think so? I’d like to hope so. I wouldn’t put my money on it.
I think that the country is in some ways stuck in an emotional rut. Many people don’t want to give up what they’ve earned to someone who is different from them. I would say they are not enlightened.
You’re so politically active on Twitter.
I participate in it because it can be fun. I’m like a broadcaster. I like to broadcast, but I don’t really like the feedback. I’m quite sensitive.
Do you ever watch your movies back?
Not too often. I did watch “Hocus Pocus” on the 25th anniversary. I enjoyed it so much. It’s been so long since I was actually the star of a picture. I got the feeling that I was sort of kicked to the curb after a certain point, and fortunately, I had something else to do. I went back to performing live and making records.
When did you feel like your career took a turn?
The turning point was around “Stella” [in 1990]. I have to say, that’s a very complicated movie. Jeffrey had paid a lot for it, and I didn’t understand why because I felt it was a bit dated. I was unfamiliar with the Barbara Stanwyck version. I was not so enthusiastic, and no one wanted to direct it. It got a little sticky. Then, suddenly, I was in ensembles, where previously I’d been the lead.
“I think all work is honorable. Being a mother is fantastic. But if you have a passion and a talent for something, you should be able to follow your bliss.”
Do you think there could be a sequel to “Hocus Pocus”?
I don’t know. I’m 73. I heard through the grapevine that they were planning a sequel. But who knows?
With me and the three girls. But if they don’t hurry up, well one of us is certainly not going to be here anymore. It would be fun if they could do it.
Do you read a lot of scripts?
I do not. I read a lot of books. Every now and again, something will come in. But it’s something that I’ve read before or seen before. There’s not a whole lot of originality. And surprisingly I don’t get called for foreign films, which is too bad, because I’d love to do a picture in another country. We saw “Babylon Berlin” and it was fantastic. Plus, when they’re going to have a grandma superhero, I’m up for it. “Wonder Grandma”! That’s basically what they are making.
Would you really do a comic-book movie?
Oh, sure. As long as I don’t have to bring the coffee.
Do you enjoy watching Marvel movies?
I don’t really, to tell you the truth. They’re unbearably loud. They make such a racket. They don’t really have any decent dialogue. And there’s a lot of explosions. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t really like explosions. I’m not really an action fan. I think it’s something for young men. They like noise.
There used to be a time when actors were singers and singers acted. But with the exception of Lady Gaga in “A Star Is Born,” there isn’t much crossover anymore.
Because they don’t make musicals anymore. They’re a little bit expensive to make. But the ones they have made have been beloved. “Mary Poppins Returns” has legs. I loved it. There’s almost this bias, because in a funny way, they forgot to make them. They’re like, “Well, people don’t accept people bursting into song.” That’s just a judgment they made with a focus group. The songwriting is a different kind of songwriting too. You don’t have people singing lyrics that are full of love and longing. You have people writing about “Bitch better get my money” or “Get your booty out of my face” or “Put your face in my booty,” whatever it is. It doesn’t have the same beauty or grace that people go to the movies for.
After “Hello, Dolly!” do you think you’ll ever do another Broadway musical?
That’s really hard work. Nobody knows how hard that is. I think that’s the hardest thing you can do. And I only missed one show. I was sick. I have trouble sleeping, as many women my age do. And I just couldn’t make it. I had taken something, melatonin or something, the night before, and I’d taken too much. I was woozy and I was afraid to be on the stage.
Could you believe how much people were paying for tickets?
Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. The letters I got, and the comments I got, people were very happy. I really feel like they got everything they came for. I never phoned it in once. And I tried my best. Sometimes my best wasn’t good enough. But still, I tried my best. And I think they appreciated that.
Do you still get stage fright?
Oh, all the time.
Really? Like at the Oscars?
I was pretty good at the Oscars. When they asked me to sing the song [from “Mary Poppins Returns”], I said: “I’m not going to have a stylist. I’m going to go to my closet, and I’m going to pick something, and I’m going to wear it.” And that’s what I did, so I had a much nicer time. That was an old dress that I wore. But the undergarment, which was a ’40s bathing suit, the zipper broke like 20 minutes beforehand. So my trusty dresser sewed me up and pushed me out onstage.