Miss M brings it all back

Preserving that 70s outrageousness

Published: Dec 01 2017, 01:01:am

Sunday, October 5, 1980.

DIVINE MADNESS. Written by Jerry Blatt, Bette Midler and Bruce Vilanch. Music arranged and supervised by Tony Berg and Randy Kerber. Directed by Michael Ritchie. Running time: 94 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: some coarse and suggestive language.
A NIGHT OUT AT THE movies can be an educational experience. Here, for example, are some ideas suggested by a viewing of the Bette Midler concert film, Divine Madness:

●    Muppet master Jim Henson must have been thinking of Midler when he created Miss Piggy.
     Midler, like Piggy, is an acquired taste. She herself strives to be as tasteless as possible.
    A plumpish performer with a reasonably pleasing voice, she might have remained a relative unknown, one of thousands of similarly talented singers who spend their lives filling out choruses or recording radio commercials. Like the Craig Russell character in 1977’s Outrageous, though, she wanted more.
    To achieve greater public visibility, she came up with the Divine Miss M, the I-don’t-care girl of the 1970s. Part put-on, part nostalgia, Miss M is a burlesque-house mixture of Barbra Streisand, Jerry Lewis and Mae West.
    Miss M is a contrivance, Midler’s carefully calculated form of self-presentation. She wants us to believe that she is as vulgar as Xaviera Hollander, as talented as the aforementioned Streisand and as self-destructive as Judy Garland.
    Last year [1979], Midler created a similar character in director Mark Rydell’s The Rose, a performance that won her an Oscar nomination. Although she has made her reputation portraying demented stage stars, she seems too clever to actually be one herself.
    The Miss M that we see in Divine Madness is a synthetic creature. Before a live audience, she has an enthusiasm for performance that reminded me of Skana, the Vancouver Aquarium’s ailing killer whale.
    Her movements, on the other hand, are rather less graceful than the local whale. Having seen Miss M at full throttle, I still prefer Miss Piggy.
●    Hollywood’s bright young men are taking the home-video market seriously.
    Last week [September 1980], the New York-based trade magazine Variety offered readers its first “Home Video Annual.” The lead story in this special section was headlined “Vidisk Biz Hinges on Made-For Fare.”
    Translated, that means that the sale of video discs, a revolutionary new development that is expected to change the face of home entertainment in the 1980s, will be dependent on material created especially for the disc market. Some observers expect the conventional sound recording business to dry up and blow away when, for approximately the same cost, the consumer can buy a disc that will provide both superior sound and a picture.
    In 1976, Martin (Taxi Driver) Scorsese, one of Hollywood’s new generation directors, filmed the farewell concert of The Band. His movie, called The Last Waltz, was complemented by the release of a double-disc soundtrack album.
    In February, Michael Ritchie, a director with such credits as 1972’s The CandidateThe Bad News Bears (1976) and Semi-Tough (1977), took ten cameras into Pasadena’s Civic Auditorium. On three successive nights, Bette Midler performed for a live audience while the cameras turned.
    Though staged primarily for Ritchie’s cameras, the events were authentic concerts. The resulting film, Divine Madness, is the distilled essence of singer-comedienne Midler “live.”
    Truth to tell, concert films are almost invariably a drag. The enthusiasm of the performer’s fans notwithstanding, such films exist in a kind of neverland between the real thing and a TV special.
    Why, then, do high-power directors like Scorsese and Ritchie make them?
    The answer, I’ll bet, is that coming market for video discs. According to Variety, manufacturers of the disc playback hardware will soon have to “ante up millions for . . . software production and acquisition.”
    By 1995, we’re told, "the big traffic in video disc sales will be in software specifically produced for the medium.” The revolution is at hand and the bright young men are not about to be left behind.

●    More sound is not necessarily better sound.
    Although I’m all in favour of stereophonic sound, 70mm projection and state-of-the-art film presentation, loudness is still no substitute for clarity. During Divine Madness, I was constantly straining to hear lyrics that had been swallowed somewhere between the singer and the audience.
    I suspect that the problem lies in the Stanley Theatre’s sound system. I recall thinking that the sound was a little muddy during the runs of Apocalypse Now and The Empire Strikes Back, both shown at the Stanley in stereo-sound versions.
    Divine Madness suffers from the same muffled sound problem. Since the three features come from different distribution companies, it is unlikely that the fault lies with the individual prints. All of which leaves me with the feeling that the Stanley has a less than perfect sound system.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1980. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Divine Madness was one of those pictures that was sold as a “motion picture event.” Because it was the record of a “live” concert — Bette Midler performs 16 songs — it was reviewed by both the newspaper’s music and film critics. Because coverage the film’s actual content was in the capable hands of The Province’s Jeani Read, I attempted to place director Michael Ritchie’s first (and only) feature documentary in its broader social context. As Variety reported, the era of home video was upon us. In 1980, the videotape format war between VHS and Betamax was at its height, and soon video cassette rental stores would make their appearance in Vancouver. Although the “video disk” that Variety mentioned back then was not a mass market success, it was the precursor of the DVD, the optical disc format that arrived in 1997. And we all know what a game changer that proved to be.     
    Divine Madness celebrated the transition of its star, Bette Midler, from Grammy-award-winning pop singer (1974’s Best New Artist) to Oscar-nominated movie actress (for 1979’s The Rose). At the time, I called her “an acquired taste.” In time, I acquired that taste, brought along by her winning comic performances in such slight fare as Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People (both 1986), Outrageous Fortune (1987) and Big Business (1988). Midler displayed her dramatic acting chops in 1988’s Beaches, and picked up her second Oscar nomination playing a USO entertainer in For the Boys (1991). She made headlines just yesterday
(November 30) with her own contribution to the #MeToo movement that has emerged in the wake of the early October exposure of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein's serial abuse of women. “Tomorrow is my birthday,” she tweeted. “I feel like this video was a gift from the universe to me. Geraldo [Rivera] may have apologized for his tweets supporting Matt Lauer, but he has yet to apologize for this.” Bette Midler, direct and relevant as ever, turns 72 today (December 1).

See also:  Bette Midler’s comedic talents are on display in the 1993 Hallowe’en feature Hocus Pocus.