If Bette Midler didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent her. However, as Beaches shows, Midler has been quite competent in inventing herself.
Beaches is based on a novel (by Iris Dart), but the film has sequences that uncannily suggest episodes from Midler’s own life story, filtered through fiction; much of the movie appears to be Midler showing how she got to be Midler. It’s about two friends who meet as adolescents and keep in touch, either long distance or close-up, into their middle age. As adults, they are played by Midler and Barbara Hershey.
Midler plays a brash, brassy entertainer (you couldn’t guess) who goes on to an up-and-down career as a performer; Hershey, the daughter of rich parents, becomes a lawyer, has a marriage and a child, and leads a more normal life. The film hopscotches through their friendship, including a few falling-outs.
Among the more diverting episodes is an early stay in New York, where Midler catches on with an avant-garde theater company, Hershey throws over law school for a Bohemian fling, and both fall for the theater director (John Heard).
Later, after Midler has achieved stardom in a naughty Broadway revue, Hershey comes to visit with her staid husband (James Read). Now the two friends are catty toward each other, and have a splendid argument in Bergdorf’s; Midler dresses down her straight-laced pal by sneering, “You tried to be an interesting person for a while, but now you’ve reverted to type.”
Interspersed through this friendship are snippets of the Midler character’s showbiz career (featuring a half-dozen songs). Included is an encounter with an unsympathetic movie director, which suspiciously resembles a disastrous experience Midler had with director Don Siegel on the set of Jinxed, her ill-fated follow-up to The Rose. Thus the novel’s fictional basis more and more suggests Bette Midler’s own life story; clearly this film is a personal project for her (and is her first credit as producer in her contract for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures).
She’s certainly the reason to see the movie. Whether belting out an all-singing, all-dancing tribute to Otto Titsling, the inventor of the brassiere, or striding purposefully across a beach to see her mother (Lainie Kazan) while dressed in a bounteous black leather ensemble, Midler is fully in her outrageous element. Hershey’s role gets less attention, though the actress, who has been so good lately, appears to want to make up for this by sporting a disconcerting new pair of lips.
Beaches is a lot like other films of director Garry Marshall (Nothing in Common and Overboard). That is, it smoothly melds comedy and drama, it’s nicely acted, and generally inoffensive. And just not all that memorable. Marshall should be particularly taken to task for allowing Hershey to contract a serious disease near the end. The tear-jerking had the preview audience working their handkerchiefs like crazy, but I found it an unwelcome contrivance. Be advised, just in case.
First published in the Herald, January 1989
A movie that went on to have a long life, in part thanks to “Wind Beneath My Wings,” the kind of song that makes a person want to hear a tune about Otto Titsling. Author Iris Rainer Dart worked on the Sonny and Cher Show, and apparently her literary character was partly inspired by Cher, so maybe the distance from there to Bette Midler isn’t so far.