Better Believe in Bette

One decade, two presidents, two hip replacements and much, much more ago, this writer took part in an evening as sophisticated in attendance, as gorgeous in presentation, as iconoclastic in theme as can be imagined above 14th Street in Manhattan.

There is room for the word outrageous in that paragraph, but no call for it until the name of its purveyor makes her entrance. Bette Midler.

Yes, Bette Midler dolled up, revved up and stopped the show that was the debut gala of Women’s Voices for Change. Backed by the Harlettes and dressed like a harlot, she pranced the length of the stage this way and that on her tiny Bette feet, tossing out chestnuts and belting out boogie woogie — giving her all to the 400 women and about a dozen men in the audience, as if they were 20,000 fans in an arena.

As if she were starring in a Broadway musical.

The truth is, though, that she had never really conquered Broadway — that is until she opened in “Hello Dolly” last week and registered a seismic conquest as only she can. Yes, Bette Midler has redefined Broadway Musical Star and embedded in that definition the words “71 years old.”

The New York Times review of Bette’s Dolly Levi in Thursday’s premiere of “Hello Dolly” (by the nerve-rackingly nitpick-y Ben Brantley), didn’t so much glow as it venerated.  Celebrated.  Conflagrated.  It burned with respect and awe.

Respect.  Raw talent is not enough to earn it.  Young enthusiasm isn’t either.  What Brantley writes in his review is what women have known throughout the ages.

Ms. Midler works hard for her ovations while making you feel the pleasure is all hers.

Sound familiar?  Sounds like the Broadway version of what women have a history of doing whether in their careers, volunteering at their children’s schools, putting together a dinner party or any of the other hundreds of women-driven events where effortlessness is next to goddess-liness.


And with her undoubtedly back-breaking labor at the Shubert Theater, Bette reminds critics and fans, old and oh-so-young, that age does not determine capacity.

… a great star performance is at least 50 percent illusion, conjured by irresistible will power and cunning.  Ms. Midler arranges her component parts with the seductive insistence with which Dolly Levi arranges other people’s lives.

A toast then to that will power and effort, which is after all a “seductive insistence” that determination doesn’t come with an expiration date, nor does stardom need to.

Facing your 50th, 60th, 70th or beyond birthday soon? Remember to honor Bette and all the sweat equity she has put into her career and this starburst moment by having fun. That Bette equity is in our equanimity. She’s not trotting down that staircase or belting out those numbers for herself alone. She’s testifying to the truth that women don’t lose their mojo. We just have to do whatever it takes to strut it with style.

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