The best Bette

It's not really unusual for gay men 35 and under never to have owned a single Bette Midler album. All joking aside, she really is a generational benchmark, beloved as much for her rise at a time when gay sex was healthy and plentiful as for her innocent bawdiness. I attended Bette Midler's concert last Sunday night at Reunion Arena armed with a healthy appreciation of her lovely voice (although I've never bought one of her albums), her funnier and scrappier film performances (I'm talking about the movies before Beaches), and a distanced respect for her iconic status.

Little did I realize how much Midler's butterscotch-silky performance amidst a frantic spectacle of lights, smoke, costumes, props, orchestra, and backup dancers would dovetail more with my experiences as a theater critic than with those as a gay man who adores powerful, eccentric women. Like many people, I'd scoffed at the high ticket prices ($75 was the cheapest seat!), so I'd finagled my way into judging a Bette Midler drag contest for free admission. But with its multiple cameras, revolving stage, and video projections, her "Divine Miss Millennium Tour" has to be expensive as hell to mount from city to city. And it was far less of a concert than it was theater, an amphetamine-fired vaudevillian revue filled with as much political satire as Laurie Anderson, as many gleeful sex jokes as Annie Sprinkle or Tim Miller, and as many personality changes as Anna Deveare Smith or Lily Tomlin.

Watching Midler play a stoned, stranded Mexican expatriate dancing with two giant doobs in "Sweet Marijuana," or as presidential candidate and aging mermaid Delores Del Lago, who causes Barbra Streisand and The Queen of England to get in a fistfight during a campaign version of "We Are the World," I was struck by how utterly Mason-jarred the woman is on film. A campy vampiness that some find annoying (believe it or not, even some gay men) on the screen is really just unused theatrical energy chafing at the confines of one personality, one outlet for expression, one tiny audience composed of a bored movie crew on just another shoot with a difficult aging star.

I still don't plan on purchasing a Bette Midler album; the recording studio pickles her in sweet syrup, I was reminded, when she dedicated that timeless emetic "Wind Beneath My Wings" to the audience, and with lights shooting out to catch us in the arena, she reminded us that she knew how cold it was in her shadow (thanks, Bette, but this is the warmest November on record). But I will watch her career with more sympathy and more appreciation from now on, because it's a crime against a force of nature to bottle it in a recording studio or a can of film. Your best Bette can only be found in costume and character before an adoring live audience.

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Jimmy Fowler