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Bette Midler talks about feminist role in remake of 70s cult classic

A town with “no crime, no poverty, and no pushing” is probably the last place on earth one would expect to find Bette Midler.

After all, the Divine Miss M. probably elbowed her way out from the womb. On June 11, push comes to shove when “The Stepford Wives,” this summer’s blackest comedy, hits the big screen starring Midler, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, and other well-known actors.

In her latest role, Midler stars as bitter self-help author Bobbie Markowitz, who comes crashing into the creepy hamlet of Stepford from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Markowitz is struggling to save herself, but soon finds herself surrounded by “women that look like deranged flight attendants” more likely to balance her feminist tomes on their heads than on their night tables.

Soon, her circle grows to include exiled TV producer Joanna Eberhart (Kidman) and the newest addition to this classic 70s fable, Stepford’s first gay couple. These outsiders begin to suspect there’s more to Stepford’s perfect wives than just impeccable manners and crisp party dresses.

Gay City News talked to Midler about what she was able to figure out.

TONY PHILLIPS: So you’ve worked with “The Stepford Wives” scribe Paul Rudnick before?

BETTE MIDLER: Yes, “First Wives Club.”

TP: So from “Love Machine” author (“Isn’t She Great,” 2000) Jacqueline Susann to “I Love You, But Please Die” author Bobbie Markowitz. Tell me about that transition.

BM: Well, Bobbie is a loud-mouthed person.“The Stepford Wives” is so heightened. It’s a big, broad comedy so I can’t really give you a serious answer about it, but she’s the author of niche marketing, self-help female books. She’s searching for spirituality and some kind of serenity and peace of mind—all the usual clichés. But she’s very outspoken and rather noisy—the squeaky wheel—very much from the Upper West Side and doesn’t really care about what she looks like. She’s interested in the life of the mind and big ideas.

And she’s also married to someone she can’t stand. Only because they’ve obviously grown apart. He’s a real, ‘hey fella’ backslapper and she’s more interested in ideas. So it’s the end of their marriage. This is their last attempt to make things work so they move to a place where the stresses are going to be much fewer than the Upper West Side. They find themselves in Stepford and she notices right away that there’s something wrong. So does Joanna, Nicole Kidman’s character.

There’s something wrong here. What is this? This is so odd. They all move up there together and set out to discover what’s really going on in Stepford.

TP: Speaking of Nicole Kidman, you’ve got Hawaii in common with your co-star in “The Stepford Wives.”

BM: Yeah, you know what, she was born there. Isn’t that hilarious?

TP: So your daughter is named for Sophie Tucker, but what about Alohilani?

BM: Well, that’s my daughter’s name too. That means bright sky in Hawaiian.

TP: I’ve heard there’s a gay couple in Stepford these days. Do you think Paul Rudnick might have written gay marriage’s first cautionary tale?

BM: I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what he meant. Roger Bart and his partner are in the same boat that all the straight couples are in. Which is that one person feels that the other person doesn’t fit in and is not making a serious enough effort to be “normal” like everyone else. It doesn’t matter what the situation of your gender is, in the Stepford world, someone is not happy with the humanity of their partner—their partner’s warts, let’s say—they want them to be perfect. And they want that in the worst possible way and they do anything to get exactly what they want. These days, with so much technology all around us, I don’t think it’s that far away. With people choosing the sex of their child, which is unconscionable, it’s really dangerous to destroy the balance of nature. Really, really dangerous. But there are so many things that we’ve done already, we certainly seem well on our way.

TP: So what is really going on?

BM: It’s a real adventure, it’s got tremendous special effects, and it’s a big, huge production. It’s very entertaining, but it’s also got some strong ideas underpinning it about relationships and what people will do in order to make one section of the population happy—the way you have to destroy your soul in order to pass and fit in.

TP: I was just reading about this chip that will help stroke victims talk again. It’s a noble effort, but hello, they’re implanting a chip into someone’s head!

BM: How can a computer chip work with flesh?

TP: That’s your department, Bobbie.

BM: It’s very scary. We were talking the other day about people who want to live forever. And if people live forever, what’s it going to do for the children? You can’t expect children to support people who are going to live forever. It’s so strange.

TP: And as Bobbie, you’re in the role Paula Prentiss created.

BM: I am in the Paula Prentiss part, but I’m not nearly as chic as Paula Prentiss. I’m really kind of frumpy. And I think my husband wants me not to be a frump.

There’s a point in a person’s life when they decide which way to go, or maybe they don’t decide. They just say, ‘Ah, to hell with it’ and they just live. And that’s wonderful. You know, everyone shouldn’t have to go to the gym and bleach their hair or wax their legs. And men, too. People shouldn’t have to unless they’re interested. For some people that’s a big, all-consuming interest and some people’s minds are more lively or they’re gardeners or that doesn’t interest them, but they shouldn’t be taken to task.

Lately, the last ten or 15 years have been only about the surface and nothing about ideas. It’s scary when people pass as intelligent, you can see what happens. They look right, but they’re really not right.

TP: Were you a big fan of this movie before you took this part?

BM: I didn’t really know it. In fact, when I got the part was the first time I saw it. I know it from it being in the culture. And isn’t that fantastic? That this title “The Stepford Wives” could come into the culture and everyone knows what it means.

But I hadn’t seen the movie. It was the 70s and I guess I had other things to do. But when I saw it, I thought it was really kind of moving, because first of all it was a big thriller. It wasn’t a comedy at all. It was very, very dark and in its day it was considered quite extreme. It was the beginning of the women’s movement and I guess it was a cautionary tale. This is what happens if you don’t mind your p’s & q’s.

TP: What other things were you doing in the 70s?

BM: Well, I had a lot of friends, but they’re all gone now. So I miss a lot of them. No anecdotes. But Barry! Barry [Manilow, her piano accompanist in her early performance years] still survives. We went through those wars together and so we still get together and have a couple of drinks and a couple of laughs, but almost everyone else is gone. Memories dim. We had a lot of fun. It’s a shame that people don’t have the kind of fun that we had anymore...

TP: So I think this film is going to be the treat of the summer.

BM: Well, that’s what it’s intended to be and I think people need that right now.

TP: What’s next? I’ve heard you’re bringing your tour back to New York.

BM: Well, I’m thinking about going back out on the road because I had a great time. I want to go to Europe and I want to go to Australia and I want to go to Japan. I haven’t been to Europe in 20 years with a show, so I would really like to go and the Far East beckons.

I had such a great time on this last tour. I learned to bowl and things like that. We’re a light-hearted group. We’re really trying our best.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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