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Hard Work if You Can Get It

Bette Midler is willing to put in overtime, lend her life to plots--anything to smooth her sitcom debut.

October 08, 2000|CARLA HALL | Carla Hall is a Times staff writer

Is it funny?

After the dialogue has been retooled, the famous guest stars hired, and the overhead lights on the sound stage adjusted to go easy on Bette Midler's nasal-labial lines (those dreaded little grooves in the skin between nose and mouth), the bottom line for the movie, stage and recording star making her debut in a comedy series is this: Is it funny?

"We're interested in big laughs. We want yucks," Midler says in that voice of hers that combines the playful authority of a first-grade teacher and the lilt of a Broadway singer.

"I said, 'Boys and girls' "--she means the show's writers--" 'we're going for guffaws here, we're not going for titters, OK?' "

So that's why one Thursday afternoon, the day before the filming of the fifth episode of the new CBS series "Bette," she spends an hour figuring out how to lodge a cell phone under the front of her costume.

This is Bette playing herself--or a version of herself: a funny, smart, neurotic, high-maintenance actress fretting about aging and not being taken serious. She uses her own first name but never mentions her last. (Overkill, perhaps.)

In this episode, Midler has inveigled the director of a production of "Hamlet" into casting her so she can prove that she is a serious actress. While she's onstage rehearsing "Hamlet," her stashed cell phone will ring, vexing her "Hamlet" co-star Tim Curry. (That would be Tim Curry playing Tim Curry, of course.)

Girded into petticoats and a tight bodice, she goes wide-eyed with terror at the cue for the phone. Curry plays fuming. "Voice mail will pick it up," Midler says brightly. "I'm screening."

She jumps up and down, shimmying enough to make her breasts nearly jiggle out of the dress. (Though she is newly skinny, her famous bosom--she has a joke about it in the pilot--remains ample.) She bends over, frantically pulling up her skirts and capturing the cell phone that has supposedly made its way down the front of her dress. She whips the phone out, accidentally bashing Curry in the groin as he stands next to her. He lets out a growl of pain while she stares mortified.

The crew laughs at the comic ballet. But Midler, stone-faced, has already mentally moved on to the next try. "I can get the phone around to my back," she says, and suggests Curry reach down her back to retrieve the pesky ringing phone. Someone tells her the full costume will have a neck ruff that will make this impossible. She scotches that idea.

Back to the phone in the front. She jumps, she shimmies, all to make it look as if she's coaxing the phone down the front of her dress. Her longtime choreographer, Toni Basil, observes. (Yes, in addition to being a choreographer, she recorded the 1982 hit song "Mickey.") Midler called her the night before at 10 p.m. to discuss this scene. "Just do the double jump," Basil suggests.

Midler tries several more times. She wants to make a note.

"Does anyone have a pencil?" she asks. Everyone reaches for a pencil to offer.

She tries the routine again, eliciting laughs each time. She frowns. A hank of blond hair has worked its way out of her ponytail and over one ear. Her hazel eyes are covered by dark-blue tinted glasses. Devoid of makeup, she looks like the plain-faced, 54-year-old businesswoman that she is. (In addition to starring in the series, she serves as one of several executive producers.) Later, when the cameras are rolling, she will worry in some detail about how she looks on film, but at the moment, her face is not her preoccupation. The cell phone is. Could they Velcro it to her leg so she can whip it out quickly?

Finally, director Andrew Weyman, who has been watching quietly, making suggestions here and there, points at Midler and offers his most assertive direction in the last hour. "Go to lunch," he says.

She turns to Curry and hugs him. Curry leaves, but Midler walks through the scene by herself one more time, conferring with the prop master one more time about the phone. He reassures her he can make the phone stay in place.

She nods. "It'll work," she says, sounding unconvinced.

*

"Oh my God, this is so hard," says Midler the following Monday during her lunch break. She sits in a cozy bungalow office belonging to her longtime producing partner, Bonnie Bruckheimer, on the Culver Studios lot, next door to the sound stage where they film her show. An illness last January ("I had amoebas or parasites") left her 25 pounds thinner, and she wants to keep it that way. Clad in jeans, a cardigan sweater and a man-sized, rose-gold Rolex watch, she devours soup and crackers and salad, and leaves uneaten the dumplings and spring rolls on her plate.

"Candice"--that would be her pal, Candice Bergen, star of the long-running sitcom "Murphy Brown"--"warned me. She said they keep you hopping that first year. This is rough. It's an enormous amount of work. And this stuff is very ambitious--I think. Last week, there was a 10-page scene--and a song and a dance and a wig and an Elizabethan ruff. I thought I was going to die."

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