It helps to do something well that no one else does, and Midler found her forte by singing at the Continental Baths, a gay hangout in New York. Most bath house performers were painfully bad, but Midler established herself by combining genuine talent with the tackiness expected of her. As "The Divine Miss M," Midler did an act consisting of campy (and dirty) specialty numbers, dead-on imitations of such earlier performers as the Andrews Sisters and Libby Holman, and the most outrageously revealing costumes this side of Bob Mackie. Soon she outgrew the bath houses and went on to nightclub and recording-artist fame, earning a Grammy Award in 1973. After several years of sellout tours, Midler re-entered films as the star of The Rose, an "a clef" film loosely based on the life and times of Janis Joplin. The film was a success, but it failed to establish Midler as a dramatic actress; audiences, particularly the gay fans, still preferred the Divine Miss M.
Jinxed (1982), Midler's next film, lived up to its name with well-publicized production squabbles between Midler, the director, the producers, and a few of the co-stars. Following the the film's failure, Midler wasn't seen on screen until she signed a contract with Disney Studios in 1986. Establishing a new screen identity as a character comedienne, Midler sparkled in Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), and was even better as a loudmouthed kidnap victim in Ruthless People (1987). Using her restored film stature, Midler set up her own production company and produced Beaches (1988), a "pals through the years" saga that proved to be a four-hankie audience favorite. Once again attempting to establish herself as a tragedian, Midler starred in Stella (1990), a poorly-received remake of Stella Dallas. For the Boys (1992), offered Midler in tons of old-age makeup as a Martha Raye-style USO star (Raye responded to this "tribute" by suing the studio). The subsequent Scenes from a Mall (1991), which paired Midler with Woody Allen, and Hokus Pokus, a "witchcraft" fantasy, also failed to truly showcase her talents. She rebounded somewhat in 1995 with a role in the wildly acclaimed Get Shorty, and had even greater success the following year starring with Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn in The First Wives Club. In 1999, Midler played herself in two documentaries, the first the TV "mockumentary" Jackie's Back and the second the big-screen Get Bruce!, a documentary about legendary comic writer Bruce Vilanch.
In late 1993, she scored an enormous success in a superb TV adaptation of the Broadway musical Gypsy. The gold-selling Bette of Roses (1995) was her first regular album release in five years. Her 1996 film The First Wives Club was a major box office success. In 1998, she switched to Warner Bros. Records and released Bathhouse Betty, a tribute to her days at the Continental Baths, which went gold. With film opportunities drying up, the 54-year-old singer/actress turned to television, developing a half-hour network comedy series based on her own life. Though it didn't last long, Bette premiered on CBS on October 11, 2000; six days later, she released a second Warner Bros. album, also called Bette. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide