Bette Midler As Mae West: Five Reasons To Be Excited


Has there ever been a broad  brassier  than Bette Midler? It’s debatable, but Mae West definitely comes close.  We’ll soon get a chance to compare the two tough-talking dames when the self-proclaimed Divine Miss M. plays the legendary screen siren in an upcoming film.

maepaulYounger Queerty readers with only a passing knowledge of  Midler’s extraordinary career are unlikely to be familiar with the wild West so here’s a short primer:

Noted for bawdy zingers such as “So many men, so little time!” and (my personal fave) “I’ve been in more laps than a napkin” (slip that bon mot into your next holiday party conversation!), she basically put the “bomb” in bombshell. After achieving success on Broadway in the roaring 1920s with her racy self-penned sex opuses, West headed to Hollywood to make a string of hit comedy films. She launched Cary Grant’s career and saved Paramount studios from bankruptcy. When her film career waned, she returned to the stage, always surrounded by a bevy of beefy bodybuilders and/or gay men, even singing on the Oscars with Rock Hudson. She returned to movies in the 1970s still cluelessly pushing the same sexy act on audiences with two lurid camp classics, Myra Breckinridge and Sextette, before her death in 1980. West’s penchant for shocking audiences undoubtedly paved the road to superstardom for other blonde provocateurs like Madonna and Gaga.

Potentially good stuff, right? However, it’s always a very slippery slope when one iconic entertainer portrays another. For every Barbra Streisand who won a best actress Oscar for her interpretation of vaudevillian Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, there’s a Lindsay Lohan who sunk to a depressing career low when she tried to impersonate Ole Violet Eyes Elizabeth Taylor in Liz & Dick. Below are a few reasons to look forward to this movie.


The film has a tony pedigree.

William Friedkin, an Oscar-winning director responsible for The Boys in the Band, among other classics, knows how to shoot a bitchy one-liner. He’ll helm the pic from a screenplay written by Harvey Fierstein (above), the outspoken genius responsible for dragtastic triumphs such as Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots. His source material is West’s candid 1959 memoir Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It. The movie will air on HBO, undoubtedly still giddy from the success of its sensational Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra.


It could be a future camp classic.

The biopic will reportedly concentrate on West’s early years. The blond bombshell was 34 when she was thrown into the slammer on indecency charges over her risque stage show Sex and not quite 40 when she became a film star. Midler is currently 68 years old. In a way, this is fitting as the indomitable West refused to let old age deter her sex drive. Watch a clip from Sextette in which an 85-year-old West seduces future 007 Timothy Dalton while “singing” a Captain and Tennille hit here.


She inspired and stole from drag queens.

Charles Pierce (above), one of the last century’s most prominent female impersonators (and bestie to Golden Girls star Bea Arthur!), thrilled audiences with his dead-on embodiment of West delivering his signature take on zingers such as “If you’re gonna come up and see me sometime remember safe sex isn’t an affair with a locksmith.” it’s absolutely fitting that she was a drag staple since a persistent rumor claimed that West borrowed her best and naughtiest one-liners from an early 20th century drag performer named Bert Savoy.


Maybe there will be a big reveal.

This could turn into HBO’s version of The Crying Game. Another sex symbol, Raquel Welch, is convinced that West was a man in drag. The two icons clashed when Welch starred opposite West in 1970 as, ironically, the MTF title character in the disastrous adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge.

It has to be better than this.

Midler won’t be the first actress to play West. Ann Jillian starred in a TV bio in 1982 opposite future Streisand hubby James Brolin. And, holy shit, what do you know? There’s also Faye Dunaway, who portrayed the legend in a no-budget 2002 drama about evangelist Leroy Jenkins called The Calling, though sometimes known as Man of Faith. While La Dunaway still blames her ferocious turn as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest for the downward spiral her career took in the ’80s, she’s probably grateful that few (if any) fans have seen this bomb in which the Oscar-winner vamps and shifts her hips like there’s no tomorrow.

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  • jckfmsincty

    When Barbra Streisand played Dolly Levi in the 1969 film version of “Hello Dolly”, she watched old Mae West movies to help get her develop the title character of the piece. Although the movie is an overblown mess (albeit, a very entertaining mess) and Streisand’s performance received tepid reviews at the time, I think Streisand chose exactly the right inspiration. Certainly, it was no West impersonation. But, the slyness was copied brilliantly.

  • mada

    Two things:
    1. I’m on board with Bette as Mae. Brilliant.
    2. Did not know Faye played Mae. I’m going to have to watch that mess because I LOVE MOMMIE DEAREST.

  • Deepdow

    Fucking Buzzfeed up in here. I kind of like it though.

  • Icebloo

    I have three friends who all work in different areas of the entertainment industry. Neither of them know each other. I asked each one to name the most horrible famous person they have worked with. All three said Bette Midler. We need to stop supporting this bi#ch until she can behave like a decent person & treat people with respect.

  • gwydion

    And those three friends are experts, right? I’m sure the are WAY more horrible people in show business than your ‘friends’ can count and I can’t imagine Bette being on that list.

    That aside, I can’t think of a better actress/comedienne to play West. PERFECT.

  • AuntieChrist

    5 Reasons…?..I only need one…Hello it’s Bette, I just know she is going to be brilliant, I’m so excited I almost peed…

  • kevininbuffalo


  • AuntieChrist

    @kevininbuffalo: You must be a child, a breeder,or developmentally disabled…Or a bored and jaded 20 something queer.

  • iMort

    We will always love “Bathhouse Bette”! Even if she may be hard to work with her live concerts are wonderful and her body of work is impressive. She has never stopped pushing buttons even as her audience became more mainstream. For those old enough to appreciate Johnny Carson, as his final guest she even made me cry – a rare thing!

  • Rational

    Though I love Bette Middler…a better choice, I think, would have been Dolly Parton…though now Dolly’s not as big a box office name. I still cringe when I watch Bette’s “Gypsy”…she should have been the best, but something stopped the director from having her be the best.

  • EdgarCarpenter

    If Bette Middler can manage to look, move and talk like she did in her early 30’s, that’ll be great. If she can carry that off, she’ll be a great young Mae West.

    She doesn’t, of course, look, move and talk that way any more – and I think it is probably a mistake for her to attempt it. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear it will flop.

  • R. Mark Desjardins

    Bette Midler’s joie de vivre attitude should be able to channel Mae West’s spirit and bring this iconic entertainer to a whole new audience. I’ve been researching the life and times of Mae West in my unpublished manuscript, “In Search of Mae West,” from the perspective of the young men she surrounded herself with at her Ravenswood Apt. lair.

    Hopefully this HBO biopic will go beyond the 1940’s period that past West film tributes have examined. Mae West was a pop culture icon in the fifties, sixties and seventies, and in my opinion, that is perhaps the most fascinating time to examine she gave definition to the expression, “cougar.”

  • dvlaries

    Of all our beloved gay icons, none is more temperamentally suited to play West than Midler. Hell, she was ready for it 20 years ago, and she’ll nail it now too.
    West debuted in movies in 1932 in a George Raft vehicle “Night After Night.” Once it was released, Raft said helplessly, “she stole everything but the cameras.” The best of West’s film career was short thanks to Joseph L. Breen’s installation at the head of Hollywood’s censorship office in mid-1934. Only “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel” made beforehand, let West have the most generous freedom of expression without one of Breen’s minions right on the set, searching for hidden, dirty meaning in every West line. It had to have been maddening.
    I have no fear Midler can’t do justice by West, and I suspect Bette has always loved Mae. Looking forward to this one.

  • jar

    This is a dangerous move for Midler. She will need a really strong and keen director to keep her in check. If not, she will veer into camp, which will be a disaster like her turn as Rose in Gypsy. It appears Bette does not have the best instincts as an actress, so she will need someone to keep this from becoming like one of her concerts (which are great, but sui generis). I’d love to see her tackle this role, but it is a tough assignment.

  • EdgarCarpenter

    @jar – Miss West’s life was largely, grandly camp, so if Ms Midler veers into camp, too, it will be all right.

    Miss West had her serious moments – and she always supported her casts – when her plays were raided by the vice squad and her cast was tossed in jail, she’d stay up with lawyers and bail bondsmen until she got them all released. She also was loyal – over the years she gave work to a number of her early co-workers and helped them get by when they fell on hard times.

    I really hope Bette can carry this off, and that the script isn’t two-dimensional.

  • jar

    @EdgarCarpenter: I expected that response. Mae was not camp during her time; she became a camp figure in later years with her Las Vegas shows. But in her early career (which the period the film will address), she was a shrewd writer and performer who commented on gender roles and relations between the sexes. I am a huge fan of Bette, but I think the similarities between Mae and the Divine Miss M (modeled mostly after Sophie Tucker) could pose a hurdle for her. It will be too easy for Bette to slip into camp (as her old routine was a camp reflection on the 20’s/30’s), which is why I hope the director is able to keep things on course.

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