RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Bette Midler doesn't think of herself as a superstar. She calls herself an actress for hire. She has had, by all accounts, a successful Hollywood career. But she admits she's taken a lot of safe roles over the years. Not anymore. Midler is starring in a one-woman play on Broadway, playing the legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers who died in 2011. The play is called "I'll Eat You Last." Mengers did whatever it took to succeed in a fickle and cutthroat industry, and she did it with guts and her own kind of flair.
BETTE MIDLER: (as Sue Mengers) Is there anything more sublime than hosting 12 of your nearest and dearest for an evening of good chat? That's what we do here. We dish. Who's in, who's out, who's on top, who's on bottom, who's on top but really wants to be on the bottom? It's the most delicious gossip you've ever heard. I love gossip. Don't you?
MARTIN: A one-woman show is hard enough but Midler says there's a different kind of pressure to get it right because Mengers was someone she knew personally.
MIDLER: She was one of the great characters that ever landed in Hollywood, and I adored her. Even though she was, you know, she was actually kind of a terrifying presence, to be honest with you. She was way larger than life, and she was her own woman and brook no trout, as my friends always say.
MARTIN: For people who are not familiar with her, who didn't know her, how do you describe her?
MIDLER: Well, she was a refugee. She came from Germany, escaping Hitler with her parents. She was a person who learned English through the movies, and she fell in love with movies and movie stars, and I think that was the motivation for everything she did and for her entire life. She just loved those people; she loved to be around them, she loved to be in their presence, she courted them, she cultivated them, and eventually she wound up doing business for them. And she made herself up. She invented Sue Mengers. This is what she wanted to be, this is what she set out to be and she accomplished what she intended. She accomplished this manufacture of a character.
The character was incredibly successful in Hollywood for a long time. She wasn't - I don't want to say aggressive, but she was a, she was very witty. She was an energetic woman. She was clever, she was a terrific businesswoman. And the thing that brought most people to her, most of her stars to her, was her sense of humor. She had a remarkable sense of humor - very, very quick - she charmed people. (as Sue Mengers) Here only in Hollywood, the more titles you attach to your name, the less successful you are. OK. Fair enough. But he's in the game like everyone else. We are a typical Hollywood couple: on a good night we're Nick and Nora Charles, on a bad night we're Nick and Nora Charles Manson.
MARTIN: She was also self-destructive.
MIDLER: She was self-destructive at the end. After her husband passed - and he was really the love of her life. I mean, they fought like cats and dogs, but she became the keeper of the flame, you know, for this relationship. Really, truly, people said this was the longest suicide in the history of suicides. Because she really did after that. She smoked huge amounts, she smoked dope from morning till night. She would not move a muscle. I mean, you could not get - she didn't own a pair of sneakers - you couldn't get her to walk around the block. I mean, literally, my friend and I, we got her to go to a spa, thinking that we would like maybe get - encourage her to get on a treadmill. No way. She got into that room and she never left the room, not even for meals. And this was a spa that had no room service; I don't know who she bribed to get the room service. So, in a way she was self-destructive, but not in a way that - it didn't matter to her. It didn't matter to her. She was her own person, this is the way she was going to live her life, and the rest of you could go jump in the lake, and that was that.
MARTIN: Why is this a good role for you? Why is this a good fit for you?
MIDLER: Well, one of the reasons I wanted to do this was because I really did adore her, you know? I wasn't part of the inner circle, but I did adore her, and I adored what she created, and I adored the legend that grew up around her. You know, I'm a big fan of Hollywood, I'm a big fan of the myths, and I'm a big fan of the golden ages, and I'm a big fan of the movies, just like she was. I mean, I'm not quite as wacky as she is - as she was - but I did adore it. And one of my passions is collecting this kind of literature and learning about these, you know, reading about the stories about these kind of - they're not exactly con men, but they're not exactly on the up and up, either, you know? They're kind of wily, they're rascally, they're mischievous. They'll do anything they can to get what they need, and I kind of have a kind of an admiration for that kind of bravado, you know, for people who pull themselves up. It's very American, in a way.
MARTIN: You have been someone with tremendous staying power - the ability to reinvent yourself over time from the Divine Miss M in the 1970s to becoming this movie star in decades afterwards. What is the key to that kind of endurance in an industry that is so brutal and fickle and quite frankly can be a tough place for women?
MIDLER: You know, I guess that's a good question. I think that the main thing that I have going for me that a lot of people never got the memo on is that I did my own work. I made my own work. I made my own shows. I put them together in a way that made people want to see them. And I wasn't dependent on other people calling and saying we want you for this. I think in the real world there, once you get to a certain age, it starts to shrink, you know, the number of roles starts to shrink. And so I've always been able to go out and do my own work; make my own records, do my own concerts. And I think that that's what saved me, because being in the public eye - love the public, but got to say - these indelible events in their lives, they fade over time. And so if you don't come back and refresh their memories and something, then they move on, you know? And so I've always been able to go back to them to say, remember me? Hi. I'm back. I'm back. Nice to see you. Gee, you got so tall. So, that's been my saving grace.
MARTIN: Bette Midler. Her new show, "I'll Eat You Last," opens on Broadway April 24th. Miss Midler, it's been a pleasure.
MIDLER: Thank you. My pleasure.
MARTIN: You can see a video clip of Bette Midler playing Sue Mengers in "I'll Eat You Last" at our website, npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.