A singer and actress who has collected multiple Grammy, Tony, and Emmy Awards across her seven different decades in show business — she made her Broadway debut in Fiddler on the Roof in 1966 — Bette Midler’s music catalog spans hits as eclectic as her bubbly, multi-tracked 1972 cover of the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and the soaring 1988 ballad “Wind Beneath My Wings.” While known for her confident performances and outsized personality, that song showcased her warmer vocal tones and more tender side. “Bugle Boy” was one of the three hits from her debut album, The Divine Miss M, the first of five Billboard 200 Top Ten appearances for Midler that also included her 1973 eponymous album, 1990′s platinum-selling Some People’s Lives, 2005′s Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook, and 2014′s It’s the Girls!, a set of girl group covers. Along the way, she starred in films such as The Rose (1979), which was loosely based upon the life of Janis Joplin; Beaches (1988), the origin of her version of “Wind Beneath My Wings”; Fantasia 2000 (1999), and, also for Disney, Hocus Pocus (1993) and Hocus Pocus 2 (2022). The sequel could be said to have introduced the Divine Miss M to the zoomer generation, although, after starring in her own CBS sitcom, Bette, in 2000 and 2001, she had never stopped working, lending her voice to animated films, making movie cameos, and guesting on series from The Voice to Netflix’s The Politician into the 2020s.
Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, Midler was named after legendary actress Bette Davis, although her mother mistakenly pronounced it as one syllable. (Her older sisters were named for Judy Garland and Susan Hayward.) Bette, in turn, showed an interest in singing and acting early on, performing as early as the first grade. She did well in school, was elected president of her senior class, and got a small part in the film Hawaii (1966) as an underclassman at the University of Hawaii. On that film, meeting and talking about opportunities in the business with people like Gene Hackman led to her dropping out of college and moving to New York. She immediately signed on for acting classes and won a role in the long-running Broadway hit Fiddler on the Roof, playing Tzeitel, from February 1967 to February 1970.
Meanwhile, Midler developed a nightclub act that included comedy and singing a variety of material, including show tunes, pop hits, and even a takeoff on the Andrews Sisters, and she appeared with increasing frequency in New York with her accompanist, Barry Manilow. That led to being signed by Atlantic Records and releasing The Divine Miss M (1972), which went gold with the help of a Top Ten cover of the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” The album also produced the Top 20 hit “Do You Want to Dance?,” and another single, “Friends,” peaked just inside the Top 40. When Midler returned to Broadway in 1973, it was with her own show, Bette Midler. That year, she also released her second studio album, also titled Bette Midler. A varied set of covers encompassing Kurt Weill, Hoagy Carmichael, and Bob Dylan, it went to number six on the Billboard 200 and number three in Canada. It was arranged and conducted by Manilow, who also accompanied her on the album (along with dozens of rotating studio musicians). A year later, Midler won the Grammy for Best New Artist (The Divine Miss M and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” were nominated for Album of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, respectively), and she and Liza Minnelli won Special Tony Awards for “adding luster to the Broadway season.”
Midler’s album sales didn’t fair as well through the next decade, although she still reached the Top 30 of the Billboard 200 with 1976′s Songs for the New Depression; Broken Blossom (1977) and Thighs and Whispers (1978) placed outside the Top 50. Meanwhile, she opened stage shows including Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half Shell Revue and Bette! Divine Madness. Her acting career was boosted by a starring role in the 1979 semi-biopic The Rose, based loosely on the life of Janis Joplin. The film was recognized with four Oscar nominations, including one for Midler for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The soundtrack for the film, which included Midler’s U.S. and Canadian Top Three hit “The Rose,” achieved platinum sales in Australia and Stateside, where it peaked at number 12 on the Billboard 200.
She followed that success in 1980 with the concert film Divine Madness! before appearing in big-screen comedies like Jinxed! (1982), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), and Ruthless People (1986). While her 1983 solo album, No Frills, again landed her just outside the Top 50, she had another resurgence to the upper echelons of the charts with the hit comedy-drama Beaches, in which she played a famous singer. Her chart-topping rendition of the song “Wind Beneath My Wings” lifted the soundtrack album to number two in the U.S. and number one in Australia on its way to collecting a Grammy Award for Record of the Year. Midler followed that with the number two hit “From a Distance” from her seventh solo album, 1990′s Some People’s Lives. The LP reached number six in the U.S. and landed in the Top Ten in the U.K., Canada, and Australia. Her second Oscar nomination for Best Actress arrived not long after, for playing singer Dixie Leonard in 1991′s For the Boys.
Midler collected a handful of Emmy nominations as the ’90s wore on, including nods for 1993’s Gypsy and an appearance on the sitcom Murphy Brown, winning for appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and for her performance in Bette Midler in Concert: Diva Las Vegas. The 1993 compilation Experience the Divine Bette Midler: Greatest Hits charted internationally, even topping the album chart in the Netherlands. While starring in films like the witchy Hocus Pocus and The First Wives Club, Midler’s adult contemporary-oriented 1995 album Bette of Roses and 1998′s Bathhouse Betty (which included the dance hit “I’m Beautiful”) both kept her in the Top 50 in the U.S. After appearing as herself in Fantasia 2000 (1999), she topped out at number 69 with 2000′s Bette, on which she covered such songwriters as Elvis Costello, Kirsty MacColl, and Patty Griffin.
The 2000s brought continued film roles, mostly in comedies such as The Stepford Wives and The Women, and Midler starred in her own CBS sitcom, the short-lived Bette, which aired 18 episodes between October 2000 and March 2001. She also turned up on concert specials, late-night TV, and reality TV shows while returning to the Billboard 200 Top 20 with Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook in 2003. It marked a move to Columbia/Sony after 30 years on Atlantic/Warner. Her 2005 album, Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook, fared even better on the album chart, reaching number ten. Featuring a duet with Johnny Mathis, Midler’s first holiday LP, 2006′s Cool Yule, peaked at number 33. Two years later, Atlantic released the compilation Jackpot! The Best of Bette; it sold well in the U.K., where it peaked at number six and reached platinum status.
Bette Midler maintained a presence on the silver screen in the 2010s with films like 2012′s Parental Guidance as well a voice work in the animated movies Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and The Addams Family. Her only album of the decade was 2014′s It’s the Girls! Released by Warner/Rhino, it paid tribute to girl groups ranging from the Ronettes to the Andrews Sisters and TLC and hit a career-high number three on the Billboard 200. Two years later, The Divine Miss M was given a “deluxe” expanded reissue with a bonus disc of rare and unreleased material, as well as new liner notes from Midler. She achieved another career milestone in 2017, taking home a second Tony Award, this time for Best Actress in a Musical, for the Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! The cast album resulted in her 15th career Grammy nomination.
She appeared on the annual Academy Awards broadcast in 2019 to perform one of the best song nominees, “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns (performed by Emily Blunt in the film). An Emmy nomination for a guest spot on the Netflix series The Politician followed in 2020. The film sequels The Addams Family 2 and Hocus Pocus 2 were in the cards for the singer/actress in 2021 and 2022, respectively. With Midler reprising her role as Winnie Sanderson, the latter film was accompanied by a soundtrack LP that featured Midler on three songs with castmates Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy. ~ Marcy Donelson