Next to Tina Turner, Bette Midler has always been the hardest working woman in show business.
For the past four decades, her concerts have been exercises in nonstop locomotion, with Midler either prowling the stage in a sparkly gown and feathered boa or zipping across it in a wheel chair while dressed as a mermaid. In acting roles, her motor was still revving on high as she’d toddle across the screen balanced precariously on towering heels, her hands fluttering and her hips swaying in such films as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Beaches and The First Wives Club.
Which is why it comes as something of a surprise when the curtain rises at the Booth Theatre on Broadway to find her plopped down in the middle of a commodious beige sofa, stretched out amid a sea of plump pillows. The even bigger surprise is that she stays parked on that sofa for the next 80 minutes of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers. It’s only at the very end of this one-woman play about the legendary Hollywood superagent that Midler stands and walks toward the rear of the stage and then to the front again for her curtain call.
I’ll Eat You Last, which opened April 24, marks Midler's first acting role on the Great White Way since she understudied then played a couple of the daughters in Fiddler on the Roof in the late 1960s.
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There’s nothing like challenging yourself at an age when many of your peers are contemplating retirement. That’s what Midler, 67, is trying to do. In a recent interview with The New York Times, she said she’d spent too many years in recent decades playing it safe on screen. She nixed the leads in Sister Act and Misery because she viewed them as too challenging or likely to alienate her fans. “It was stupid to say no to those pictures,” she told the Times’ theater reporter, Patrick Healy. "And while I was unsure about doing this play, I felt it was time for me to say yes."
The aging baby boomers making up a large part of the Divine Miss M’s fan base are likely to find I’ll Eat You Last appealing. That’s because the show is focused on Hollywood in the '60s, '70s and '80s, which coincides with many of her audience members’ prime moviegoing years.
It was during those decades that Mengers, who died in 2011 at age 79, was at her height as a talent agent, representing Barbra Streisand, Ali MacGraw, Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine and many other neon worthy names. She loved movie stars, the bigger the better, and referred to them as “twinklies.”
Like Midler herself, Mengers was brash, brassy, Jewish and the possessor of a salty tongue. She was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States with her parents to escape the Nazi regime in the 1930s. She rose through the ranks as an agent, working first in New York then moving to Los Angeles.
Mengers, a petite blond who often dressed in flowing silk kaftans, loved to entertain, dish gossip and smoke pot. Midler was one of the many famous names who attended gatherings at Mengers’ grand home in Beverly Hills, where huge servings of juicy tales were the main course, accompanied by homey food on the side.
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Written by John Logan (who has three Oscar nominations for screenplays and a Tony award for Best Play for Red), I’ll Eat You Last is staged as if the audience is sitting in Mengers’ living room, sharing a long afternoon with the talent agent as she lounges on her couch. She’s waiting for an important phone call from Streisand and passing the time with stories about her life and career. (At one point, Midler even singles out an audience member to come up on stage to fetch her cigarettes and, later, pour her a drink.)
Midler's all-out performance has been rewarded with standing ovations and critical acclaim. New York Times theater critic Christopher Isherwood raved, "Ms. Midler cradles a spellbound audience in the palm of her hand from first joke to last toke."
For theatergoers of a certain age, the show’s a treat. As Mengers, Midler is serving up semi-scurrilous scuttlebutt about movie stars whose names still resonate with those of us old enough to remember when Ryan O’Neal, another Mengers client, was swoon worthy, not the sad punch line to a has-been joke. There are dishy stories about how Mengers played Paramount studio head Robert Evans to get the lead role in Chinatown for her client Faye Dunaway, how she reviled Steve McQueen and viewed him as willfully crushing Ali MacGraw’s career once the two were wed and plenty more. (It should be noted that the college-age woman seated in front of me, no doubt more familiar with Zac Efron and other High School Musical stars, was bored silly by the show, nodding off halfway through.)
What comes through most clearly, though, is that nothing lasts, be it fame or power. Mengers knew that. You were up, you were down, the winner in a deal was whoever ate the other last.
Midler knows it, too. If she wants to endure, she has to try new things, go where she might not be most comfortable and hope her fans will follow. It’s not really all that much of a stretch to play Mengers — the role seems tailor-made for Midler — but to do it eight times a week, all alone up there when you haven’t acted on a Broadway stage in 45 years, yep, that’s a challenge. But it’s one that she, and we, are up for.