Cult classics revisited: ‘Beaches’ – a critical review

After watching Garry Marshall’s  1988 weepie Beaches, I finally understood the point of the movie – Beaches is like a punch in the face – it’s meant to make you cry. It’s the sort of luxuriously maudlin film that would’ve been popular in the 1940s and 1950s, Female friendships, death, doomed motherhood are all common ingredients for those soapy movies meant to make its audiences – primarily women and gay men – weep along with the tragic heroines. Reading the credits for Beaches should prepare one for a doozy of an afternoon: Garry Marshall, the director of such hard-hitting entertainment as Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, and Valentine’s Day; and his star is Bette Midler, the kind of entertainer that doesn’t believe she’s done her job unless members of her audience empty Kleenex boxes after an hour of her warbling.

Midler, miles and miles away from her sterling work as the Janis Joplin clone in The Rose plays C.C. Bloom, a singer-actress. We meet C.C. in the beginning of the film, rehearsing for a show. While wandering the cavernous stage, Midler performs a MOR-rendition of the Drifters’ 1964 classic “Under the Boardwalk.” She gets a note and quickly dashes off.

MayimBialikbeachesWe’re then transported to Atlantic City, in the late 1950s. C.C. is now a little girl, played by the prodigiously talented Mayim Bialik (Blossom, The Big Bang Theory). Besides the physical resemblance, Bialik also does a nifty job in impersonating Bette Midler. Unfortunately, she’s not given very good direction from Marshall, who extracts a broad performance from the superbly gifted child star, that would feel better at home on one of his 1970s sitcoms. As if Bialik’s high-octane performance wasn’t enough, C.C.’s mom is played by Lainie Kazan, the go-to character actress if you need an overbearing, ethnic mother, grandmother, or aunt.

Kazan plays Leona, the busty, pushy stage mother, patterned after Mama Rose from Gypsy. It’s a ridiculously loud performance – pretty par for the course for Kazan – but there’s an unintended poignancy in having Kazan play a frustrated mother, living out her showbiz dreams by her daughter. I can’t imagine that the actress hoped her career would’ve become playing the brazen mother. During the 1960s and 1970s she made frequent guest appearances on chat shows as a singer, but never established herself as the Streisand-clone she was hope to be.

So poor Miss Kazan is thrown into yet another kaftan. But there’s a sneaking joy in her work, as there is anything she does. Her range is razor-thin, but there’s an audacity in her mediocrity. And it’s no surprise that the pint-sized Bialik acts circles around the vet. In fact Bialik performs as if the movie was an audition for Annie. She’s paired with a gorgeous little girl, Marcie Leeds, who plays a rich little girl, Hillary, that C.C. befriends. They meet under the boardwalk (a very blatant cue from Marshall, and there are more to come), and little C.C. takes the lost Hillary back to her hotel. In a surprisingly on-point sequence, Marshall creates an interesting play of anti-Semitism, when the excessively ethnic C.C. shocks the prim and proper guests in the hotel. It also doesn’t help that the 9-year old is dressed like a burlesque dancer. Despite the chill in the air, C.C. and Hillary promise to be best friends.

And then suddenly, Marshall recreates George Cukor’s Rich and Famous. Midler gets a chance to do everything. Marshall doesn’t reign in any of the performer’s indulgences, instead allowing her to let loose. It’s clear, she saw this as her A Star Is Born. She mugs, she pratfalls, she belts, she jokes, she cries. She’s a whirlwind of activity and performance. She’s like the Tasmanian Devil, bursting through the scenes, and the poor sucker who’s cast against her can only step back and let her masticate the scenery.

And it doesn’t help matters when an actress like Barbara Hershey is brought in to play opposite a force of nature like Bette Midler. While a gifted and resourceful actress, she doesn’t stand a chance, and has to default to standing back and looking beautiful. But that’s okay, because her character is really meant to be a beautiful, if dull, lady, locked in a gilded cage. We’re meant to feel sympathy for this supposedly intelligent young woman who was bred to be a society matron.

The friendship between C.C. and Hillary lasts throughout a few decades and a few different hairstyles. During this time, we get to watch Midler pretend she’s a struggling singer. In one sequence, Midler is singing a nifty Cole Porter standard in a night club. In another, C.C. is cast in some bizarre environmental off-off-off-off Broadway thing that has her performing a near-industrial tune “Oh Industry” which Midler helped write. Before she’s famous, C.C.  plugging away, building her career.

Meanwhile, Hillary is supposed to be a lawyer (I think we see an office), but she quickly is whisked away and married, and becomes the sort of gorgeous, Chanel suited women who we envy on our way to work. C.C., on the other hand, moves up, driven my an ambition and a great talent, and she becomes the toast of Broadway. In an admittedly funny musical number, C.C. sings the history of brassieres in the comedy song “Otto Titsling” which Midler performed in her standup act (a live version can be heard on her Mud Will Be Flung Tonight! album). It’s in the “Otto Titsling” number that the line between C.C. Bloom and Bette Midler is blurred to the point of near-invisibility. It’s clear that the screenplay (penned by Mary Agnes Donoghue from the novel by Iris Rainer Dart) relies heavily on Midler’s career and legend to inform the character of C.C. Bloom. And though another singer-actress could’ve done the job, it’s Midler’s part – tailor-made, cribbing heavily from the singer’s career and life.

When C.C. becomes a hug star, making pop records, she most resembles the then-current Midler. The film also reintroduced Midler to her record-buying public, with whom she had a diffident relationship up until that point (in the 80s, Midler released a scant three albums). The film was released, alongside the hit soundtrack album that gave Midler her biggest commercial musical success. Unfortunately, when rehashing Midler’s musical and screen persona for the film and the album, the filmmakers and musical producers chose to cherry pick some of the duller aspects of Midler’s work – her tendency to reach out to the A/C crowd.

As a famous singer, C.C. doesn’t get to sing fun ditties like “Otto Titsling” or arch smart stuff like the Cole Porter, and instead she was given some bloated MOR ballads to sing. The centerpiece is, of course, “Wind Beneath My Wings” – the theme of the film, a song that Midler plucked out of obscurity (fun fact: it was recorded before by Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton, among others, to considerably less success). The song transcended the film with its poor taste and bathetic tone, and has become the requisite song at weddings and funerals. And poor Midler has to belt it out some twenty five years after the song came out. Even a great song like Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” is given a bloasted, synthesizer-heavy treatment.

Barbara Hershey BeachesIn between moments designated for Midler to push the soundtrack, we’re given some semblance of a plot. Poor little rich girl Hillary learns that it’s better to be independent, and leaves her louse of husband, only to learn she’s pregnant. But to the delight of the rebellious C.C., Hillary decides to raise the baby on her own, years before Murphy Brown. Of course, Hillary’s rich, so her options are much more desirable than most women who face single motherhood. But that’s all nitpicking – we, like C.C., are meant to say, “You go, girl!” to the newly liberated Hillary.

But Marshall is doing his best Douglas Sirk impression, so of course, tragedy strikes: a convenient heart disease that dooms Hillary. Hershey must’ve been thrilled when reading the script, because she finally gets to do something, aside from stepping aside and letting Midler run the show. And in the great tradition of Love Story, despite her dying, Hillary looks beautiful – the makeup artist merely adding some white foundation and shadows under her eyes. We don’t get the emotion that the two characters feel for each other, nor do we understand the pain C.C. is facing, watching her best friend die. Instead, we get beautifully-lit scenes in a gorgeous beach house, with Hershey elegantly reclined on a beach chair.

The final act is the final taming of the wild and crazy C.C. Bloom. Though she was married in the film, and was at one point, engaged to a kindly doctor (played by the late and great Spalding Gray, who looks as if he just wandered onto the set), but it takes Hillary’s death to finally make C.C. a “real” woman – she becomes an instant mother to her dead best friend’s orphaned daughter (no mention is made of Hillary’s asshole of an ex-husband).

hqdefault.jpgAnd just as in A Star Is Born, when Judy Garland has a bravura scene onstage (“This is Mrs. Norman Maine”), after suffering the death of her husband, Midler’s C.C. gets a goodbye scene on a darkened stage. In a solitary spotlight, she croons “Glory of Love” with flashbacks to when she and Hillary were just laid back tykes, and we’re reminded of their great friendship when the forlorn voice over of Leeds and Bialik:”Be sure to keep in touch, C.C., O.K.?” “Well sure, we’re friends aren’t we?”

Yuck.

It’s really a shame because Beaches could’ve been an okay movie. If a more restraint and less-sentimental director was in charge, maybe Beaches wouldn’t have ended up as the gloppy mess it has; poor Midler is a grotesque caricature. Like all great talents, she needs a strong presence that will hem in some of her excesses – but instead, Marshall appears to be intimidated by his star, and simply points the camera in her direction. Watching Beaches is a gross and shameful experience – but resistance is futile. So pop in the DVD and prepare to be emotionally manipulated.

Click here to buy Beaches on DVD from amazon.com.

Click here to buy the soundtrack to Beaches on CD from amazon.com.

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Filed under Book, Celeb, Comedy, DVD, movie, movie review, music

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