For the Boys: Starring Bette Midler in Oscar Nominated Performance

“A person’s degree of power in Hollywood is usually measured by their ability to get movies made,” says Bonnie Bruckheimer, Bette Midler’s partner, “Everyone wants to make a movie with Bette.”

How very true. But how very sad, that Bette Midler, arguably one of the most influential women in Hollywood, would spend her creative energies in developing and co-producing a movie like For the Boys, Fox’s major release this season.

Midler exerts power in front of and behind the cameras, as a producer, movie star, and versatile singer.

Midler’s track record, since her comeback in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, in l985, has been phenomenal, (Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune, Big Business). But she has shown no discernible taste in her choice of film projects. Midler’s company, All Girl Productions, has developed the saccharine Beaches, and the star was instrumental in bringing to the screen Stella, the remake of the l937 classic, Stella Dallas.

For the Boys is the story of Eddie Sparks (James Caan) and Dixie Leonard (Bette Midler), a fictional song-and dance pair who entertained American troops for half a century. During that time, radio gave way to television, Korea and the Cold War replaced the Second World War, and the Vietnam War was fought and lost. The team survived three wars, nine administrations, the baby boom, the Beatles, and other events.

Never a subtle filmmaker, Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond), goes for the obvious and sentimental, milking tears out of his audience at every possible turn. For the Boys is not so much nostalgic, as it is banal. The movie trivializes American history, by reducing major political events to the level of personal feuds and relationships.

Worse yet, For the Boys is disingenuous. Not one reference is made about the Jewishness of the lead characters. For fear of restricting the film’s potential appeal, Dixie Leonard is just a feisty (a bit vulgar) and outspoken woman, and Eddie Sparks, a married man (though womanizer) from the Bronx. The film’s most interesting Jewish character is Art Silver, Dixie’s uncle and Eddie’s long-time writer, who is played quite effectively by Jewish actor George Segal. Under pressure from the sponsors, Uncle Art is dumped from the team’s successful TV show, because he is allegedly a Commie. McCarthyism, a shameful chapter in American history, is used in the movie as a five-minute plot device. We never find out whether Art has been a member of the Communist Party or, for that matters, what his politics are.

The filmmakers seem to have drawn the wrong conclusions from the failure of Paul Mazursky’s l990 Scenes from the Mall, in which Woody Allen and Bette Midler played an upper-middle class Jewish couple, a sports lawyer and a marriage counselor. If Mazursky’s movie bombed, it was not because its characters (or humor) were Jewish, but because it was bad and boring; to set a whole movie in a shopping moll was as much punishment for the film’s characters as for the audience.

For the Boys is dishonest for another reason. Joe Roth, Fox’s Chair, has made bombastic statements about the film’s anti-war theme and the risk he has taken in making a big-budget (40 million dollars) musical, in these patriotic post-Gulf War times. But rather than use American wars for its background, the movie shamelessly exploits them. Is it really necessary to have a soldier die in Dixie’s arms Is there any reason to show Vietnam’s bloody battles in a stylized slow motion What is encouraging, though, about these sequences, is that even a movie like For the Boys can’t conceal the tensions that were created (and still felt) by McCarthyism and the open wounds that the Vietnam War has left.

For the Boys could have been a perfect vehicle for Bette Midler, if she were permitted to sing more in her unique style, using campy and witty phrasings, as she has done with great skills in her live shows and records. But Midler is not allowed to sing; her song-and-dance numbers are choppily cut and edited. And she does one embarrassing rendition of a great Beatles song, “In My Life,” which she performs in Vietnam wearing sunglasses!

A muddle of a movie, in the end, it is not clear what For the Boys is about. On one level, it is a schmaltzy showbiz tale, similar to Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (with a gender change). On another, it is a look at the ever-changing history of American society, seen through musical numbers of the different eras. However, the movie fails on both counts. Moreover, the movie could not decide whether the relationship between Eddie and Dixie should be strictly professional, and/or romantic, and/or sexual.

Everything about the film is routine, beginning with the use of flashbacks as the film’s framing device. The screenplay, credited to Marshall Brickman, Neal Jimenez and Lindy Laub, consists of a bunch of cliches. When Dixie is offered a USO stint overseas, her friend tells her that it is “a career-maker!” Later, Dixie describes WWII as “Everybody’s big break.” “You’re not an act, you’re an industry,” the team is told when it achieves success. There are a few funny lines, but they are buried under so much drivel that one needs to dig them out.

The viewers are supposed to believe that offstage, Eddie and Dixie fought their personal wars, but once the curtain rose, they took the stage and “did it for the boys.” We are constantly reminded what a fantastic comedian Eddie, but there is no evidence on screen of his alleged talent, or of the spark between him and Dixie. The lack of chemistry–between the two performers in their act and between the two actors who play them, is fatal–it makes their long-enduring professional connection and, in the final account, friendship inexplicable.

Desperate to please all audiences, at all costs, For the Boys pleases no segment of the audience. What a waste of great musical, comic, and acting talent. With a running time of 2 hours and 24 minute, For the Boys may well become the season’ greatest disappointment among the large-scale productions.

Oscar Alert:

Oscar Nominations: 1

Actress: Bette Midler

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Actress was Jodie Foster for the thriller-horror “The Silence of the Lambs,” in a race that included Laura Dern in “Rambling Rose,” and Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, both nominated for “Thelma & Louise.”