When Garry Marshall’s Beaches (1988) had its theatrical debut a New York Times movie critic suggested that someone at Touchstone had misspelled the title - “B(it)ches”. True enough costars Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey spend enough of the film’s 123 minutes in an exchange of glib repartee and/or working through the chaos of their personal lives with claws out nasty spats at the crux of their lifelong association. But in the end the film is about true friendship (begun in youth, interrupted by puberty, relationships, personal insecurities, etc. etc., though ultimately ripened and refined with age); friendship that endures despite life’s hardships, and the inevitable drifting of free spirits who eventually realize that theirs is a bond for the ages.
After a decade of uninhibited live performances that matured her trademark raunchy sass into an enviable cottage industry, Bette Midler’s reputation as a no-nonsense twenty-cent tart a la Mae West reincarnated, had begun to cool with audiences. But with this downturn came a surprising rebirth, perhaps nowhere more stunningly observed than under the Disney banner. Disney’s tradition in ‘family entertainment’ may have seemed a strange bedfellow for the divine Miss ‘M’, known more for her raw one liners than light-hearted feel good. Yet each was to benefit from this association, particularly Midler who effortlessly reinvigorated her sagging singing career with one pop chart topping single after the next while starring in a string of movies under Disney’s Touchstone banner that tweaked Midler’s outrageous bravado ever so slightly to reveal a more deliciously pert and subtly nuanced raconteur.
In many ways, Beaches represents a finale of sorts for Disney and Midler. Certainly, it remains Midler’s most oft’ resurrected contribution on late night TV and movie channels around the world – its signature “Wind Beneath My Wings” a perennial favorite at wedding receptions and anniversary parties ever since. Immediately following its smashing success at the box office Midler was to retreat into an artistic cocoon, particularly after the disastrous remake of Stella Dallas (renamed Stella) in 1990.
And Beaches also marks the end of Disney’s most lucrative offshoot – Touchstone - and its ability to produce movies that consistently found their audience, even as they increasingly became watered down, low budgeted pabulum packaged like Stay-puff popcorn for the ‘average’ movie goer. Touchstone’s last hurrah was just around the corner, with another Garry Marshall ‘feel good’: Pretty Woman (1990).
In retrospect there is something insubstantially generic about Mary Agnes Donoghue’s screenplay for Beaches, based on the best-selling novel by Iris Rainer Dart. Despite Midler’s obvious appeal and unrelenting charm, and that of Mayim Bialik, who plays the iconic pop star C.C. Bloom as a child with all the flair and physicality one might anticipate from Midler herself in pint size form, Beaches suffers from its milquetoast miscasting of Barbara Hershey as jejune WASP, Hillary Whitney and James Reed as her equally tepid husband, Michael Essex. This imbalance leaves little doubt in the viewer’s mind that Beaches has been planned as a star vehicle for just one star – Midler – who chews up the scenery with such aplomb, so unapologetic that she easily becomes infectiously appealing despite the rather inexcusably unsophisticated material she has to grapple with.
Therein lies the charm of Beaches. And make no mistake about it – the film has its charm; enduring and cleverly marketed to elicit a few good laughs and more than a hanky full of tears from the cheap seats. Our story begins at the Hollywood Bowl where C.C. Bloom (Midler) is rehearsing with her band for a sold out performance scheduled to take place later that evening. Midler’s pedestrian rendition of ‘Under the Boardwalk’ is easy listening elevator music at best, but serves as a segue into the film’s first ‘crisis’ as C.C. learns that her best friend, Hillary (Barbara Hershey) has fallen ill. As a mildly frantic C.C. leaves the rehearsal, first for the airport (only to discover that a dense bank of fog has grounded all planes in San Francisco), we regress to a moment in 1958 ‘under the boardwalk’ – literally - where talented child star Cecilia Carol Bloom (Mayim Bialik) is enjoying a drag on her cigarette. It’s sweltering hot in Atlantic City; the beaches packed with sunbathers. Before long C.C. hears the uncontrollable sobs of young Hillary Whitney (Marcie Leeds), who has lost her Aunt Vesta (Carol Willard) in the crowd.
But before C.C. can take Hillary back to her hotel her own overbearing stage mother, Leona (played to perfection by Lainie Kazan) frantically intrudes, reminding C.C. of her audition with Sammy Pinker’s (Phil Leeds) traveling showcase of child stars. C.C. sings her heart out with ‘The Glory of Love’ but is upstaged by the painfully angelic Iris Myandowski (Nikki Plant) and her baton-twirling routine. Pinker is dazzled by Iris’s beauty rather than her talent which C.C. has in spades. Blaming Leona for telling Mrs. Myandowski about the audition, C.C. storms off with Hillary. En route to the hotel the girls develop a bond of friendship.
Aunt Vesta arrives and, finding C.C. wholly unsuitable, breaks into their playtime. But the die has been cast and as the girl’s mature they become lifelong pen pals. Following in her father’s footsteps, college bound Hillary (now played by Hershey) goes off to study law at Stanford while C.C. (now Midler) moves to New York to begin her relentless pursuit of fame and fortune on the stage. Feeling trapped in her moneyed, though antiseptic life, Hillary arrives on C.C.’s doorstep and is welcomed with open arms. She gets a job with the ACLU and C.C. begins work as a ‘singing telegram’- dressed as a rabbit. A fortuitous chance meeting with ‘The Falcon Players’ director, John Pierce (John Heard) leads to a reluctant romance between John and C.C. – momentarily interrupted by John’s roving affections that temporarily switch to Hillary until she is forced to go home and attend her ailing father.
In her absence, C.C. and John are married and Hillary becomes engaged to snobbish attorney, Michael Essex (James Read). Reunited in New York for C.C.’s Broadway debut, Michael and John find very little to talk about. But their détente doesn’t begin to compare to the frosty reception C.C. receives from Hillary. After a bitter falling out, Hillary and Michael fly back to California where he promptly has an affair with another woman. In the meantime, C.C.’s career hits the skids. Worse, her marriage to John has finally crumbled beyond repair. Hightailing to Miami, C.C. seeks comfort from Leona only to be admonished for her reckless pursuit of attention.
While C.C. drums up interest in her sagging music career inside a seedy Cuban nightclub she and Hillary are reunited, and after some initial friction both realize just how much their friendship – or rather, the absence of it in all these many months - has meant to each of them. Hillary confides her innate jealousy of C.C. and C.C. admits that she ruined Hillary’s chances for happiness with John. Hillary confides that she is pregnant with Michael’s child and C.C. works diligently to help raise the girl, Victoria Cecilia (Grace Johnston), in the meantime falling in love with Hillary’s obstetrician, Dr. Richard Milstein (Spalding Gray).
C.C. abandons Richard for her big break in Hollywood, a move that temporarily infuriates Hillary and all but baffles Richard. Once again, the course of C.C. and Hillary’s life diverges. C.C. becomes a huge success in pictures and Hillary starts to practice law. But when Hillary is diagnosed with terminal cardiomyopathy C.C. rushes to her side to assume parenting responsibilities. C.C. is optimistic, then horrified to learn that Hillary has rejected a heart transplant – the only option that could save her life. Instead, the women decide to spend what is presumably their last summer together at the beach, in a quaint cottage by the sea. At summers end C.C. returns to Los Angeles to rehearse for her concert, leaving Hillary in Victoria’s care. But as the child packs her bags to meet C.C. in L.A. she discovers her mother lying dead on the floor in an upstairs bedroom. C.C. comforts Victoria at the funeral and later learns from a letter that it was Hillary’s final wish that she should raise Victoria upon her death. Offering the girl a sincere choice to either come back to L.A. with her or stay with her beloved aunt in San Francisco, Victoria chooses C.C., thus renewing the bond of friendship begun on a beach so very long ago.
Beaches is a cleverly scripted tear jerker that delivers the goods. It is virtually impossible to not get a lump in the throat as the bittersweet strains of ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ bellow over a montage of memories at Hillary’s funeral. Yet, in totem the Beaches soundtrack yields nothing more than a handful of repurposed songs done elsewhere and arguably to better effect. The one exception is undeniably the film’s anthem, ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ – a cover since the early 80s, but never more agonizingly expressed than with Midler’s throaty warble perfectly pitched to evoke a sense of blessed/deflated longing.
The rest of Beaches musical program is a veritable mishmash of pop standards, Disney-ana and newly written material haphazardly thrust together in a misguided attempt to provide Bette Midler with the sort of eclectic cornucopia once her standard fare as a stage performer. To her credit, Midler acquits herself rather nicely – if unremarkably – of the songs. ‘Baby Mine’ (originally from Disney’s Dumbo) and ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ serve as bridges, a way to excise and/or condense months and even years into mere moments through a visual montage.
But Midler’s two set pieces ‘Otto Titsling’ and ‘Oh Industry!’ are nothing more than garish and fairly obtuse footnotes, inexplicably inserted whenever the plot seems to pointlessly meandering off course, each vainly attempting to resurrect the memory of Midler’s bawdy stage presence for which the more matronly Midler in the film is ill equipped to carry off. Titsling is a feckless history lesson about the invention of the brassiere played strictly for tasteless comedy while Industry with its gross anti-capitalism message and light motif of Greenpeace is ladled too thick to be appreciated. The one original piece of music in the film is Georges DeLerue’s tenderly poignant ‘Friendship Theme’ – heavy on a piano solo that captures the essence and fragility of these women’s bond.
In narrative terms Beaches barely clings together – its quaintly arranged vignettes about an unlikely friendship infrequently interrupted by song montages to help push the story along. Continuity isn’t big on director Garry Marshall’s ‘to do’ list; his chief orchestration a deliberate plucking of the heart strings. That this alone tends to mask some of the less obvious inconsistencies in the plot is a miracle indeed. But it must be said that in Bette Midler the film has found its indestructible center.
Midler’s performance is so raw, so brazen and rife with impenitent chutzpa that she defies our conventional wisdom to call her spade a spade. Under her auspices, C.C. Bloom evolves into a rather sympathetic gargoyle, fundamentally flawed in her unquenchable thirst to be needed and loved, but sufficiently contrite to be empathized. Without Midler, Beaches would have absolutely nothing to recommend it. With her, the film remains a palpably engaging woman’s melodrama – manipulatively strained yet strangely affecting.
Buena Vista Home Video’s debut of Beaches on Blu-ray has been long anticipated and, for the most part, is fairly welcome. The 1080p image looks fairly clean and pretty solid. Colors do not particularly pop, but seem faithful to the original theatrical presentation. Grain is suspect. Some scenes exhibit it accurately while others appear to have been digitally scrubbed, with a slightly waxen visual characteristic. It isn’t as bad as all that but it is definitely noticeable. Contrast greatly improves. Also, directly comparing the image to that of the 2008 SE DVD one immediately notices two things – first, that almost all of the dirt, scratches and other age related artifacts have been cleaned up, and second – that a considerable amount of information is revealed to the left and right of the frame despite the fact that both the DVD and Blu-ray have an aspect ratio of 1:66.1. The DTS audio excels during the musical portions of the film, but dialogue is very frontally focused with not much usage of the rear surround channels.
Extras are all carry overs from the SE DVD and include an informative and relaxed audio commentary from Marshall, a bit of affectionate retro-waxing with Miyam Bialik, an excerpt from AFI’s Tribute to Great Movie Songs and some other minor press junket material. All in all, not bad but nothing outstanding. Bottom line: if you love Beaches you will adore this transfer. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)