The people’s diva

2 years after her Vegas show ended, Bette still proves that ‘The Showgirl Must Go On’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Bette Midler got her start working in New York City’s Continental Baths, the premier gay bathhouse in America at the time. Since then, she’s gotten two Oscar nominations, won four Grammys, three Emmys and a Tony, headlines huge films and audience-grabbing TV specials. But in reality, she’s still just the queen among the queens, camping it up with puns, sexual double entendres and swinging her rack around like a mink stole at a debutante ball. She may be on the Vegas stage with a 13-piece orchestra and throngs of adoring middle-ages couples, but the act is pure late-night drag club.

That’s probably what has attracted the gays to Bette since her earliest days.

We love Liza, care for Cher, bow to Barbra and go gaga for Gaga, but Bette?

She’s still one of us. Fabulous … well, as fabulous as we imagine ourselves to be.

For two years, Bette played the Palace — Caesar’s Palace on the Vegas Strip — with The Showgirl Must Go On, her paean to corny glamour. It’s been nearly two years since the show closed, but you can finally see it with the DVD release. And it’s exactly what you think it will be.

La Bette has always known her base, so she gives shoutouts to “the gays,” who have always appreciated that  she proudly pioneered the “trashy singers with big tits” trend — drag queens with real-girl parts. She’s not letting go of the honor easily. Vegas is a good fit for that, trafficking as it does in that sheen of tinsel and cheap glam — headdresses, scanty costumes (frequently changed), garish lighting and plenty of dazzle alongside the razzle.

Slickly filmed and fast-paced (aside from a quirky intro involving a twister that makes no sense), it’s a dazzling document of the Divine Miss M’s great gifts as a comedian and performer.

Her voice is still in fine shape, from “Friends” (the song that launched her to her first Grammy) through the inescapable tearjerker “From a Distance” (her fourth Grammy), with new arrangements of classics like “Do You Want to Dance” and “The Rose” that are true to the originals without being carbon copies. That almost makes up for the one-liners she does as her alter-ego “Sophie” — Bette admits she’s been telling them for 40 years, but we’ve laughed just as long.

True enough. That’s probably why we like her so much. We both get each other.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday.

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QUEER CLIPS: ‘RESTLESS,’ ‘LOVE CRIME’

7Restless is, at heart, a comedy, but it’s from director Gus Van Sant, so don’t expect an easy comedy. Enoch (Henry Hopper) is an orphan who crashes funerals; at one, he meets Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a quirky naturalist who seems as curious as he seems withdrawn. But while Enoch is haunted by the ghost of a Japanese Kamikaze pilot, Annabel has her own demons.

Any other director would almost certainly have turned Restless into a maudlin tearjerker (even the disrespectfully crass Judd Apatow made the mawkish disaster Funny People). But Van Sant operates on about two settings: Crazy genius (Milk, To Die For, Drugstore Cowboy) and disastrous boondoggle (his misguided Psycho remake) …. though he throws some impenetrable art films in as well (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days). Restless is really none of those, though it is very good — a lighthearted look at death that never seems off-beat for its own sake. Wasikowska and Hopper, below, make a charming couple, cool but authentic, and its disarming undermining of the cliches of a doomed romance elevate it. It’s overstating to call it a feel-good movie, but you walk away refreshed, as much by the moviemaking as by the story.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Three and a half stars.
Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

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Still1Love Crime opens with Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas, right) and her assistant, Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier). But this work session isn’t at the office; it’s at Christine’s home with the boss being flirtatious, giving her wine and gifts.

In an American movie there’d be a sexual harassment suit in the offing, but Love Crime is French so this will lead to more  — or less.  We learn that neither woman is exclusively lesbian because both sleep with men — the same man Philippe (Patrick Mille) in one instance — though not at the same time.  Isabelle even asks Philippe what Christine’s like in bed.

The women work in the Paris office of an American company.  What begins as a tale of corporate and romantic intrigue takes a deadly turn.  The less you know going in the better.  Just let the story unfold deliciously, because you’re in the capable hands of the late writer-director Alain Corneau.

Corneau admitted he didn’t know if the women have a physical relationship, but Christine is obviously using sex to manipulate Isabelle.  When she gets the younger woman to say “I love you,” the impact is like a vampire biting its victim’s neck.

Love Crime is a mystery Hitchcock would have been proud of.  Sagnier even looks like a Hitchcock blonde as she gives what must be the widest-ranging female performance of the year, and possibly the best.

Lesbian or not, it would be a crime to miss this one.

— Steve Warren

Three stars.
Now playing at Landmark’s Magnolia Theatre.

 

—  Kevin Thomas

Sparkle, Sally Sparkles!

Dance instructor Michael Sharp works both sides of the footlights: As choreographer of real-girl pageants and as drag diva Sally

DON MAINES  | Contributing Writer donmaines@att.net

GAY TEXAS AMERICA
The Round-Up Saloon,
3912 Cedar Springs Road. Sept. 28–29 at 9 p.m.

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Some Texans who go overseas get homesick for football or barbecue or country music.

Michael Sharp missed beauty pageants.

While he danced for 2 1/2 years at the Tokyo Disney Resort in Japan, to give him a sense of home, Sharp’s mother sent him videos of all-girl pageants. “I became a big pageant fiend,” he laughs.

Sharp’s fascination grew to the point where he vowed to get involved in pageants when he returned to Texas — and on both sides of the footlights.

“When I got off the plane on July 7, 2006, I was already registered [as a contestant] for Miss Gay Dallas,” he says. “I had ordered all these things and there they were, stacked at my mama’s house: an evening gown, a ton of rhinestones, two separate wigs, makeup and boob pads lying on the bed.”

Sharp had also picked a name for his pageant-girl persona: Sally Sparkles, riffing on the nickname “Sally” given him by fellow dancers. “Then I thought of ‘Sparkles,’” he says. “It’s a word that’s not used enough, and it has a pretty connotation.”

His inaugural competition taught him a lot about the art of pageant drag.

Sharp — Sparkles — won the Miss Gay Dallas contest that year, but the state pageant “was definitely an eye-opener. Talk about being put in your place! I found out that little bitty hip pads weren’t going to do it. My boobs were too small, I needed more makeup and bigger hair.”

As horrible as Sharp remembers it being, Miss Sally Sparkles still placed ninth at the 2006 Miss Gay Texas.

But becoming a successful female impersonator was just half of his wish list. Next, he set out to make his other dream come true: Working behind the scenes on “real girl” pageants. While still in Japan, Sharp had e-mailed the Miss Texas Organization, which runs the Lone Star State preliminary to Miss America, offering to “do anything — be a boy dancer, choreograph, whatever they needed,” he says. The pageant’s response was to make Sharp the assistant to its choreographer, Sunni Cranfill, who had been Miss Texas 2003.

“That made me ecstatic!” says Sharp. Suddenly, he was working side-by-side with some of the beauties he had watched win their crowns, as well as a new line of lovelies vying for the coveted titles of Miss Texas and Miss America.

“Everything he touched became beautiful,” says Cranfill. “He is truly one of the most creative minds I have known.”

In his second year at Miss Texas, with Cranfill busy trying out for the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, Sharp was promoted to head choreographer. Drawing on his dance education at Stephen F. Austin University, his work as a dance captain in professional productions and his experience as a dance studio instructor (which is still his primary day job), Sharp created three of Miss Texas’ most memorable productions.

“They will give me the music and an idea of what they want on stage, and without knowing the dimensions of the stage I come up with something I know I can place in any situation,” Sharp explains.

“I have watched him turn a mess into something amazing,” Cranfill gushes.

WITHOUT THE GLAM Michael Sharp, in his usual dance instructor garb, is a far cry from the flash of Sally Sparkles. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

He’s worked his magic every year since. The 2008 pageant featured former titleholders performing “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago, with each larcenous character changed to a pageant girl sabotaging another contestant because “she had it coming.” In 2009, Sharp corralled a huge cast to recreate a USO show that spotlighted the tap-dancing talents of the reigning Miss Texas.

Earlier this summer, all 33 “miss” and all 35 “teen” contestants kicked off the show with an energetic Sharp dance number that tweaked Beyonce’s girl-power hit “Single Ladies” by crowing “If you liked it then you should have put a crown on it.” The show also gave Sharp the opportunity to work with dozens of former Miss Texas winners who returned for the pageant’s 75th anniversary, including honorary co-chairs Phyllis George and Shirley Cothran, two Texans who heard Bert Parks serenade them in Atlantic City as Miss America.

The best thing about that experience, says Sharp, was the brunch that George and Cothran hosted, at which each Miss Texas spoke about her reign.

“I took my Miss America lunch box and had Phyllis George sign it,” he beams.

On the heels of that inspirational moment, Michael Sharp hangs up his choreographer hat and dons a crown to become Sally Sparkles again. First, he hopes to perform as a former titleholder at the Miss Gay Texas America pageant, which takes place at the Round-Up Saloon in Dallas Sept. 28 and 29.

Then, with a qualifying finish at Miss Gay Heart of America in hand, Sally heads to Columbus, Ohio, to compete for the title of Miss Gay America next month. He feels like he has something to prove this time. Two years ago, Sharp finished 12th as Miss Gay Texas; last year, he topped out as third runner-up. The latter stung a bit.

“I thought, ‘You called my name too soon,’” he recalls. This year, he’s hoping to be crowned as L&T Entertainment’s national symbol of excellence in female impersonation.

“My goal is to go and do amazing,” says Sharp. “I really want it. But I lost last year. I could lose again.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens