This is a movie that no-one seems to take seriously or respect, yet apart from the occasional amateur ‘critic’ with a blanket hatred of chick flicks, no-one ever seems to suggest that it’s actually a bad movie. Actually, as the Pop-oriented movie musicals of the Seventies and Eighties go, it’s definitely one of the better ones, not on the level of Saturday Night Fever or Grease, admittedly, but still far better than the vast majority of that genre.
The film’s emotional content is admittedly bathos, but it’s effective, capably-written bathos, and that kind of thing certainly has its place. The dialogue is smart enough to keep the sentimentality from ever getting embarrassing, and the characters are surprisingly realistically drawn, swinging between sympathetic and unsympathetic actions the way real people undeniably do.
It also helps that the film has two classy and nuanced lead performers who can make the flaws of these often unpleasant people make them seem complex rather than unlikable. Barbara Hershey plays the prim, sometimes sanctimonious, but ultimately loving Hillary Whitney with a combination of poise and genuine feeling. She makes the character’s love for her friend and her daughter seem real enough to make us sympathize with her position in spite of the many times throughout the movie the audience wants to slap her.
Bette Midler is kind of playing herself to a degree here…this certainly isn’t the kind of acting portrayal she offered in The Rose or Gypsy. But Bette Midler as herself is right for this character, and she can certainly emote convincingly when she’s called on to do so. The character really is a kind of fictionalized version of Midler’s own life, which explains why she is so oddly convincing in the role despite having given much better acting performances elsewhere. A very young Mayim Bialik is also impressively convincing playing a child version of Midler, which couldn’t have been easy.
And of course, Midler’s sung portions practically carry the film all on their own. From the opening rendition of “Under the Boardwalk”, to a snazzy, tossed-off “I’ve Still Got My Health” at a dive nightclub, to a tender “Baby Mine”, to a deeply sorrowful rendition of “I Think It’s It’s Going to Rain Today”, all the way into the final, deeply felt reprise of “The Glory of Love”, Midler’s performances musicalize the story’s action as intensely as a theater score. Even the famously cloying “Wind Beneath My Wings” works much better when heard as part of the film than it did as a standalone Pop tune. This model isn’t new…it was first pioneered by Saturday Night Fever over a decade earlier…but it’s tricky to pull off (hence the fact that most of the movies that tried it are failures), and Beaches deserves genuine credit for managing to make it work so well.
Midler also gets two full-scale theatrical numbers, both over-the-top parodies of different kinds of theatrical excess. The first, “Oh Industry”, lampoons the pretentions of off-Broadway avant-garde theater with faceless chorus men and a lyric full of apocalyptic imagery. The second, “Otto Titsling” is a raucous spoof of Broadway at its most vulgar, telling a comical version of the story of how the first bra was invented, and ironically is far more relevant to current Broadway than that of its actual period. These numbers don’t have the class and subtlety you get from a Sondheim show…they are definitely parodies, not pastiches…but they are both quite funny and are actually fairly decent songs underneath the goofy staging.
But above all, this film succeeds because it actually makes you believe in the friendship and love between these two women. Maybe the film is a saccharine, melodramatic potboiler that overplays its emotional cards, but it works. It’s a ‘genre’ movie, the kind that is targeted at a specific demographic and is generally scorned by film snobs, but it’s an exceptionally well-made one, which is why, despite its general lack of respect in the mainstream, enthusiasts of the ‘chick flick’ genre consider it to be one of that genre’s classics.
I get that this movie isn’t a masterpiece of high art, but the film is never boring, never gets unpleasant enough to be truly hard to watch, and say what you will, it pushes those emotional buttons. You may wind up feeling you were cheated into feeling what you felt, but there is no doubt that you will feel it. Of course, if you’re either a soulless snob who thinks emotional content is an artistic flaw, or a sufficiently shallow person who can only be entertained by big explosions, you may actually be immune to this movie’s undeniable dramatic punch, but if you’re really that kind of person, I don’t particularly care about your opinion anyway. For the rest of you, this may not be a great movie, but it is unquestionably a good one, and is certainly worth sitting through at least once.