Taste has no system and no proofs.
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"
The YouTube gods have smiled on us, bestowing this chance to view in its entirety the great lady's 1977 television special, Ol' Red Hair is Back. From the moment the star appears right on through to the raucous finale, I'm guessing that this was the gayest hour to ever appear as a national broadcast until that moment (certain highlights of The Judy Garland Show possibly excepted).
She opens as she means to go on, appearing in her then-trademark clamshell to deconstruct one of Middle America's sacred cows, a Rodgers and Hammerstein anthem. The whole thing reminds me of a cartoon that appeared around the same time in the late lamented literary journal Christopher Street: a pair of producer types in a theatre, silhouetted against a vast stage holding a massive Western-themed production number, with a pair of embracing cowboys poised atop the staircase where, classically, the star showgirl would have appeared. The caption? "We're going to call it Oklahomosexual!"
This hour, in a sense, marks the end of the first phase of Midler's career. Within a few years she would be a movie star, and while she always retained bits of the shtick and songs she used from her earliest days in cabarets and at the Continental Baths, she struck out into new territory, dabbling in New Wave for her next big special Art or Bust and concentrating more on establishing herself, never quite successfully, as a rock diva than on the goofy, retro antics that dominate here. As always, though, she can turn on a dime, demonstrating just how fine the line between comedy and, if not tragedy, then at least melodrama really is.
And today she is 68. Ponder that, and how the world has changed since 1977, and enjoy.