“Beaches” is a very depressing movie, though I’m sure on paper it looked more heartwarming. For one thing, only a minority of scenes actually take place on the beach. We begin with Bette Midler getting a call in the middle of singing rehearsal from her lifelong friend, played by Barbara Hershey, and then there’s a flashback to when young Bette (played with pizazz by Mayim “Blossom” Bialik) and young Barbara (Marcie Leeds) meet cute (but not too cutesy) when they are eleven and on vacation. Mayim is a cocky budding child star, and the admiring Marcie winds up accompanying her to an impromptu audition for a talent show. She doesn’t get the part, but the two decide to become pen pals. They then grow up rapidly, until they turn into their adult counterparts. At this point, the movie takes on the quality of a soggy soufflé, and if you continue to watch it to the end, other things will also get soggy, including your refreshments and your Kleenex.
While Bette chooses to Follow Her Dream and become a torch singer, Barbara turns into the perfect society wife. When the two finally meet up again, Bette has a role in an off-off Broadway musical about the invention of the brassiere (really), and when Barbara watches it, her WASP sensibilities are badly shaken, but she tries to be supportive. Alas, her repressed jealousy that her friend is leading a more exciting life than she is cannot be fully camouflaged, and the two “friends” wind up having an epic fight in a department store, the only amusing part of which is when a saleslady asks if she can be of service. Fortunately, Barbara discovers her husband is cheating and that she is pregnant, providing a reason to make up without losing much face. Unfortunately, however, there is a much less joyful reason for the women to bond in the near future.
I went for years assuming Barbara here had developed some form of movie cancer – in which the patient usually looks pretty good, despite undergoing chemo, and in which the really unpleasant parts of illness happen off screen, but as it happens, she has some heart problem, and has waited too long to seek effective treatment. By this time, the child is born, and it’s adorable little smart-mouthed girl. The two friends return to their vacation spot, but since Barbara is dying, there is a cloud over things. As she progresses through the stages of denial, anger and acceptance, things get grimmer and grimmer until the tragedy happens. At the funeral, Bette belts out “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and eventually adopts the kid, since dad is no longer anywhere in the picture. And that’s that.
“Beaches” has most of the surefire chick movie ingredients, and has some genuinely moving moments, but there are way too many scenes where the characters snipe at each other, and you find yourself thinking that permanent estrangement would not be a bad idea. However, if you want to watch something that will have you sniffling at the end, this is perfect. To paraphrase a quote from “Field of Dreams,” the filmmakers must have been told, “If you make it, they will come – and cry.”