A Look Back: Beaches

Ideally, a movie title should tell you something important about its theme and plot. Well, “Beaches,” which came out in 1988, is the place where the two lead characters (Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey meet and form a lifelong friendship, but if you’re hoping for a lot of time in the sand and sun, you’ll be disappointed. Only a minority of the overall scenes are shot on a beach; the rest take place in less fun places like apartments, shopping malls, recording studios and hospitals. The last is because (spoiler alert) one of the characters (Barbara) develops a terminal illness which, even though she is beautifully choreographed during her chemotherapy treatment, and Bette sings an inspiring song about their friendship, she winds up dead. This is not so much a five-star movie as a five-Kleenex box movie, which makes it an ideal “chick flick.” Directed by the late Garry Marshall, it is also the only chick flick to boast a musical about the origin of the brassiere (more on that later).

“Beaches” begins with what I’ve always considered an Oscar-caliber performance by Mayim “Blossom” Bialik as Young Bette as she meets Young Barbara (Marcie Leeds) for the first time at the Jersey Shore and auditions for a children’s talent show. The two wind up having to part rather suddenly when Marcie’s aunt notices that she’s gone missing and tracks her down, but they promise to be pen pals when their vacation is over. Rather quickly, Mayim grows up to be Bette, the “brassy” one and an aspiring torch singer, while Marcie turns into Barbara, the “classy” one who wants to be a lawyer but instead winds up in a traditional marriage. The two reunite as adults, and are thrilled to see each other, but also turn out to have jealousy and insecurity based on the fact that the other friend seems to be having the more enviable life.

Barbara’s main drama (before she gets sick) is that she discovers her husband is having an affair while she is pregnant, and she no longer wants to raise her would-be daughter (Grace Johnston) with him, but Bette steps in to support her decision to be a single mom. When Barbara does travel to New York to meet her adult friend for the first time, she winds up attending a musical in which Bette performs a bawdy song about the invention of the bra. This is the part in the movie I always imagine, was put in to entertain all the audience members who nobly agreed to sit through it, despite private qualms. After the musical, Bette and Barbara wind up going shopping, where they have a huge public fight – but luckily, Barbara soon gets the major bad news, so they make up, and take Grace on vacation to the Jersey Shore for lots of bonding opportunities.

The end is, of course, heartbreaking, especially the part where Bette asks Grace if she’d like to live with her, and Grace asks if it’s okay if she brings her cat – if you’re into the movie and not just patiently enduring it, that’s probably the scene that will turn the waterworks from mere tears to gushing rivers that completely obliterate your makeup. But you can’t have friendship without pain and loss, and as the soundtrack puts it more than once, “That’s the story of/ That’s the glory/ Of love.”




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