Bette Midler proved a more than suitable fill-in for Emily Blunt (or Julie Andrews) as she informally inherited the role of Mary Poppins for a performance of the nominated song “The Place Where Lost Things Go” at the Academy Awards Sunday night — although no one would mistake her cleavage-baring dress for a nanny’s uniform.
Midler adopted a colorful look, in contrast to the somberness of the ballad, which was written for a scene in which Mary Poppins finds a metaphor to talk to children about their mother’s death. The inherent warmth in her voice made her a solid choice for the gig … as did her previous experience with the song’s co-writer, Marc Shaiman, who accompanied her on piano.
Blunt was one of two performers of nominees for best original song who couldn’t or wouldn’t perform on the Oscars, the other being Kendrick Lamar and SZA, who didn’t make themselves available to sing “All the Star” from “Black Panther.” In Blunt’s case, rumor had it that, not usually being a singer, she didn’t want to subject herself to a live performance on the telecast, even though songwriters Shaiman and Wittman said the actress has perfect pitch. In any case, a substitute was needed, and it wasn’t a huge surprise that the task fell to Midler. Her collaborations with Shaiman go at least as far back as the memorable serenade she gave Johnny Carson in the final week of his “Tonight Show” hosting duties).
Shaiman and Wittman had been aghast at the idea that their song was set to be cut with the Oscars, along with the nominated tunes from “RBG” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” They’ve credited Lady Gaga for standing up for the songs that were destined to be axed. In the end, Midler substituting for Blunt provided an extra publicity bonus that couldn’t have hurt, even if it made the show run three minutes longer.