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FOR THE last half-hour of Garry Marshall's "Beaches," the sound of audience sobbing and nose blowing may resemble the gathering roar of Niagara. If there's a dry eye in the house, it probably belongs to a potato (or a human being who's a reasonable potato facsimile).

It's an old-fashioned women's picture, wiseguy division. One heroine is named C. C. Bloom, comes from the Bronx and has nothing to her name but talent and pluck. The other is named Hilary Something-or-other, comes from San Francisco and has money, beauty, position, and just about everything else. One of them dies at the end -- not suddenly but at suitable duct-squeezing length.

There are two kinds of weepies in the world -- the cheap and gratuitous kind and the honorable kind that wallows soapily in misery and pluck. The latter is what this splendid Bette Midler -- Barbara Hershey cornfest is. It wears its plastic heart on its sleeve knowing full well that the industrial strength weepy will always be in fashion.

It marks the zenith, thus far, in the domestication of Bette Midler -- the process by which a. . uh. . cult performer in the New York City bathhouses has turned into a beloved American showbiz figure like, say, George Burns or Ronald Reagan. Though I'm sure there are those to this day who wail and bemoan the mainstreaming of Midler, it wasn't a bad idea at all, it seems to me. She's good at being mainstreamed. She's always been too outrageous to stay with the bathhouses and the Peter Allen crowd.

Midler was one of the producers of this film. What lifts this up to the three-hanky level is a full narcissistic blast of Midler's verve and more than a few references to her very real biography. Old Midler numbers and biographical bits are smuggled in out of nowhere (of particular pleasure to film types is the fictional replay of her experience making the junk movie "Jinxed" with veteran director Don Siegel).

Midler plays C. C., who starts out life as a profane and disreputable little megalomaniac from the Bronx, a kid who was practically born in a trunk. She's a natural performer through and through, a demanding little extrovert whose very chromosomes have tap shoes on them.

Lainie Kazan plays her mother. We're talking great casting here. Even better is young actress Mayim Bialik who plays Midler at age 11.

On the Atlantic City boardwalk, C. C. meets precious and privileged little princess Hilary from Frisco. They become friends, spend their teen years corresponding and meet up in New York in their footloose 20s.

Hilary (Hershey, with weird but sexy collagen implants in her lips) has become an idealistic storefront lawyer. C. C. hustles her singing talent everywhere she can -- even door to door in a bunny costume.

Life goes on. Hilary marries a no-good upper class stuffed shirt and has a baby daughter. C. C. marries a charming director and has a skyrocketing career. (She slaps his face during their wedding. "This is the happiest moment of my life," she tells him, "and I want you never to forget it.")

You've seen this four million times before but not with Midler wisecracking and singing and shaking her way through a whole movie -- or with Hershey as a pulp vision of monied beauty. Obviously, this movie is dependent on the kind of stereotypical unreality which has become the common substance of both television and the ordinary Broadway play.

It's directed by sitcom maestro Garry Marshall who has done shameless but otherwise interesting work in the movies -- "The Flamingo Kid," "Nothing in Common."

The only rotten part of it all is the score by George Delerue. Unfortunately, all too many movies these days seem to be made with drippy, lachrymose, wimpy musical scores. Knowing how to write music for a film like this -- or even "The Accidental Tourist" -- seems to be a lost art.

Rated R and opening today in the University, Thruway, McKinley and Summitt Mall Theaters.

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