Bette Midler’s electrifying screen debut as “The Rose”

“The Rose” (1979)the-rose-5


 

[Rating 4/5]


Pros: performances, look

Cons: rather long

I am neither a big fan nor a detractor of “the divine Miss M” (Bette Midler). It took me a long time to watch her long movie debut (in the lead), the 1979 “The Rose,” directed by Mark Rydell. I knew that it was inspired by (as opposed to being based on) the self-destruction of Janis Joplin, and couldn’t imagine Miss M as Joplin. Midler is and was better looking than Joplin, a singer rather than a screamer, with a lower voice, and not a drug abuser


In the movie, Midler sports some Joplinesque costumes (and granny dark glasses), sings with more than usual soul (though I think it strange for a female vocalist to cover “When A Man Loves a Woman”). As for self-destructiveness, Midler acts. She was rewarded with an acting Golden Globe, an Oscar nomination, and a Grammy (for the title song). And she had onstage moves more reminiscent of Mick Jagger than of Janis Joplin.

It seems that half the movie is The Rose performing in various venues, including a drag club (with Sylvester among others), a Memphis country music bar, and a stadium. Midler has eleven musical numbers, some of them quite extended The concert scenes are very flashily photographed from multiple perspectives by an astonishing array of legendary cinematographers. In addition to DP Vilmos Zsigmond, Conrad Hall, Haskell Wexler, Lázsló Kovács, David Myers, Owen Roizman et al. were shooting, and though the movie’s cinematography was not Oscar-nominated, the editing by Robert Wold and Caroll O’Meara was, along with acting nominations for Midler as best actress and Frederic Forrest (at his peak: he was also a standout in “Apocalypse Now” in 1979). Forrest plays an AWOL army sergeant (ca. 1969, very much the era of Vietnam) working as a limo driver, who is shanghaied by the Rose, who beds him and adds him to her entourage.

From the first scene, in an office high above Manhattan, she says she wants to take a year off, and after she finds a man to love her for herself rather than as a rock star, it is her inability to stop getting audience adoration that drives him off, which sends her into her final tailspin in her native Memphis.


If there was a reference to Vietnam, I missed it, but she also dragoons another solider, played by David Keith, who also attempts to protect her, but does not seem to bed her.

I think “The Rose” is too long. In addition to the concert (etc.) videos, two scenes especially stand out. The Rose and her manager (Alan Bates, whose performance is more subtle and substantial than it seems through most of the movie) visit a singer-writer played by Harry Dean Stanton, some of whose songs the Rose has covered, with greater success than the original. She expects him to be appreciative, but he is not and shocks her by asking her not to cover any more of his songs. (In the interview on the Criterion Collection bonus disc, Midler recalls that she did not know what was coming in the scene and was taken aback, which is just what Rydell wanted.) The other is an incredibly bravura scene, both for lighting and for acting: the Rose is in a very brightly lit phone booth with a football practice field behind her. Practice ends and the lights back there are extinguished, but the lights on her falling apart in the phone booth become even more intense. (Zsigmond discusses this lighting in a long and somewhat slack half hour interview on the bonus disc, interviewed by John Bailey.)

The insecure star on the road, abusing alcohol and drugs, is a painful spectacle, and Midler mugs not at all in this movie. The Rose is only fully alive when onstage and rallies for an all-out performance of “Stay with Me,” when she should be in a hospital (her manager implores her to go there rather than onstage).


rose

I haven’t listened to the commentary track, but appreciated the new interviews of Midler, Rydell, and Zsigmond, plus a 1979 one of Midler by Gene Shalit, and some production footage narrated by Tom Brokaw from the Today Show, ca. 1978. From a discerning inset essay by Paula Mejia, I learned that the stadium (supposedly in Memphis) for the Rose’s homecoming concert was in Long Beach and the indoor theater scenes were filmed in LA’s Wiltern Theater. From Rydell’s interview and Meijia’s essay, I was reminded that Midler had a fraught relationship with her star-making agent, Aaron Russo (evoked by naming the Rose’s manager Rudge, I’m pretty sure.)

 


Being a Criterion release, the movie looks great. I’m astonished that the work of Zsigmond et al. did not receive an Oscar nomination (I can see Vittorio Storaro’s claim for “Apocalypse Now,” but nominations for “1941” and “The Black Hole”?)

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