Oscar History

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1979 Look Back: Bette Midler and "The Rose"

By 1979 Bette Midler was already a star. She had a Grammy (Best New Artist), an Emmy (for her televison special Ol' Red Hair is Back), and a Special Tony award for "adding lustre to the Broadway stage". (She performed in a show called Bette Midler's Clams on the Half Shell Revue). Naturally the next entertainment medium to conquer was film and become an inevitable movie star as well. Despite uncredited small parts (including 1966's Hawaii, which filmed in her home state) and underground film, Midler made her official film debut as a lead with her electrifying performance as a troubled rocker in The Rose - which, of course, brought her a Best Actress nomination, a Golden Globe, and a film career to add to her impressive résumé.   

The film earned a total of four Academy Award nominations (Midler plus Best Supporting Actor for Frederic Forrest, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing). Just recently the film scored another honor when it was released through the prestigious Criterion Collection. In addition to a gorgeous restoration (I had previously only seen the film on grainy VHS and I was amazed at how sharp and bright the colors are - especially during the stage numbers), there are new interviews with Bette Midler, director Mark Rydell, as well as archival footage from a day of shooting that aired on the Today show.


There's also an old 1979 interview between Midler and Gene Shalit. I was surprised how honest Midler was in her interview with Shalit. A large part of what defines her character in the film is self-destructive behavior and addiction to drugs and alcohol. Shalit asks about Midler's own relationship to drugs and she answers that it was never part of her own character, but then admits that she has done them (apparently she doesn't do cocaine because it makes her sneeze) and then recounts a concert she once did high and deciding that it was too much too handle - and that was the last time she would do it.

Despite not sharing Rose's love for hard drugs, Midler had a large hand in shaping the role and infusing it with elements of her own life. Originally intended as a biopic of the late Janis Joplin (who was nicknamed "Pearl"), Midler didn't want to play the real life singer as she didn't really look or sound like her and also felt it was too soon to delve deeply in to Joplin's life so soon after her death. So elements of Joplin were incorporated into the script without turning it into an actual biopic. In both the old and new interviews,  Midler expresses her love for R&B music and how she wanted to incorporate the soul and spirit of it with the way Rose sang. Certain aspects of Midler's own career also pop up in the film as when she visits a New York City bathhouse searching for Forrest's Dyer. It was a venue just like that one, at the Continental Baths, that launched her career. (She even paid homage to her roots with a later album titled "Batthouse Betty"). Her work in the baths lead to a gay following which is also touched upon in the film when Rose and Dyer visit a gay bar and a drag queen impersonates Rose.

It's that perfect fusion of performer and character that have made The Rose endure. Honestly, the film as a whole tends to ramble a little too much and with no real plot the scenes start feeling repetitive. If the film succeeds at all it is because of Bette Midler's live-wire performance. Without her Rose there would be no film. With seemingly boundless amounts of energy, Midler stalks across the stage in musical numbers. She's abrasive: sweating, screaming, swearing, but emotionally raw like an exposed nerve ending. Her off stage persona is just as large - at one point Dyer equates her life to a grenade. But, just when you fear that the screen can't quite contain all of what she's giving, Midler brings it down; she just as effectively breaks your heart with vulnerability in an intimate phone conversation she has with her mother while under the influence. Despite Rose's stardom and success, she is really just a little girl lost, still seeking her parents' approval and love.

Since we're mentioning love, we'd be remiss not to revist the haunting title track that took on a life of its own outside the film. Although it won the Golden Globe for Best Song, it was deemed ineligible by the Academy because it had not been originally written for the film (even though it had never been recorded previously). But even without an Oscar, the song was still a huge success winning Midler her second Grammy (Best Female Pop Vocal Performance), and selling over a million copies in the United States. "The Rose" spent 5 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts. Although the film is filled with hard-rocking numbers and lives by a philosophy of Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, it's this tender, aching ballad playing over the credits that gets at the heart of Bette Midler's Rose.

A little while back, my brother told me that he was flipping through the radio stations and when he came across a song, my 4 year old nephew told him to stop. My brother asked if he liked it and my nephew told him that it was pretty but sad. Knowing my love of Bette Midler, my brother told me this story because the song was "The Rose". Decades after Midler recorded it, it's still reaching out to people. (And once those harmonies start, it is impossible to resist.) So simplistic in its purity and emotionally accessible enough that even a child can recognize it.    

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Reader Comments (17)

Bette Midler is one of my all-time favorites, and I really wish she had an Oscar. I think she's phenomenal in this movie.

May 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Bette is a v underrated actress,i thought she was gr8 in For The Boys but the old age make up was phony and I know she was upset about it flopping.

May 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMARK

An Honorary Oscar seems appropriate for Midler.

May 30, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I saw The Rose on TV months after I have rented Ruthless People and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. It blew my mind. I bought the soundtrack the very next day. I'm a diehard fan since that day.

When I'm feeling low I go to YouTube and type 'Bette Midler TV-appearances'. She always makes me smile. When she sings she can also be devastating. Listen to 'Hello in There' or 'Martha' and you will know what I mean.

May 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I've seen Bette in concert a few times (although I missed her show here in LA this week) and she is truly one of the great entertainers of her generation, which always makes me wonder why she's never hosted the Oscars.

She was very smart not to do The Rose as a Janis biopic, something Diana Ross (and her team) should have considered when making Lady Sings the Blues.

May 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I saw this on original release, since was a big hit the theatre was packed. While I agree that the film rambles a bit Bette tears it up as Rose and both Fredric Forrest and Alan Bates provide solid support. I have it on DVD but would love to see the Criterion restoration. I still think Sally Field deserved to win the Oscar that year but I wouldn't have been upset by a tie between the two.

May 30, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

This movie is amazing, Bette is amazing in it and the title song is just so haunting and brilliant. I get goosebumps whenever it comes on my iPod. I also love how Seth MacFarlane managed to inject it into an episode of Family Guy when Peter, Lois, Brian, Chris and Meg go on a road trip.


May 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBhuray

That one scene Bette Midler has with Harry Dean Stanton in that movie might be one of my favorite scenes of two actors sharing the screen ever.

May 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMrW

Does anyone remember her "Inside the Actors Studio?" She claims that after "The Rose", she couldn't get a job (and that's why she eventually did "Ruthless People").

May 31, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

Reading this just made me realize how much Bette Midler defined the type of actressing I gravitate to.

May 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

I didn't like the movie (too long, and yes, repetitive), but gosh, how great Midler was in it (I still think Field deserved her Oscar though). It also made me think that I would love to see Midler in couple more dramas. Too bad she's basically not acting anymore and after The First Wives she didn't make anything memorable in acting.
And that song, it's just perfect. I've heard many covers, but no one sings it better than Midler in its original version.

May 31, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterzordon

Why no comments about the songs besides "The Rose"? , what about her rendition of When a man loves a woman or Stay with me?

May 31, 2015 | Unregistered Commentermagicub

I still remember her scene in the phone booth. Devastating.

May 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Bhuray - I never saw that Family Guy clip! That was amazing. Thanks for sharing.

Midler was my first actressexual crush (along with Whoopi Goldberg - not sure which came first) and I loved her in this. So raw, so vulnerable, so sexual. I'm bummed she lost the Oscar but in all fairness I haven't seen Norma Rae yet. And yes, that phone booth scene, ugh. So heartbreaking.

June 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

OMG DJ!!! We are one in the same! Bette Midler and Whoopi Goldeberg are like my two idols. Lol

June 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Philip H. - Ha! That's great. I think the first time I watched the Oscars was when Whoopi won for Ghost, which for some reason my parents let me see even though I was only 9 or 10. When they called her name my mom and I cheered because we loved her so much in the movie.

June 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

The soundtrack is brilliant, if a little short. They could have included numbers from the nightclub scene near the end where she sang, "Love Me With a Feeling." As well as a couple more. But the first side through the end of the second side, the soundtrack is really, really good. The musicians were top of the line for the time. It seems no expense was spared as this is a big lush Hollywood spectacle.

July 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJohannes Bols

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