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.