Bette Midler brought every last drop of blood, sweat and tears to her quasi-Janis Joplin-esque performance in Mark Rydell’s The Rose (1979); a tragi-drama owing much more to the concert venue documentary than the traditional Hollywood musical. Midler’s iconoclastic turn as the crude and burnt out rocker, Mary Rose Foster, a recovering drug abuser and chronic alcoholic on the verge of a nervous breakdown, became her signature and calling card to the movies; an electric debut, imbued with all the raw intensity for this seedy backstage pass into the world of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. In many ways, The Rose is a painful film to get through because, like most showbiz yarns, it reeks of more truth than the general public is willing to allow these deified creatures, thus anointed as ‘stars’. Stardom is, of course, a myth; the sacrificing of a quiet, private life for the intangible and oft’ aberrant allotment of fame and fortune at the expense of the fundamental human necessity to belong; anchored to a place and perhaps even someone to love (and be loved in return), is a heady ascendancy to which many thirst for, few are called, and fewer still survive without the inevitable heartaches and self-destructive behaviors; The Rose is perhaps the truest depiction of that alternative universe the layman daydreams about, only because he/she knows virtually nothing of its nightmarish insidiousness and manipulative perversity by which all the seemingly effortless glamor and adulation are wrought.
Midler knows something of this milieu, being a seasoned stage performer for almost fifteen years by the time she was cast in The Rose. Director, Mark Rydell had seen her live concerts – an infectious blend of comedy and song, and was convinced from the outset she would be ideal for the project he was planning; then, very much a biopic of the late Janis Joplin entitled, ‘Pearl’. Approaching Midler’s agent/lover, Aaron Russo to pitch the script, Midler was not immediately drawn to the project. She had, after all, been a Joplin devotee and felt the screenplay by Bo Kirby veered too far away from homage into a tabloid-esque exposé. Rydell did some fast talking. But only after he agreed to alter the premise to a wholly fictional character did Midler slowly begin warming to the idea. The Rose does, in fact, capture and bottle the essence of that late 70’s travelling caravan; Vilmos Zsigmond’s lurid cinematography bathing Midler’s gangly and conflicted heroine in gaudy and over-saturated hues. Costume designer, Theoni V. Aldredge clothes Midler in an array of form-fitting and flowing pinkish/mauve chiffon and sequins, trailing behind Mary Rose like the flaming tail fires off an F/A-18 Hornet. There is something to this parallel; Midler’s inability to embrace any relationship that might, in fact, be good for her, stinging virtually any chance for a genuine lover to leave his mark on her already incredibly scarred remains.
Midler’s staggering star quality is evident in virtually every frame. Moreover, she lets the pain show; drenched in heart-palpitating beads of frantic sweat and exhaustive tracks of mascara-streaking tears as she screeches and staggers through her penultimate farewell, ‘Stay With Me’ or romps about the proscenium with an infectiously inspired jaunt a la Mick Jagger during ‘Midnight in Memphis’ – a rock anthem if ever there was one. Here is a creature so ruled by the spontaneous blaze of her own emotions she is bound to have her heart burst or, predictably, be repeatedly broken. Beneath her raunchy façade, however, is a fragile flower; a lost little girl, aged and frightened beyond her years, desperate to please, yet determined to strike a blow for her own independence from a tyrannical manager, Rudge Campbell (Alan Bates), whose sole interest in her is as a lucrative meal ticket. Bates is superb as this cutthroat, greedy and manipulative wrangler; a bottom feeder, constantly exploiting Rose for PR junkets and the all-important, juicy little sound bite that will further her career – and thus, fatten his own pockets.
Few movies before The Rose even hint at the darker side of celebrity; George Cukor’s 1954 classic, A Star is Born, and later, Ronald Neame’s I Could Go On Singing (1966, and ironically both starring Judy Garland) probably the most obvious and frank examples to date. Transferring the ambiance from the mecca of starlit movie-land to this ever-shifting nomadic existence of a concert-touring rock diva, lends an air of disquieting loneliness to the story, essential to Rydell’s illustration of just how isolated and friendless fame and fortune can be. Here is an inescapable purgatory with its preference of lovers to husbands and hotel rooms to any sort of stable home life running against the grain and sanctity of self-preservation. Life itself – apart from the few hours Rose spends on stage, being adored by the nameless fans – really does not amount to much beyond a good belch of booze and ashtrays full of cigarette butts. If we are to believe as much, as decidedly Rydell and Midler want us to, then to be beloved by the masses is a hell populated by sycophants.
If only for this revelation, The Rose would already be a very depressing movie, except Rydell interpolates his perilous and oft’ reviling drama with examples of Midler’s kinetic staying power and stage presence; bringing the writhing/cheering audiences to their knees with one incredible musical performance after another; the arc of this concert repertoire beginning with two roof-rattling behemoths; ‘Whose Side are You On’ and ‘Midnight in Memphis’, before effortlessly segueing into the rock/pop standard, ‘When A Man Loves a Woman’ and then, blowing apart Gene Pistelli’s prophetic and foreshadowing, ‘Sold My Soul to Rock n’ Roll’ with all the brutalizing precision of a skilled machine-gunning sniper. Midler, whose vocal range is, frankly, limited, nevertheless, manages to convey the sheer energy and fortitude necessary to sell these songs as earthy and earnest odes to a childhood her Mary Rose probably has never experienced.
If would make sense too, the runaway from an unsatisfactory home life, growing up dirt poor and/or abused; except, Rydell gives us glimpses into Rose’s past; her parents (Doris Roberts and Sandy Ward) a pair of nondescripts from the milquetoast middle-class, eager to embrace the return of their beloved daughter, come to Florida for a concert gig, but denied an actual face-to-face reunion. Instead, Rydell gives us one of the most heartrending cries for help ever put on the screen; Rose, drunk and despondent, returning to the empty bleachers of her old high school where, so it is suggested, she either was raped or indulged in a semi-lucid/semi-consensual, drug-induced orgy with the senior football team; locking herself in a nearby phone booth and feigning happiness for the benefit of her mother and father, while preparing to take the drug overdose that will ultimately put a period to her life and career.
It is a moment of epic pathos, Midler’s ability to convey the lie so convincingly in her trembling voice, even as we are witness to the monumental agony in those careworn eyes. The Rose is uncharacteristically revealing throughout and almost from its prologue as a mildly inebriated Rose exits her private jet, stumbling and clutching a bottle of cheap wine destined to smash against the tarmac. By all accounts, here is a pathetic creature whose inner resolve is already severely depleted. And yet, her first appearance, a half-crooked smile barely emerging from beneath her general bewilderment, elicits a very sly grin from manager, Rudge, who is waiting with a limo nearby. Perhaps he instinctively knows there is still a little left to squeeze out of Rose for another round of bookings. We cut to a penthouse apartment high above the city of Manhattan with Central Park looming majestically in the background. Rose and Rudge lock horns; presumably, not for the first (and certainly not the last) time. Rose desperately wants to take a year off – the kiss of death, signaling an end to most any performer’s career.
Rudge, of course, will not allow Rose to entertain the notion for even more obvious reasons; because it will impact his cash flow. He reminds Rose of her contractual obligations. But she points to the fact she has not stopped working in over two years; that her private life has become a drunken blur of one night play dates and cheap hotel rooms, and her prospects for falling in love with someone who genuinely loves her are practically nonexistent. Rudge responds with his own manipulative slate of reasons why removing herself from the spotlight at the height of her popularity for twelve months will ruin the ‘good thing’ they have both striven so hard to secure. He reminds Rose of her unflattering past; a strung out junkie with little unvarnished talent when they met. It was he who pulled Rose from the gutter and trained her to become the powerhouse singer presently adored by millions. He is responsible for molding her style and generating her success. It can all be taken away from Rose too, and then, where will she be?
Fear and self-loathing persist and Rose, lamentably, trudges onward, pouring every last ounce of herself into her music; the fans lapping it up wherever she performs. After one such exhaustive venue, Rudge hurries Rose into a helicopter for a rendezvous with country/western singer, Billy Ray (Harry Dean Stanton); whose original covers she has performed at several of her sold out concerts. Rudge has wheedled Rose into accepting this invite under the false pretense Billy Ray is as enamored with her as she has been with him for so many years. Alas, Ray is cruel in his admonishment of Rose; telling her he would appreciate it if she immediately ceased performing ‘his’ music because she lacks a thorough understanding of what his lyrics mean. Furthermore, he considers her little more than a crass and commercialized pop tart with little staying power and even less class; just a flash in the pan who has bastardized his music to further her own career.
Rose is wounded, storming out on Rudge and ordering a nearby limo driver, Huston Dyer (Frederic Forrest) to drive her anywhere. She hurls wads of rolled up bills at Huston to convince him to accept her demand. He acquiesces, partly for the money, but moreover, because he immediately recognizes her as ‘the Rose’ and, being a fan, feels obliged to accommodate her. However, it does not take Huston long to recognize Rose is in trouble and emotionally distraught. After all, he’s just a good ole boy from Texas, transplanted to the wilds of Manhattan; Rose’s predicament appealing to his chivalrous side. She finds his company comforting, electing to go on an all-night prowl that culminates in their crashing a drag club near the meat-packing district; presumably, a venue Rose played when she was on her way up the artistic food chain. The drag artists surround and embrace her, encouraging Rose to accompany them on the stage; the audience going wild and Huston thoroughly enjoying himself. Afterward, Huston and Rose wind up in her bed at the Ritz; Rose completely forgetting she was supposed to be at the recording studio at the break of dawn to cut a new record.
Upon her very late arrival at the studio, Rose discovers only Rudge waiting for her inside. He is fuming and admonishes Rose for her inability to grasp the importance of punctuality and commitments. Rudge and Huston get into a verbal skirmish and Rose tells Huston off. He storms off, but Rose pursues him into an all-male Turkish bathhouse. She is arrested and taken to the police station; Rudge arriving to bail her out. He is enraged, but recognizes something in Rose has changed because of Huston. Yes, Huston just might be the right man to ‘handle’ Rose’s love life, taking the onus off Rudge. So, Huston becomes part of the band’s entourage. He confides in Rose he is AWOL from the army and in constant fear of being sent back. While their plane is fogged in at the airport, Rose picks up another military man, Pfc. Mal (David Keith), whom she has Rudge hire as her personal bodyguard. On board Rose’s private jet bound for their next concert, Rudge confides in Huston he will now be expected to manage Rose; to see she is kept ‘satisfied’ in her private affairs; thus, encouraged to tow the line professionally. At present, Rose is stirred by the soft guitar vamping of one of her band members; warbling a few lyrics to accompany the melody before bursting into tears. Her life is out of control and she is a mess. Managing ‘the Rose’ will not be an easy endeavor.
Huston discovers just how rough the road ahead will likely be when he is introduced to Sarah Willingham (Sandra McCabe); Rose’s waspish ex-lesbian lover. Previously, Rose had confided to Huston how she was ‘taken advantage’ of by her high school football team. For Huston, the past matters not an iota. Sarah, however, is another matter entirely; particularly when she reappears in their hotel room and attempts to seduce Rose at one of her most vulnerable moments. Huston leaves Rose in a huff and Rudge seizes upon this opportunity to plunge his star into a breakneck series of concert dates to culminate with a ‘homecoming’ concert in her native Florida. Rose is reluctant to go home. After all, she left Florida under an ambiguous cloud of regrets; also, to escape her middle-class upbringing. While preparing for the ‘homecoming’ concert, Rose informs Rudge this will be her last performance as she has finally decided to take a year off. In reply, Rudge pulls the plug on the concert planned for that very evening, saying to Rose if he cannot manage her career he has absolutely no quam about destroying it right now. He fires Rose on the spot and casually struts off toward his trailer. It is, of course, a bluff; Rudge knowing damn well Rose will not throw away her life’s work even to regain her own freedom.
However, in chasing after Rudge, Rose is inadvertently reunited with Huston who confesses he simply could not stay away. He offers Rose a chance to escape her grueling artist’s life for good; suggesting they take off to Mexico and live off her earnings until a decision can be made about the next step in their lives together. It all sounds wonderful to Rose; except that along the highway to freedom she elects to have Huston stop at an old honkytonk where she first started singing for money. The bartender, Sam (James Keane) immediately recognizes her and celebrates her return with a round of drinks on the house. Rose’s old drug supplier (Harry Northup) offers her some premium quality pills for old time’s sake. And although Rose informs him she no longer is an addict, she nevertheless accepts the pills. Alas, Milledge (John Dennis Johnson), one of the football players who took advantage of Rose long ago, is also present, shouting crude insults at her, causing Huston’s blind chivalry to spring into action. A fist fight ensues and Rose accuses Huston of ruining everything. Huston has had quite enough. He leaves Rose and the car at the honkytonk, thumbing a ride with a trucker to parts unknown.
Untethered from the last possible man who might have helped her ease into a more quiet and normal life, Rose waffles; driving to her old high school and parking near the bleachers. She telephones her parents; in hindsight, a sad goodbye that neither grasps as such; then, swallows a handful of pills before telephoning Rudge to come and get her. Unaware she has taken the narcotics, Rudge ushers Rose to the stage, pushing her into the spotlight for the last time. She performs at full octane the riveting, ‘Stay With Me’ – a plea for sanity in an impossibly insane world not entirely of her own design. The crowd is electrified. But only moments later, Rose, tear-stained and fading fast, stumbles back from the microphone, declaring ‘Where is everybody?’ before suddenly collapsing. We regress to the movie’s prologue; Rose’s parents, along with a reporter and Mal, entering the private shrine of photographic memories they have made in their suburban garage, dedicated to their beloved Rose.
The Rose is a blistering and unrefined masterpiece; chiefly, in typifying the senselessness and lunacy of a rock star’s behind-the-scenes lifestyle. For nearly a century, the mask of stardom has made the layman aware only of its glamor; the mythology to its perfect and glittering lifestyle utterly exposed as fraudulent by director, Mark Rydell and his star, Bette Midler. The Rose comes much closer to the truth; the self-inflicted cruelties meant as ‘coping mechanisms’ to justify the increasing spiral out of control; the illusion of a private life destroyed at the expense of a cold and unrelenting public scrutiny that demands so much from its deified celebrities. And Midler is unabashedly unafraid to illustrate the perils of this self-imploding existence; to shock us with her trademarked tenuous balance of vulgarity and vulnerability. At once, she breathes passion and instills in us empathy for this otherwise potty-mouthed and filthy harridan. We begin by recognizing Midler’s talent – formidable and omnipotent – from the moment Rose first appears on the screen – but by the end of the picture we have transferred our affections to the character’s plight; Midler having become ‘the Rose’.
By all accounts, The Rose was Mark Rydell’s gift to Midler’s career; a once in a lifetime opportunity for which Midler has remained exceedingly grateful. On set, she clashed with co-star, Harry Dean Stanton, whom she found aloof and intimidating, but otherwise was mildly in awe of the assemblage of talent Rydell had gathered for this film; particularly, Alan Bates. Midler would later acknowledge, “he inspired me to rise to his level of authority and expertise.” Midler also got on famously with Frederic Forrest, whom 2oth Century-Fox exec’s had first been very reluctant to cast because of his relative obscurity. Rydell’s clout in the industry eventually won out – especially since Fox had little faith in the movie anyway and, as such, afforded it a fairly meager budget of $8,500,000. As luck and good fortune would have it, The Rose would go on to gross $29,200,000 in the U.S. alone.
Viewed today, The Rose is quite the anomaly. Erroneously billed as a ‘musical’, the picture is actually far more faithful to the ‘docu-tainment’ a la Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970); Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography aspiring to a faux documentarian flavor. The concert sequences are all harshly lit by megawatts of stage light and grittily photographed by Zsigmond who, with Rydell’s complicity, also brought in the formidable talents of Conrad L. Hall, Jan Kiesser, László Kovács, Steve Lydecker and Michael D. Margulies; each of them considered true artists behind the camera. As Rydell would later point out, he needed to bottle the electric charge of a real concert; simultaneously photographing the action from different angles rather than pausing for additional set ups for which time and his budget would not allow. The extras were culled from real people who had come to hear an actual concert and Midler performed the numbers live as seen in the movie.
At one point, Rydell instructed the audience not to cheer Midler out of necessity (in other words, to make the scene look good) but rather, only if she performed to their satisfaction; thereby further promoting an unvarnished verisimilitude. In the final analysis, the gamble paid off. While possessing transparently obvious elements dedicated to her alter ego, Janis Joplin, Midler’s performance as ‘the Rose’ is tinged in realities from her own live theater experiences. When she screams into her microphone, it is with the ripened comprehension of a particular ilk of performer, circa the 1970’s; a real hellcat and barn burner, capable of setting a crowd on fire with the only tangible asset at her disposal – her voice. There’s an aliveness to these moments that belies the fact we are watching a work of fiction instead of a chronical from life. Midler makes ‘the Rose’ live and Rydell gives her a pantheon in which to stir and haunt us from our seats. It really is an extraordinary accomplishment; and one long overdue for renewed consideration and respect.
Criterion’s Blu-ray debut of The Rose comes with Vilmos Zsigmond’s signature approval. Alas, I am not entirely certain this is the best the movie could have looked in hi-def. The Rose was never meant to have high gloss surface sheen. This new 4K image is decidedly thick and heavy. My issues with the transfer are not exactly criticizing the look of the movie so much as the somewhat inconsistency of said grain from scene to scene. The concert venue sequences are the most impressive; exhibiting fully saturated colors – an overpowering array of hot pinks, burnt oranges and reds, azure blues and sunflower yellows. Herein, the grain is very pleasingly rendered; present and heavy, though never obtrusive to the action taking place. The rest of the movie’s visuals are, frankly, all over the place. Background information breaks apart during the dimly lit sequence in the bath house.
A few of the sequences, like the pseudo-seduction of Rose by her former lesbian flame, and the bar fight at the honkytonk, have so much grain at play it seems mildly muddy to wholly distracting to the visuals. How much of this is the result of Zsigmond photographing under less than optimal lighting conditions is debatable. There’s little doubt the 2oth Century-Fox logo that opens the picture is a gritty, ugly mess. Did it look this bad in 1979? Hmmmm. Minor fluctuations are present too. But I will presume these were indigenous to the original cinematography. Overall stability will surely impress, as will the obvious cleanup of age-related dirt, debris and scratches. Better still, Fox has afforded Criterion a brand new DTS 5.1 audio with phenomenal separation, depth and clarity. The movie sounds light years fresher and sonically vibrant than its thirty plus years. The extras are decidedly thin on this Criterion release; but still very much in keeping with this indie label’s ability to cull virtually all pertinent materials together for a comprehensive retrospective. We get the same audio commentary track that was available on Fox’s old DVD, plus new interviews with Midler, Rydell and Zsigmond; also, archival interviews with Midler discussing the film with Gene Shalit. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)