Bette Midler is tiny; so tiny (5’1″) that surprise is what you feel seeing her in person. I have been blessed to watch her do her thing live many times in many different places and always come away on Cloud Nine thinking, “How does that great, big voice and all that tremendous energy come out of that little sprite?” But Midler’s stature belies the power of her spirit. Oftentimes I have witnessed that spirit fireball out of a theater or arena to where it ascends and covers the place in a protective bubble of vitality and verve. In other words, no stadium, no opera house, no hall, however cavernous, can contain her infectious energy. I watched in awe one time when she was first staring out in her career, appear before what had to be, for her, a disappointing Symphony Hall crowd (the place was maybe a third full). That girl worked her tail off like you would not believe, strutting and camping, doing cartwheels, belting songs to the rafters, sending her now-trademark Hawaiian bolo balls into orbit, carrying on an absolute storm. You’d swear she was performing for a crowd of 18,000 at Madison Square Garden. Her energy and work ethic, her drive and desire to please are unearthly. No tiny, little sprite!
When she burst onto the scene in the early1970s, Bette Midler brought a unique, never-ending party to an America neck-deep in an economic depression, lifted us up out of the doldrums with her prescient remakes of The Andrews’ Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood”, The Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” and of course, her mega-cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance?” Magic!
Nothing short of iconic was the cover of her self-titled debut album—the slinky, black dress, red frizzy crown of hair and probably THE highest platform shoes in existence—all spoke “sassy”, “savvy” and “the most fun you have ever had or will ever have ever.” To this day, I can think of no entertainer like her. There are pretenders to the Midler throne—most recently Katy Perry, Lady Gaga—but in my humble opinion, no one holds a candle to the light emanating from The Divine Miss M.
She brings that special light, that unbridled energy, that uncompromising work ethic in spades to her portrayal of the musician superstar known as The Rose in Mark Rydell’s searing movie bio of the same name. Rydell (who crafted many fine films over the years including the lovely, elegiac ON GOLDEN POND) here ushers us into the lurid world of rock stardom excess, a dazzling but destructive world that takes under its wings gifted but troubled people lost in their own insecurities and uncertain egos. In this instance, it is Mary Rose Foster (Midler) whose great, blazing voice makes her a top-tier performer but whose troubled childhood makes her a flawed human being. Comparisons to 60s rock/jazz legend, Janis Joplin and her story were inevitable. And though at first denied by Rydell, Midler and the movie’s producers, comparisons do exist. Let us say THE ROSE was “inspired by” Joplin’s life but its accuracy falls deliberately short of hitting that bullseye—Midler’s performance style is very different from Joplin’s, the particulars of The Rose’s life also different from Janis’s. The strong, determined Midler made THE ROSE her own creation, not a copy of Joplin, her passionate, natural depiction culled from raw reaching—Midler had no professional training as an actor or a singer and seems by the very force of her will and own personal history to send a performance erupting up and out from the volcano of her own gut instincts. She is a wonder to behold.
In the movie’s musical interludes Midler sings and moves with a fever. She sends her notes out with such a force, such a frenzy, with such unbridled heat, she scorches the screen in numbers like “Midnight in Memphis”, “Love Me With a Feeling” and the heartbreaking “Stay With Me”. In other scenes she crafts brilliant musical vignettes, campy and touching. She can take you on a journey from elation to heartache in a split second. With a sidelong look, a shrug, a sigh, a whisper, a plea from her tiny, doll-like hands, she makes you feel as if you know her, and that she knows you; all her own emotions are your emotions. A great comedienne, she knows her flawless timing, her sometimes dangerous eyes can slay you and so she brings these qualities to Rose. And time and again, she gets away with telling the filthiest, bawdiest, raunchiest jokes without sacrificing her grace or her femininity.We tolerate the F-bomb from Midler because she reminds us of how playful it can be when delivered without malice. Or maybe it is just that everything that comes out of her mouth is hilarious!
Midler is a staged concoction of every rock, folk, pop, vaudeville, Hollywood musical, Folies Bergere creation ever imagined. And the smile. That smile that can light up the whole world. She is a great performer who elevates THE ROSE to greater heights. Her performance is nothing short of terrific, void of any trace of mawkishness, unbearably transcendent. Her raw, honest depiction of a boozing, coked-out, insecure woman/girl is spot-on. Rose lets triumph after triumph wash over her like gold but underneath she is soaked in sweat and regret. Midler shows us the wounded, little child Rose still is, quivering behind the bravado of a star who knows her gifts are superb but her soul is all alone, shattered; she cannot shake the horrors of her past. Few performances in movies capture vulnerability so astutely—Meryl Streep in SOPHIE’S CHOICE comes to mind—but Midler’s somehow seems less contrived, less deliberate. I don’t know. But there is some quality there you do not see too often in motion picture acting.
For Rose, music is her freedom and her jail, her poison and the antidote. Her heartless, money-loving manager, Rudge (the always marvelous Alan Bates) does love her or did once, but clearly now loves his cash cow more and drives her like a carnival ride for his own gain. Salvation (maybe?) comes in the person of Houston Dyer, a likable lug of a drifter played by handsome Frederic Forrest. Houston believes his love or Rose can save her; his honest, tender endearments act as a mirror showing Rose how truly beautiful, how valuable she is. But Rose is coming apart at the seams. She craves real love. But most of all, she wants to entertain, she must entertain her audiences; her allegiance is to them, and to her art, even if it means possibly going under.
Director Rydell captures the world of concert touring perfectly, the non-stop merry-go-round of buses, planes, trains and rented limos. Of bottomless bottles of booze and lines of coke. The film delivers many memorable scenes of how lonely the road can be for musicians. In one unforgettable scene, as Rose’s plane descends into yet another nameless place, she wakes dazed, confused, hung-over, hungry for sleep, peers down and begins to cry, asking, “Where am I ? Where the fuck am I ? I don’t even know where I am…”
THE ROSE is a fine, fine entertainment. It belongs, though, to Bette Midler. See it to see a star being born. When she calls home from a phone booth in the middle of nowhere just to chat with her uninterested mother, when she begs her new boyfriend not to leave her, when she sings the title theme song, which has become one of the great love anthems, you know you are in the presence of a brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime performer.