A lone woman gazes out from a stage into a packed concert arena. The camera pans over a chorus of admirers shrieking a name in unison, hers: Rose! Rose! Rose! They stand at attention, high on the anticipation of a life-altering musical performance, but so high is Rose, chemically speaking, that she sways under the gauzy peach glow of the spotlights. She looks exhausted. Will she make it through the song? The audience is now still, unsure of her next move.
Then this dynamo opens her mouth, and we have our answer. From her throat emerges a sound so evocative and pained that it seems dredged up from depths defying diaphragms, physics, even hell itself. This Rose, about to wilt just moments ago, now blooms; she stands at the lip of the stage, commanding it. A mere five feet one, she appears seven feet tall—a titan. Her dress catches stray glimmers of spotlight, and her blonde curlicues are untamed. Laying her bedraggled sorrow bare for thousands, her voice oscillating between a guttural yowl and a croon at will, she is transcendent. Extending her arms toward the believers, she grins and slurs softly as the song fades, “You guys are my family,” just before collapsing.
Even deities on Mount Olympus risk teetering off a ledge, which is where Rose stands when we first meet her in Mark Rydell’s 1979 cinematic feat The Rose. The film’s eponymous heroine, played by the riveting Bette Midler, in her first major film role, appears to be at the peak of her fame but is actually scraping bottom. She is in a creative and personal rut, unable to assuage her loneliness. Still, she chases just one more show, one more lay, one more paycheck, one more round of applause. Rose is bending under the pressure of stardom, and she knows it. But performing, or rather the pursuit of fulfillment through performance, is what both bleeds her and gives her life. Fame is her pharmakon, the word Greeks used to describe both a poison and its antidote.
Fame puts you there where things are hollow, as David Bowie sang. Rose understands that celebrity is a noxious flower, but she’s already been bewitched by the poison it releases into the air. She ultimately acquiesces to another massive tour organized by her hard-boiled manager, Rudge Campbell (Alan Bates), after originally demanding a year off for some rest. Recognizing her own instability, she tries to reconcile all the opposing forces in her life. She quits using junk, attempts to quarantine the past with a planned-but-never-realized escape to Mexico with her new lover, Huston Dyer (Frederic Forrest), tries to make it work with a past lady love and, at the bitter end, her parents.
But Rose’s life is, as Dyer puts it, a grenade range, and once something’s detonated in it, there’s no avoiding the wild tilt toward certain peril. It doesn’t help that the thought of losing fame scares her more than the thought of death itself. So she takes a sad cue from Neil Young: better to burn out than to fade away. Like too many talents in our culture, Rose overdoses—technically from heroin, but the cause of death is really a heart that bursts from wanting too much: applause, affection, attention, love. “We wanted to reveal some of the heroism of virtuosity,” director Rydell said when the film came out. “There’s a price that people who are that gifted pay—a kind of deep hunger that’s hard to satisfy.”
Situated cinematically somewhere between concert documentary and filmed rock opera, The Rose plays out as nothing so much as Greek tragedy on a rock-and-roll stage, with Rose as the classic tragic hero whose terrible fate hangs over her from the movie’s opening moments. She will be brought down by a deeply familiar yet distinctly modern cocktail of malignancy: delusions of grandeur and the creeping depredations of addiction. Aristotle stipulated that our tragic heroes must—for better or worse—experience some change of fortune at the ends of their stories. Rose, doped up and lonely, fulfills this premise: she succeeds in her quest to make it to her homecoming performance, although it is at the cost of her life. The film ends there, but rock and roll (the ultimate modern mythology) dictates that Rose must live beyond her physical death, its tragic circumstances only amplifying her fame.
Yet even as it embraces this timelessness, The Rose is also telling a very time-grounded and particular story. Set in 1969, in an era of simultaneous renaissance and rupture, it was made only a decade later, but the profound cultural shift represented by that decade makes its vantage point a uniquely vertiginous one. The film takes care in its evocation of the freewheeling ethos of the late sixties, but in many ways its gritty, nocturnal textures make it feel more a product of its tenser own time, the mood decidedly less hippie than aggressive. (It was shot, over twelve weeks in the spring of 1978, by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, with assistance on the concert scenes by several illustrious colleagues, including László Kovács and Haskell Wexler.) The rock-and-roll myth was already deeply ingrained by this point; Sid Vicious became a martyr for punk rock the year of the film’s release, burying that movement with him. And the major crusades for women’s and gay rights barreling through the United States in the seventies make themselves felt in Rose’s rejection of heteronormativity and embrace of camp, in scenes where she revisits her romance with a woman and drops in at a drag club and a gay bathhouse.
In fact, Midler herself had begun to gain attention as a singer in a New York City bathhouse in 1970. By the time The Rose was filmed, she was widely recognized as a talented vocalist. She’d won a Grammy for best new artist after the release of her 1972 debut album, The Divine Miss M, and had a recurring stint on The Tonight Show. She had never before starred in a film. But for Rydell, she was the only one who could play Rose; as he told Dialogue on Film, her talent was “like an open wound. You just throw a little salt on it, and it responds. She doesn’t give you an impression of the experience; she has the experience. She really goes for the jugular.”
Indeed, Midler’s embodiment of Rose is throat-tightening; she plays the part as if she is exorcising her own demons, and her musical performances in the film are brutal and beautiful. They were all shot entirely live, at Los Angeles’s historic Wiltern Theatre and Long Beach’s Veterans Memorial Stadium, without skimping on any of the anticipation and drama of a truly memorable concert, their audiences packed with Midler’s real-life fans.
As she told author Mark Bego, “It was like playing a double part, or even four parts. There was me knowing that some of the audience were fans of mine, pretending that I was this girl, pretending that they liked the girl, and then pretending back to me.” An even slyer nod to Midler’s own persona is the scene that has Rose visit and perform at a drag club in New York, an old haunt of hers, where performers regularly impersonate her, Diana Ross, and Barbra Streisand—a trio that, if you substitute Midler herself for her character here, represents the “holy trinity” of 1970s divas, according to writer Kevin Winkler.
While we’re on the subject of holiness, there is the question of the film’s implicit subject, and the patron saint of blues howls, Janis Joplin. The Rose evolved from another script that was directly about the late vocalist’s life, for a project to be called The Pearl. The screenplay was penned by Bill Kerby and named for Joplin’s final record, which was released after the singer’s death from a heroin overdose in 1970. Kerby had been eyeing Midler to play the part of Joplin since as early as 1973, when she was at the height of her new fame. But Midler felt it was disrespectful to the rock singer’s memory to make a film based on her life so soon after her death.
Rydell—who had directed television and a handful of capers starring the likes of Steve McQueen and John Wayne—was also approached about the Kerby script but originally passed. Five years later, Midler was ready to do the project, with some changes to the story, and the script circled back to Rydell.
Rydell then got to work with scriptwriter Bo Goldman on revising Kerby’s draft of The Pearl, both fictionalizing Joplin’s story and weaving personal fragments of Midler’s own life into it. In addition to the bathhouse beginnings, there’s also the year off that Rose pleads for, something that an exhausted Midler had insisted on for herself in 1974. For another thing, Rose’s verbally abusive relationship with her manager, Rudge, mirrors Midler’s struggles with the man who was her own overbearing manager at the time (and was a producer on The Rose), Aaron Russo—who, among other calculations, hadn’t let Midler take on a big film role before this one. Yet Midler had famously demanded of Russo, “Make me a legend”; if Rose’s hunger is convincingly voracious, that’s likely because it was real.
But as much as the character shares with Midler, there’s still plenty of Joplin there, perhaps most essentially the rock star’s surface ferocity underpinned by a secret she let her audiences in on: that she was as defenseless and human as they were. “I think women were particularly moved by [Joplin] because she was aggressive and yet she seemed vulnerable,” Midler told Bego, and she channeled that sensibility into her feral performance. Rydell remembers Midler’s “emotional skinlessness” playing Rose, aided by the actor’s own ragged exhaustion and strict preparation for the role, which reportedly consisted of gym sessions, the ingestion of nothing but liquid protein, and Sam Cooke on loop. Rose and Joplin also share the habit of referring to themselves in the third person, and as “old mama.”
Rose drapes herself in shawls and wears her heart on shimmering sleeves, perhaps like Stevie Nicks, though she’s earthier, less mystical than the Gold Dust Woman. Nor is she as lysergic as Grace Slick. Really, she is all of these defiant women, past and present. Rose, like the great, thundering voices before her, digs into the pain universally felt by woman and thrusts it outward. “When was the first time you heard the blues, Rose?” she asks herself onstage. “The day I was born—because I was born a woman.”
And Rose’s persona is larger even than these pretty, messy, savage feminine archetypes; she is also, as Rydell said when the film came out, a “composite” of other figures: “Janis, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison—and Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. Characters who get too caught up in the momentum of their lives to know when to stop.” These are the luminaries we immortalize in our cultural memory, martyrs to their mediums, because to be a true icon in the image-obsessed modern world is not just to be born with your craft but to die for it. As Elizabeth Wurtzel once wrote of Lou Reed: “The hottest and sexiest creatures in youth culture today now loom eternal in heaven, purgatory, and (most likely) the deadlier, diabolical realms down under. Think about it. What does become a legend most—Natalie Wood in mink or Natalie Wood in a shroud?”
The Rose shows a Rose not yet in her shroud, though, and she is portrayed by Midler at her most luminous. This film earned the vocalist a soundtrack album that went platinum, the best-selling record of her career to date; two Golden Globes (one for best actress in a musical or comedy and the other for new female star of the year); an Oscar nomination; a Grammy for best female pop performance for the song “The Rose”; and dozens of accolades from critics. It was through the film that Midler transformed herself from a terrestrial theater talent into a true triple threat.
Be careful about labeling Midler a diva or a legend, though, even with a performance this tremendous and everything else she’s done behind her. As she said about Rose at the time of the film’s release, “What’s a legend, anyway? They last for about a minute. I want to present this woman as a person . . . She has such a good heart and soul.” With the authenticity and generosity of her performance, the actor succeeded in that ambition, giving us a character we feel we know intimately. Yet at the same time, Rose is a metaphor for all of our fallen idols, the ones who dared to seek fulfillment and truth through art. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for in this senseless world of ours.