August 4, 1978
HOLLYWOOD (NBA) – Parties are parties, even parties staged for movies. They have a tendency to become infectious, to imbue even the actors and crew members with a sense of fun and games.
That may be the explanation for what was happening at 20th Century-Fox, where director Mark Rydell was putting his company through a party for his new film, “The Rose.” That’s the picture that is already famous because it is the vehicle for Bette Midler‘s movie debut.
The scene is St. Louis.
Midler, as The Rose, a bigtime rock singer of the late ’60s, has just knocked them dead in a concert. Now, backstage, there is a party.
Alan Bates, as The Rose’s manager, is shepherding VIP guests – the police chief, the Midwestern sales rep – through and Frederic Forrest, as The Rose’s boyfriend, is solicitously worried that she is overtired. The two men clash.
So the party scene is important. And Rydell is staging it carefully, choreographing every move. These are musicians, so they are (supposedly) smoking marijuana and sniffing cocaine. And Rydell interpolates bits of that kind of business for the camera to pick up, as it moves through the crowd.
He calls for more grass. The prop man has a plastic sack or joints be passes out. I leaned over to have a closer look at the sack, and he let me smell. Tobacco.
And yet, as the day wore on, there was a smell in the air that was definitely not nicotine. It was the real thing, and
the party-goers, or some of them, were having an increasingly high old time.
Rydell opened the scene with the camera in close on a cake on the table, a big cake that was decorated with sugar roses and sugar words: ROSE WELCOMES ST. LOUIS. At first, the cake was whole, but then he suggested the prop men cut a wedge out of it.
And, later, he had another idea. As the camera looked at the cake, he wanted to see an extra’s hand grab a big hunk
of cake and then have tie extra stuff it in his mouth. The scene was- shot, perhaps, a dozen times and the poor extra had to eat a big mouthful of cake each take.
There were bits of the gooey cake all over the floor, and Rydell stepped in some as he moved around. The icing got on his shoes and he bent down to brush it off.
“Can you believe this?” he said. “Seven hundred dollar shoes full of cake!”
Each time the cameras rolled, the director made sure that each of the extras knew what he was doing, that each was supplied with whatever prop he needed, whether it was a drink or a plate of food or a joint or a pinch of coke.
Midler, in a frizzy yellow hair style and a funky lavender dress, looked like a late ’60s rock star. She and the rest
of the production team are making a big point that she is not – repeat, not – playing Janis Joplin, although there are definite similarities between Joplin and The Rose.
“The Rose is a composite of many ’60s performers,” says Marvin Worth, the co-producer (with Aaron Russo). But Worth also says that he has been working on this project for four and a half years and that it was Joplin who inspired it.
For Midler, singing the hard, driving rock numbers is something of a wrench. She has never been a rock singer.
But she is an adaptable singer and a born singer, and so she is flexible enough to sing anything. Everybody connected
with “The Rose” highly praises her.
As an actress, says Rydell, Midler is “incredible.” He ‘says that his mouth is dropping open every day at what she can do. He calls her a natural, a virtuoso, a Heifetz.
And her co-star, Bates, is equally ecstatic. He says she has a natural gift, that she is a spontaneous actress.
For Rydell, “The Rose” marks a departure, too. He has never done anything with music before. But he says he’s “having a ball,” and reminds everybody that he was a musician, a jazz pianist, before he was an actor before he was a director.
As the scene wore on, and the smell of marijuana grew stronger on the Fox soundstage, everybody seemed to be having a good time. The extra eating the cake wiped his lips on his sleeve and got ready for another take. Midler and Forrest and Bates and some extras started singing between shots.
Does she like making movies? Midler laughed.
“I’m better than it,” she said, cryptically. Then she patted my arm and said, “Just a little joke.”