November 7, 1979
Already the word is out. Bette Midler’s film debut in “The Rose” is something special, reminiscent of Diana Ross’ smashing feature film debut in -Lady Sings the Blues.” As Billie Holiday, Ross sang beauUfully In “Lady”; and her acting also was first rate â€” no mean feat for a singer without acting experience.
In Midler’s case, the accomplishment is much the same. In “The Rose,” she’s funny and sad, quiet and powerful â€” all without calling attention to herself as I Bette Midler. It’s a very grownup performance from an entertainer whose stage persona is boisterously adolescent.
“The Rose,” opening Friday nationwide, marks another milestone in Midler’s entertainment career, which has seen her move in a dozen years from being an underground entertainer at a gay bathhouse to a double-threat singer-actress. Next month she will take her current concert program to Broadway for a four-week run. It’s a musical fantasy act in which the campy Midler sing while wearing mermaid and parrot costumes.
Midler, 33, is a hot entertainment property now. If she can put together another strong film performance. it won’t be long before someone in Hollywood calls her “the next Barbra Streisand.”
All of this may come as a surprise to people who think of Midler as a one-woman nostalgia band who tells foul jokes while parodying the Andrews Sisters.
“I never thought I was parodying the Andrews Sisters,” she said, referring to her first mainstream recording success. “What I did was more of a tribute to them. Anyway, I’ve changed a lot since ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.’ I’ve gotten much better,” she added, smiling, “and I was never bad. I’ve grown up … a lot.”
She had to grow in order to perform in “The Rose.” It’s one thing to appear with a backup group in concert; it’s quite another to be the centerpiece of a 19 million film financed by a publicly held corporation.
“The Rose” tells the story of a charismatic, late-’60s hard rock singer who dies much too young after too much success, too much booze, too much dope, too much crowd-pleasing, and too many men.
The film, however, is not being billed as a biography, even though its story bears many resemblances to the sweet and bitter times of Janis Joplin, the Texas-born country rock singer who, in 1970 at the age of 27, died of a drug overdose alone In a Los Angeles hotel room.
For some reason, most everyone associated with “The Rose” is perpetrating the fiction that its story is, to quote from a publicity release, “a composite portrait of many popular singers of the 1960s.”
Maybe Midler doesn’t want to succeed or fail on the strength of how well she imitates Joplin; it’s always tough to try to imitate a legend. Or maybe this “it’s not Janis” atUtude has to do with a financial concern: Twentieth Century-Fox, the film’s producer, didn’t purchase the rights to Joplin’s life story. Thus “any similarities to persons living or
dead are purely coincidental.” At least for legal purposes.
And yet, Midler does bear a physical resemblance to Joplin; like Joplin, she is unglamorous and short. Joplin was well-known for swilling Southern Comfort onstage while performing; Midler’s character downs whisky from bottles thrust at her from the crowd. Joplin came from rural Texas; Midler’s character hails from a poor part of Miami. And add to that the death of Midler’s character at the end of the picture, and it’s easy to see why most people will be viewing
-The Rose” as “The Janis Joplin Story.”
And yet, Midler won’t admit that Joplin’s story is the springboard for “The Rose.”
“I didn’t want to imitate Janis,” she said in Chicago last week. “I have a lot of respect for Janis and her memory. I didn’t want to dance on her grave or sully her name. When the picture was originally brought to me, it had a lot more of that element In it; and I tried to exorcise those things from the script.
The script originally was called ‘Pearl,’ which people say was Janis’ nickname. We changed my character’s name to Mary Rose. Also, In the film I die onstage while performing; Janis died alone in a hotel room. And there were other, more personal references to things I’ve read about JANIS THAT WERE ELIMINATED. You know, she wasn’t the only woman rock singer who drank onstage. Grace Slick (of Jefferson Airplane) could put it away pretty good, too.
“I don’t think that anything I did in tbe picture relates to Janis at all,” Midler said, in a ridiculous overstatement. “The film is more of a comment on the people and times of the late ’60s. We were somewhat spoiled, somewhat overindulged, very independent, courageous at times, and doomed.
“The film relates to Janis only In terms of the roughness of my character, but I know other rock ‘n’ rollers who were like that, too. There’s some of Jim Morrison (the late lead singer of the Doors) In my character. I read about his problems (his arrests for indecent exposure), and thete was a scene cut from the final film in which my character did a few hedonistic things, too. I did sort of a striptease onstage. Also, there’s a little of Tina Turner in my character. I wanted my character to be more of a rhythm and blues artist than a hard-rocker. Tina used to have this thing where she would talk during the middle of a song. Millie Jackson does this, too; it’s traditional in rhythm and blues, their dialog is always set, but these women are such fine performers that it comes off as spontaneous. Well, that talking thing is what I was trying to do In the film when I perform When a Man Loves a Woman.’ I don’t ever remember Janis talking in front of a song”
There’s nothing for her to be ashamed about in a film at least inspired by Joplin’s life. She easily could have put the issue aside by admitting that, yes, her character was based on Joplin, but so what?
“Look,” she said, “I’d like to tell you it’s Janis, but it isn’t. It couldn’t be. I don’t sing like her. She had a
Southern accent; I don’t. I don’t look like her; I’m Jewish. And frankly, the main reason the character was rewritten to be less like Janis is that those who owned the original script couldn’t find anyone capable of playing her.
“The reason I’m having so much trouble with your questions about Janis,” Midler said, fInally, “is that I’ve just come bace from a record-promotion tour in Europe, and this is the first interview I’ve done for the film. I long ago put aside the notion that this was Janis’ story, and I guess I have to realise that the public doesn’t know anything about what I was thinking when I made the film.”
Another part of the film that may give the public something to think about is its depiction of the tendency for rock stars, such as the one played by Midler, to end up hooked on dope. It’s a sad but true rock ‘n’ roll story: Joplln, Morrison, Jiml Hendrix, Elvis Presley – the list of drug-related rock star deaths continues to grow.
“I think I know why it happens,” Midler said, “at least with rock ‘n’ rollers. Aside from a certain self indulgence that comes when you’re extremely successful and can afford all that stuff, rock ‘n’ roll really hurts. It really hurts you physically. And I didn’t know that until I worked on this film.
“In my own act I do a long show, but I don’t have a loud band behind me. When I did the film, I had two loud screaming guitars and a horn section. And when you amplify all that sound, singers really have to murder themselves to get their sound out. I couldn’t believe how beat I was after doing the songs in the film. It hurt my body. I couldn’t walk the next day. So, part of the reason rock’n rollers take pills, I think, is to keep them from hurting so bad. I mean,
the energy you have to put out to communicate to 20,000 people Is absolutely mind-boggling. ”
“Me? I don’t use drugs to perform. I don’t sniff cocaine before I go on. It makes me sneeze. I have a deviated septum, and so coke really makes my face puff up. Also, it’s bad for your vocal cords. And It makes your personality a little nasty. But my act really doesn’t punish me like rock ‘n’ roll. So I don’t need drugs. I have plenty of times In my act where I walk and talk, and that gives me a chance to rest. Once In a while I take some speed, but that’s about it. I’m still looking for my drug,” she added, laughing. “It may be codeine. But that’s hard to get.”
What Midler said she recently did get on her current concert tour to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and Detroit was a good sense of where the country is at.
“The world is getting real small and real tight, and people are getting real – off,” Mldler said. “Theres too much information, too many products, too much consumption. There’s been a gigantic shift since the ’60s, a shift from caring about others to caring just about yourself. Things are so dull for most people now, that all they want is to have a really good time. They want to be preached at… a little bit. They want to laugh… a lot. They want to cry … a little. They want a lot of color; you know, a lot of T&A. They want to be able to go home and repeat the jokes to their friends. Believe me, people really want to be entertained.”