I’ve never been quite sure what “melodrama” is, particularly compared to drama-drama. I’ve noticed that it’s mostly used as a pejorative, a way to insult a person or piece of art which shows genuine feelings, to dismiss them as melodramatic. Big emotions are scary, and as a whole, we’d rather not deal with them, preferring instead to shame them into submission.
There are some pretty damn big emotions in Bette Midler‘s first starring role, Mark Rydell’s 1979 The Rose, which the Criterion Collection is releasing on Blu-ray May 19. And they don’t shy away from the m-word, calling it “a sensitively drawn and emotionally overwhelming melodrama.”
Ms. Midler is Mary Rose Foster (The Rose for short), a rock and rhythm ‘n’ blues singer who achieved the fame she always wanted, but is also spiraling down hard as a result. She finds fame to be empty and lonely – and the drugs aren’t helping, nor is the fact that her manager (Alan Bates) won’t give her the year off from touring that she so desperately needs. Ms. Midler was rightfully nominated for Best Actress, and though she lost out to Sally Field in Norma Rae – an entirely worthy performance as well, it must be said – The Rose remains Ms. Midler’s towering achievement. If this was the only film she ever made, her legacy would have been secure.
It’s also gorgeously shot by the Vilmos Zsigmond, hot after Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter, and right before Heaven’s Gate – which is a pretty legendary run. (Oh, there’s a lot wrong with Heaven’s Gate, and there’s no question that the original theatrical version was a bit of an eyesore – Criterion’s recent rejiggering of the color scheme makes it much more watchable – but it also couldn’t have been shot by someone who didn’t know exactly what he was doing, if that makes any sense.) The Rose was shot in 1.85:1, so unlike Zsigmond’s other pictures from around that time, it didn’t have to be pan-and-scanned for video, but it was also designed to be seen on a big screen the way most modern movies are not. I watched The Rose on VHS in the early 1990s and it just didn’t look good at all, but Criterion’s restoration – supervised by Mr. Zsigmond – makes it look the way it was supposed to, even on a non-giant screen. Every grain on the film is where it’s supposed to be, and the stage lights look more like the Mothership from Close Encounters than ever.
Highlights from the extras include a Today Show segment from a little over a week into the principal photography. It’s remarkable how much precious network time is devoted to the simple rigors of filming a scene, without it being edited down or sped up for the perceived short attention span of the viewer at home.
The best is a 2015 interview with Ms. Midler in which she reflects candidly on the making of The Rose. It was a very positive experience for her (with the exception of working with Harry Dean Stanton, who was apparently a bit of a dick). She confirms that the original script was explicitly based on the life of Janis Joplin, even going so far as to be called Pearl, but that she requested it be fictionalized further. Having already been on the road herself, she says she used her own experiences to inform the character, plus her intimate knowledge of the stresses that female entertainers have to put up with compared to men.
From her own upbringing, Ms. Midler says she understood what it means to be different from one’s ostensible community, to be marginalized and made to feel less-than; that was already inside her, and didn’t have to be made up. Notably, the interview cuts to a scene from the movie in which she argues with her all-male band about the set list; she’s the star, but the boys are giving her grief about cutting certain songs, even though it’s her decision, not theirs.
Though Ms. Midler never uses the word “authenticity” in the interview, it reminds me of some episodes of PBS Idea Channel in which host Mike Rugnetta discusses the public perception of Taylor Swift as someone not truly in control of her work or her image.
Also required viewing is the end of the follow-up episode, in which Rugnetta expresses frustration with certain commenters who refuse to believe that there’s any kind of gender bias at all regarding the perception of female pop stars writing (or not writing) their own music, in spite of the fact that Taylor Swift herself says she’s encountered it. The relevant part begins at 9:57.
The most touching tidbit from Ms. Midler’s interview concerns Rose’s famously bleary walk to the stage for the climactic concert. It’s a ginormous production, with a huge crowd and fireworks and a spectacle that is all unfolding before front of the camera f’reals. (Other famed cinematographers who shot footage for the concert scenes include Conrad Hall, LÃ¡szlÃ³ KovÃ¡cs, and Haskell Wexler.) Seeing it all, especially a big light-up rose in the background, Ms. Midler says she improvised the line to her manager, “Did you do that for me?” It’s so subtle (and unscripted) that it doesn’t even get picked up in the subtitles, and even if the viewer doesn’t pick up on the words, they’ll pick up on the emotion between Ms. Midler and Bates in that moment.
And if that’s melodrama, then regular drama is overrated.