Mary Rose Foster aka The Rose ( Bette Midler ) gives a tour de force performance in Mark Rydell‘s 1979 movie of the same name, which the Criterion Collection has just released in a new, remastered version. The Roseâ€”a fictional queen of rock loosely based on Janis Joplinâ€”is a cyclone of conflicted feelings as she embarks on what will prove to be her final concert tour, ending up in her hometown.
Joplin often cited not just the commanding presence and blues wail of Bessie Smith as an inspiration but also her hard-living, take-no-prisoners lifestyle. Smith’s stormy life is chronicled in Dee Rees‘ biopic Bessie ( now playing on HBO ), starring Queen Latfiah, who is tremendous in the title role. Smith’s forthright bisexuality was also embraced by Joplin ( Going Down with Janis, by her female lover Peggy Caserta, was a must-read for Our People back in the day. ) The Rose, too, has her own lady-in-waitingâ€”a prim, English lass who uses a sensual shampoo as an attempt at seduction and turns her nose up at The Rose’s latest male conquest when he walks in on the women.
That scene, Midler reveals in a new interview included among the special features in Criterion’s Blu-ray of the film, was unfamiliar territory for her. It was also one of the few aspects of the character that didn’t harken back to her own life, so closely does Bo Goldman’s rewrite job on the script weave in aspects of Midler’s curious path to fame. For example, when The Rose and her new beauâ€”a down-to-earth chauffeur ( a marvelously understated Frederic Forrest ) who is AWOL from the Armyâ€”visit a drag bar, Midler’s rise to prominence via her gay bathhouse and bar gigs can’t help but underscore the scene.
This segment is just one of the film’s many electrifying sequences. ( It offers a rare glimpse of disco singer Sylvester, who impersonates Diana Ross. ) And in a movie filled with more than its share of melodramatic ups and downsâ€”mostly downsâ€”it’s blissfully joyful. As the camera whirls around the room, capturing both the performers and the patrons ( a delightful collection of freaks and geeks ) galvanized by the music and the shared camaraderie, the feeling of outsiders united in a fabulous and shared secret underworld is palpable. There it was on the screen more than 35 years ago for all the world to seeâ€”the exhilaration of a gay drag bar in all its unapologetic glory. That’s one of the reasons why The Rose remains such a singular movie.
The first and foremost reason, of course, is Midler’s sensational, powerhouse performance ( which, as I’ve stated in print at least a dozen times, should have netted her the Best Actress Oscar for which she was nominated ). The movie, directed with a tremendous feel for the rock ‘n’ roll mileu it artfully captures, was helmed by Mark Rydell. He guided Midler to what remains her crowning movie achievement ( and in 1991 he would guide her to her second-best performance in the underrated For the Boys ). This remastered edition looks spectacular. For the uninitiated, familiar only with Midler’s comedies and delightful onstage antics, it will be a revelation. It’s available now.