[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
“You know, I’m so tired of the road,” sighs Bette Midler into a telephone near the end of the film. There’s a hesitation in her voice on the word ‘road’ as if she were going to say, “I’m so tired of The Rose” instead. This would not be unusual since the Rose consistently refers to herself in the third person. The film concerns her attempts to slip out from under that suffocating title, and the most intriguing tension within The Rose is that while wanting to make this escape the Rose nevertheless takes refuge behind her misleadingly flowery appellation whenever necessary. She has the ability to snap to brash, acid-tongued life, even from the depths of depression, when she is confronted by an audience: pursuing her sulking lover (Frederic Forrest) through a men’s steambath while keeping up an entertaining banter for the boys; being easily coaxed onstage at clubs she entered as a spectator; and finally, hopelessly drugged at her last concert appearance. This idea of the Rose being more at home while performing than at any other time is underscored by the way director Mark Rydell has filmed an early concert number. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” an exhausting ballad, is shot almost entirely in one long takeâ€”and the interesting thing about this song is that the closer we get to the Rose, the more we realize that she is making love with the microphone, her lips trailing over it, with a greater intimacy than we see in her contact with humans.
Speaking of closeness, this is a stylistic tendency that is annoyingly prevalent in The Rose: closeups crop up much more often than the dynamics of individual scenes warrant, and this practice indicates a kind of creative weakness on the part of the filmmaker, as if it were assumed that more can be revealed by getting physically closer. Ideas and method are often very obvious in this movie. How many times does the Rose have to gaze off into space and wonder, “Where’s everybody goin’?” before we get the message? The film’s notion of visual shorthand is typified when the Rose returns to her hometown and quickly drives past her parents’ house: Rydell gives us a glimpse of the aging couple putting up an American Flag in their front yard; that’s allâ€”the only cinematic chance these people get. Irony in The Rose: the star burning herself out overhears a radio news report about the use of napalm in Vietnam; she observes, “I don’t know how human beings can behave that way.” The Rose has good intentions but they have been clumsily realized. And oh yes, The Rose also has Bette Midler. Now, I can’t think of another actress who could have played the role; but there’s something about Midler’s visual and vocal harshness that leaves me rather coldâ€”it’s hard to genuinely feel anything from this performance, no matter how many closeups there are. Midler seems to be always “on,” even in the scenes when the Rose is supposedly “off.” This perhaps contributes to the characterization but it also worries me about Bette Midler. I imagine her performing somewhere right now, shouting the blues, spitting out one-liners, and referring to herself in the third person, as The Divine Miss M.
© 1980 Robert Horton
Direction: Mark Rydell. Screenplay: Bill Kerby and Bo Goldman, after a story by Kerby. Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond; additional concert photography: Bob Byrne, Conrad Hall, Jan Kiesser, Laszlo Kovacs, Steve Lydecker, Michael Margolies, David Meyers, Owen Roizman, Haskell Wexler. Production design: Richard MacDonald; art direction: Jim Schoppe; set decoration: Bruce Weintraub. Costumes: Theoni V. Aldredge. Editing: Robert L. Wolfe; coeditor: C. Timothy O’Meara. Music arrangement and supervision: Paul A. Rothchild. Production: Marvin Worth, Aaron Russo; executive: Tony Ray.
The players: Bette Midler, Frederic Forrest, Alan Bates, Barry Primus, Harry Dean Stanton, David Keith, Sandra McCabe, Don Calfa.