Monday, February 20, 2017

Electric Blues: Bette Midler in The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Release of The Rose

Bette Midler in The Rose (1979).

When Bette Midler takes the stage as The Rose in Mark Rydell’s 1979 movie of the same name, singing the rocker “Whose Side Are You On?,” her face, mashed up as she spits out the lyrics, is ferocious. She’s not trying to look beautiful; on the contrary, she’s owning her odd-duck looks, facing off the stadium audience, daring them not to love her for who she is. There’s no grandeur to her self-presentation, just fuck-you bravado and sexual aggressiveness, but then she makes a connection with a handsome young man at the edge of the stage and she breaks into an unexpected toothy smile, as if she’s found a date for the high school prom. At other times her smile can look voracious, even predatory. Her whole face seems to be pushed toward her nose, and both her dramatic eye make-up and her frizzy hair accentuate the bones in that face, though when Vilmos Zsigmond’s lighting attaints its softest neon glow, her hair is like an aureole that turns her into a pop Madonna. You can’t pin down her look, and God knows you can’t pin down her performance to one thing. When we first see her, stepping off the tour’s private plane, she’s dressed like Janis Joplin in a broad-brimmed hat with gauze dripping from the back and a thin, wavy pink dress and shades, and she’s so drunk that she can’t stay upright: she has to hold onto the railing, and she misses a step or two, as if the stairway were melting under her. This is the wayward, unmoored side of Rose. We see it again on the plane when she sings a cozy, growling, sloshed version of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” – a song she learned off a Furry Lewis side – with a muted guitar accompaniment, then peers out the window, disoriented, bursting into tears.  And again late in the picture, when her manager and promoter Rudge Campbell (Alan Bates) tells her he’s setting her adrift (it’s his way of scaring her into submission) and she looks away from him, her face wavering on the edge of another realm.

There’s also the revved-up rock-star side, when she preps herself for a show by swinging her head around in front of her dressing-room mirror and yelling at a steadily escalating volume, or strolls across the stage with a piece of her skirt in her hand, parodying a sassy coquette drawing stares on the boardwalk. Then there’s the temperamental, brawling, take-no-prisoners side. There’s the sexy-blues side – explicit banter protesting the enslavement of women to their heartless lovers that takes you all the way back to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. And the mournful-blues side – the lilt she gives to the phrase “the day I was born,” the answer to the self-posed question, “When was the first time I heard the blues?,” which segues into a hungry, ripped-apart rendition of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” There’s the campy side Midler was already famous for as a recording and concert performer before she made her movie debut in The Rose: the way she strides into her dressing room, leaning to one side, as if she were elbowing her way through a crowded supermarket, or into a men’s bathhouse, glorying in her outrageous naughtiness, or shares the stage at a drag club (for Bob Seger’s “The Fire Down Below”) with female impersonators doing Barbra Streisand and Mae West and The Rose herself.

And underneath all of the other personae is the hurt little girl who feels hard done by in her Florida hometown, where she acted out carnally to get attention in high school and that she’s bound and determined will recognize her for the star she’s become when she returns to play a big arena concert there. When she marches into the store where she used to buy moon pies as a kid and the store owner has no idea that she’s now famous, her fit of pique plays out the disappointment of a grown-up child who hasn’t figured out that you can never get what you missed out on. It echoes the scene where she goes backstage to meet one of her idols, a country-western star named Bill Ray (Harry Dean Stanton, in a chilly, haunting cameo) one of whose hits she covered, who tells her that her version “didn’t show me nothin’” and requests that she lay off his songbook in the future: she storms out, her fury failing to mask her tears. Though she longs for the solace of her parents, whom she calls – in a totally amazing scene – from a phone booth before her hometown concert, confiding how weary she is of the road, she doesn’t come by to see them; she has her bodyguard, Mal (David Keith), drive by but when she spots them working in the yard she ducks so they won’t see her. (She tells them on the phone that she doesn’t expect them to attend the show or even want them to; the fact that they didn’t plan to tells us more about her relationship with them than anything else.) The tension between Rose’s fierceness and her vulnerability and her tumbledown veering from one to the other aren’t like anything else you’ve ever seen.

Frederic Forrest and Bette Midler in The Rose.

In the movie’s climactic homecoming sequence, the screenwriters, Bill Kerby and Bo Goldman, were inspired by Joplin’s return to her Texas town for her high school reunion, which is covered in Howard Alk’s 1974 rockumentary Janis. The Rose is a faux musical bio, like Dreamgirls: the character is a fictionalized version of Joplin, just as the character BeyoncĂ© Knowles plays in the 2006 movie of Dreamgirls is based on Diana Ross. Midler’s background was in musical theatre (she played one of the younger sisters on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof) and burlesque and nightclubs, not rock ‘n’ roll, and her covers of rock songs – both upbeat ones and ballads – have often made purists uncomfortable. But unlike Streisand, who has never been convincing doing rock, Midler could just as easily have been a rock singer, as I think her performance in The Rose illustrates. Even in her first record albums she refused to be tied down to a genre, just as she balked against defining herself as either a straight singer or a parodist.

The movie is gritty yet lush, and it’s gorgeous to behold – Midler’s costumes favor the red-purple palette and they’re shimmery and transparent, and Zsigmond’s lighting blurs those colors, and the blues and silvers, into a misty reverie. (A raft of cinematographers, many of them distinguished, helped out on the concert scenes, including Bobby Byrne, Conrad Hall, Laszlo Kovacs and Haskell Wexler.) Bates can’t make the one-note role of the manager work, and the narrative feels cobbled together at the end (both repetitive and contradictory), and here and there are scenes that don’t scan (Rose’s sexual relationship with a debutante doesn’t make much sense, and Sandra McCabe’s performance in the role exacerbates the problem). But much of the writing is first-rate, and overall it’s a terrific picture – the only good one Rydell ever directed, aside from his 1969 adaptation of the Faulkner coming-of-age novel The Reivers. The underrated actor Frederic Forrest plays Huston Dyer, the AWOL army sergeant whom Rose picks up as a chauffeur – he’s supposed to be driving Billy Ray, so she gets revenge on the country-western icon by paying Huston off to abandon him. He quickly becomes her lover. He’s a straight shooter and unlike most of the people she deals with (like Rudge), all he cares about is her, but eventually she wears out his patience. Midler’s scenes with Forrest are among the film’s pleasures, since she’s a force of nature and nothing he does ever feels less than completely authentic.

Rose is a drunk who used to be a junkie; she swore off smack before she became a star, but inevitably her trip home brings that demon, among others, out of the woodwork. She shoots up just before the concert. At the mike she presents herself to her fans with doll-like delicacy, her arms open to them, shimmying lightly, her eyes unnaturally bright, and she makes it through her first song, “Stay with Me”; it is, in fact, a triumph. But then she starts to lose her hold; one of the musicians has to reach out to steady her, and for a moment she seems to have forgotten where she is. She goes into an a cappella reprise of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” but it’s indecipherable, and before she can get out more than a few bars, she collapses. The screenplay is bookended by shots of the press swarming her parents’ home after her death. The filmmakers provide no elegy for The Rose, which is just as well: Midler’s performance would obliterate it.

Director-Approved Edition Includes: New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD master audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Audio commentary featuring director Mark Rydell. New interview with actor Bette Midler. New conversation between Rydell and film historian and filmmaker Charles Dennis. New conversation between Zsigmond and cinematographer John Bailey. Archival interviews with Midler and Rydell, with on-set footage. An essay by critic Paula Mejia.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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