screen gems

Don’t f*ck with Bette Midler. Here’s just one reason why…

The Rose

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Auspicious: The Rose

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice may think waving his dog’s butt in front of the state assembly will somehow get to Bette Midler. If Justice had any idea what woman he was messing with, he might think twice.

(Side note: Justice and his English bulldog “Babydog” are living proof that pets often take on characteristics of their owners. We can barely tell the two apart, especially where their asses are concerned. Moving on…)

For Midler at her most formidable–and one of the most impressive screen debuts in recent memory–look no further than Midler’s first movie, 1979’s The Rose.

The Rose borrows heavily from the life of Janis Joplin to tell the story of Rose Foster (Midler), a bisexual, full-throated 1960s rock diva with an explosive personality and a nasty attraction to booze and drugs. Though an international superstar, men in the music biz (particularly her nasty manager, Rudge, played by Alan Bates), treat Rose like an animal, overworking her and dismissing her talent.

After one particularly nasty fight, Rose flees a concert venue with Huston (Frederic Forrest), a limo for hire driver. The two form an ironic bond together, and begin to fall in love. Rose begins to fantasize about returning to her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida to celebrate her success with a concert. But old demons die hard, and Huston may not be prepared for the firebrand woman he’s fallen for.

It’s hard to overstate the risk that director Mark Rydell–and Midler–took with The Rose. Prior to the film, Midler had only ever appeared as a bit part extra. Though she’d acted in small parts on Broadway, she’d earned her most fame as an Amy Schumer-type raunchy comedienne, performing for gays in bathhouses and telling dirty jokes. If Midler had not the charisma to carry the film, it would have sunk the whole production and likely doomed any future movie prospects she might have.

Fortunately, the gamble paid off. The Rose still ranks as Midler’s best performance, offering her a plumb role to show off her comic timing, dramatic chops, and her vocal power. Watching the movie today, it’s hard to imagine raspy-voiced rocker we see would go on to record “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “From a Distance.” For that matter, the chilling darkness Midler channels with her performance evokes troubled divas of both the past (Judy Garland, Billie Holiday) and the future (Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston). Midler’s Rose has an uncanny authenticity to it; no wonder she scored a Best Actress Oscar nomination. (She also won a Golden Globe, and gave one of the best acceptance speeches ever.)

The Rose doesn’t break new ground in terms of effed-up movies about effed-up rockstars. It does, however, have a megawatt performance from Midler, as well as Frederic Forrest, who matches her intensity in every scene. Before he decides to mock Ms. M any further, we recommend Gov. Jordan go back and have a look at this firebrand work by the Grand Diva. Any woman who can pull off a performance like this could surely hand him his behind…not to mention his dog’s.

Streams on Vimeo. Also available on DVD.