Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Bette Midler

Bette Midler in "The Rose"
Lost the 1979 Best Actress Oscar to Sally Field in "Norma Rae"

Grade: *****

I've met so many people that admired Marion Cotillard's dramatic take on Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose", but relatively few that liked the film itself. Frantic editing or otherwise, the film and performance feel so knowingly interdependent, that I don't see how one of them can survive without the other. My feelings about "The Rose" and its star Bette Midler are similar; Midler is given so much leway with her character that she basically becomes the film. The things going on around her are relegated to mere distractions, and her performance becomes a showcase for the ages.

Apparently modelled on Janis Joplin, Midler's Mary Rose Foster is a rock star plagued by her dependence on drugs and alcohol. When she meets Houston (dashing co-nominee Frederic Forrest), she appears to have something to live for beyond music and extensive intoxication. The film's strands about Rose's affair with Houston, and her rocky relationship with manager Rudge (Alan Bates), don't really go anywhere, but that doesn't prevent Midler from developing an attachment to these characters, even as she keenly flaunts her own complete estrangement from what or who she is as a person, other than The Rose.

The film romanticises self-destruction in the way that tragic talents are iconised in the media, and Midler is only too happy to play Rose as a bittersweet heroine. She is utterly powerhouse in her stage scenes, affecting in her romantic insecurity, but often frustratingly gung-ho in approaching every element of her life. Midler occasionally blends her goofy persona into Rose's louder moments, for when she meets Houston initially -- and in one particular scene where she berates him for getting them kicked out of a bar -- she feels conscious of herself and too aware of how rash her wild temper is. "The Rose" works well because it portrays Foster as an unsalvagable tearaway, and Midler's energy and magnetism as a presence is essential to the success of this biopic.

But then there are her quieter moments; her feigned ambivalence when a fed-up Rudge puts an end to their time together, a proud glimmer of self-recognition when a drag artist imitates her at a bar, and an incredibly sad late scene in a phone box. By far the most resounding memory of "The Rose", however, lies in Midler's rendition of Joplin's own "Stay With Me". She gives the song such a wrenching emotional force, not even as a love song but as a plea for us, for life, to stay with her and remember her. It's one of those moments in cinema where time just seems to stand still, and it's also the perfect way to end this film.


Fritz said...

Haven't seen her yet but great review. I'm really looking forward to your other posts in this series!

joe burns said...

Agree with Fritz!

Cal said...

Thanks guys - more profiles coming soon.

I admire you both for your devotion to the Actress cause!