Films on Stars: The Rose 1979

18 07 2010

Some say love, it is a river…. You’re probably familiar with Bette Midler’s hit song, The Rose. It’s a fabulous tear jerker of a song, but it actually has very little to do with the film that shares its name. (As a side note: the abundance of videos of Midler doing this song live as well as countless other people (both famous and not) doing covers of it has made it extremely hard for me to find clips of the movie on the old internets. People LOVE this song). It plays over the end credits and does, sort of, reflect some of the themes of love and loneliness from the film. But I think the song’s lyrics end on the hopeful note that love, though at times difficult, can save someone from sadness and loneliness, which is the complete opposite of the ending of this film. Ultimately, The Rose is about my favorite theme of stardom narratives, fame damage.

It’s Bette Midler’s film debut, and she knocks it out of the park as the hard living rock star “The Rose” (Mary Rose Foster) who is obviously a thinly veiled reference to Janis Joplin. Like other films I’m considering for this series, The Rose is not a bio pic of Joplin, nor of Midler, though it certainly draws heavily on existing knowledge about the public and private selves of these two female stars. This is a great film about stardom because it combines the public performances (in a series of raucous and satisfying concert performances by Midler as “The Rose”) with the behind-the-scenes look at the machinery of fame, and the damage it does to Rose herself. Fame is appealing, but it is ultimately a hollow drug that has some serious consequences. Here’s the trailer for the original theatrical release:

This narrative of stardom presented in this film is quite different than the one I discussed in the original A Star is Born in which drive and authentic desire to be a star was more important than talent. In The Rose, Rose’s fame is firmly rooted in an amazing, and almost uncontrollable, talent. The scenes of Rose as her on-stage persona “The Rose,” are intense and full of passion. She has this innate talent inside that will not be denied and that must be shared with the world. But, as we know, stars are not confined to their public performances. It is not simply that she is a great singer that she has achieved fame. Instead, that talent offers a strong base for the development of the rockstar persona that catapults her from “just” a singer to a star.

Throughout the film, Rose is acutely aware that it is her rockstar image combined with her talent that really makes her a star. Furthermore, that image must be constantly maintained in order to be read as authentic. She is a constructed commodity who must continue to play the part of “The Rose” in her off-stage life. It is not that Rose and “The Rose” are completely different personae. It is pretty clear throughout the film that her on-stage persona is an amped up version of her real self. This is sense of authenticity (that she is who she seems to be) is crucial to her fame in the world of the film. But the problem is that this constructed and hyperbolic version of herself is threatening to take over and push out any “real” Rose that remains.

"The Rose" on stage: Intensity of talent and awesome fashion sense

In one telling scene early in the film, Rose tells her manager that she needs a break because she “can’t dredge up the sincerity anymore.” She’s falling apart because a) the sheer intensity of her talent is exhausting and b) the incredible effort of putting on the public self both onstage and off is breaking her down. But the machinery of fame is already in motion and cannot be stopped. Her manager tells her they have $3 million in concert dates lined up that simply cannot be canceled because “this is a business, like Chevrolet or Sarah Lee.” Her “real” self and needs have become irrelevant to her stardom and are pushed to the margins for the sake of profit. Though her hard-drinking dood time party girl lifestyle fits perfectly with her public persona, it is also a reflection of her increasing loss of control and loss of her sense of self. Essentially, fame is a trap in which she must constantly perform “The Rose” persona in order to keep the machinery rolling. Though she still has her talent, she had to sacrifice her authentic self in order to be famous.

She is near her breaking point when she meets limo driver Huston Dyer and the two begin a relationship. He becomes her only tie to her real self, as he loves her for who she “really” is, not for the star persona the rest of the world adores. He’s not a part of the machinery of Hollywood and, unlike everyone else in her life, has no personal investment in her image. The narrative depiction of their relationship and its demise is a bit clunky…he leaves her when he discovers that she previously had an intimate relationship with another woman. This really makes very little sense because he was certainly aware of her promiscuous past (a story of her having sex with the entire football team in high school barely phases him) and aware that it was always a part of her larger image as “The Rose.” Dyer leaving Rose over a lesbian relationship seemed a bit forced and really just a chance for the filmmaker to titillate the audience and then punish a woman for stepping outside heterosexual boundaries. But back to the topic at hand…

Why they break up isn’t really important, it’s more that with his departure goes her last connection to her “real” self and to someone who cares about her, not just her image. More crucially, it turns out that the former lesbian lover has resurfaced because Rose’s manager, Rudge, sought her out and brought her back. In other words, Rudge was trying to break up Rose and Dyer because she wanted to take time off from performing to be with Dyer. Rudge knows you can’t stop the fame machine, so he instead removes the thing that was gumming up the works: namely, Rose’s relationship with Dyer. Fame has given her a lot, but also ultimately robs her of what really matters: love. (Look, I never said it wasn’t schmaltzy).

Cut off from her real self by Dyer’s departure and still unable to cope with the constant need to perform her star image, Rose quickly descends back into alcohol and, eventually, hard drugs. She is alone again, no one cares about her beyond getting her on the stage to make more money. She returns to her hometown for a big show, but going home just underscores how alone she actually is. She shoots heroin and does manage to put on the persona for one song, illustrating that despite all the damage, there is still some underlying talent that remains. But then she launches into a speech in which she all but begs the audience to love her, but realizes the cheers of the crowd are a poor substitute for what she has lost. She starts to falter and says “where is everybody going?” (because everyone always leaves her!) and collapses and dies. She had a core of real talent that launched her towards stardom, but the constant need to perform the facade of “The Rose” left her unable to know her real self and unable to form any real relationships. That’s the ultimate fame damage.

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6 responses

19 07 2010
quatreledaanxoxo

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22 07 2010
An Admirer

Wow, I love this. I don’t think I’ve seen The Rose since the 80s, and I must not have watched the whole movie, since I know I would’ve remembered the lesbo thing! I was one of those people who loved The Rose the song (TRTS) and probably rarely if ever considered how its lyrics had little to do with The Rose the movie (TRTM). I wonder if TRTM has kind of maintained its presence in popular culture over time because of the TRTS?

“She had a core of real talent that launched her towards stardom, but the constant need to perform the facade of “The Rose” left her unable to know her real self and unable to form any real relationships. That’s the ultimate fame damage.”

Okay, I’m sure you’ll get to this at some point, but the inability to form lasting love relationships as a huge negative is pretty gendered, right? What’s the ultimate fame damage for men (in popular media), I wonder? Just as a random fame damage film I’ve seen recently, Crazy Heart certainly follows the pattern you outline here. But I wonder if there might be a systematic gender difference …

22 07 2010
erinmeyers

I think TRTM’s place in pop culture is also related to Better Midler’s overall star power as well as the fact that the film was critically acclaimed at the time. But it’s not like it’s got a huge cult following, to my knowledge. Just the magic of DVD keeping it alive for those that seek it out.

You raise an interesting point about the gendered nature of fame damaage…in fact I think most films about fame (or at least most the ones I’ve compiled as a list for this series) focus on a female protagonist as the one who becomes famous and is damaged by fame. It may have something to do with the focus on the private life, which, as Christine Geraghty and others have pointed out, is more commonly associated with women (private, domestic sphere). Probably also because the films tend to be in the melodrama genre, which is typically associated with the “women’s film.”

Crazy Heart could maybe work, but I don’t think that’s *really* about fame in the same way. “Bad” is depicted as a relatively major star, but I don’t remember a connection being made between his drinking and his fame. Though it has been a while since I’ve seen it. He wasn’t drinking to cope with fame nor really with the loss of it. He was just a drunk, and that was what made him unable to hold onto his career and relationships. Maybe I should revisit it…

27 07 2010
An Admirer

True, maybe Bad was a drunk and would have been one even without becoming a famous musician … but didn’t the movie imply (in a fairly conventional way) that his fame enabled his continued drunkenness? That because he was talented, because he still had some reputation, he could still eke out a living despite showing up sloshed for his performances?

I’ll admit I didn’t think about “fame damage” specifically when I saw the movie, but neither did I think Crazy Heart was about the pitfalls of alcoholism. Or if it was, it was pretty strongly combined with how talent and fame couldn’t save him, and perhaps kept him from changing for the better?

27 07 2010
erinmeyers

I think certainly his fame and talent enabled him to get away with stuff. You raise some really good points. Honestly, it’s been a while since I saw the film (and I saw it in a less than ideal situation where an audience member talked loudly throughout it). So I put it at the top of my Netflix queue…I think it might deserve it’s own post! And would be a good way to start to address the gender differences in representations of stardom as well. You give me such good ideas! 😉

11 04 2012
Tiana

I luv this movie soo much…ive been wanting to see this movie forever!! I would of watched it before but i wasnt “around” then. (im only 13), but this movie is just awesome this is and always will b my favorite movie




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