“Bette Midler, as it turns out, is an actress. Not a controlled actress or a tasteful one, but an actress nevertheless: a screen presence of extraordinary conviction and power. In The Rose …, her first movie, she plays a burnt-out rock singer who bears no small resemblance to Janis Joplin, and she goes all the way, driving herself to paroxysms of pain and greed and degeneracy. There's something sordid, even freakish, about her performance; it has a hypnotic ugliness. Her hair has been teased and bleached and curled until it looks vaguely inhuman--like tendrils--and when director Mark Rydell and his marvelous cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, get her onstage for some concert footage, they bathe her in otherworldly pinks and greens. Her make-up runs beneath her eyes--so she resembles Alice Cooper on a binge--and her slave-woman-of-the-moon costumes glint and shimmer. She grimaces, bares her fangs in that hyena grin of hers, twists her improbably curvaceous body into rubbery knots, claws the air. And then she grips the mike and shrieks "When a Man Loves a Woman" or "Stay With Me," songs of monolithic yearning and tenderness. She's Quasimodo, Superstar.
“…. It's not about a star's rise and fall, just about her fall, so there's nothing in it of glory or ambition or artistic commitment. We never see what makes Rose a great singer or what made her long to become one…. The rock 'n' roll trail, with is drugs, its demented crowds, its outrageous fashions and electricity and noise, comes to seem a glamorous hell. We are here to watch the last days of a fallen priestess.
“From the moment Midler first emerges from her private plane, cringing at the sunlight and then taking a drunken tumble down the steps, we know she's doomed….
“…. The central incident of Rose's youth, we are asked to believe, is the time she was gang-banged by her high-school football team. This all-too-juicy tidbit is flashed at us in so many ways and from so many different angles that it comes to seem nearly as monumental as the black slab in 2001. The filmmakers want us to think it explains everything: Rose's orgiastic, inviting stage presence, her lust for success, her drug problems, her insecurities—everything….
…. [Schiff relates a prank, involving an "innocent young actress", that Rydell played on a film preview audience.] Innocent young actresses, needless to say, have to watch out for guys like that: I wasn't surprised to hear Bette Midler … say that she had felt uncomfortable and even embarrassed when she first watched her performance in The Rose. "I don't imagine myself that way at all," she said. "I guess I think of myself as tall and pretty, and more dignified." Midler hasn't yet developed the techniques experienced actors use to protect themselves on screen, to make their meanness less unattractive, their anguish less ignoble. Throwing herself at men, spouting obscenities with an unseemly gusto, clunking across the stage in a passable imitation of Donald Duck in high dudgeon, Midler doesn't know when she's looking grotesque or coarse or stupid up there. And so she winds up looking grotesque and coarse and stupid quite often. She may play a scene impishly, but it's cut and shot to make her look like a braying harlot; she goes for pathos and the filmmakers go for hysteria.
“Rydell can't stop taunting his star. And though The Rose may often seem as if it's about Janis Joplin, Rydell reserves some of his sharpest digs for Midler herself. Surely the New York drag bar to which Rose and Forrest repair in one episode is Midler's turf, not Joplin's…. Midler joins [Rose's] lookalike … [onstage, where] they are quickly surrounded by a corps of screeching transvestites … [T]he scene becomes a baroque satire of femininity itself, and Midler the central attraction in a sideshow of hags. Later, when she chases Forrest into a men's steam bath … we can't help remembering Midler's own beginnings as a cabaret performer at the Continental Baths … [LO a little]
“These scenes seem to be straining to say something about what it means to be a star and a sex symbol, and so does one of the concert scenes, in which Rose delivers a delicious monologue on how it's a raw deal to be a woman, sitting at home with the pots and pans, waiting for your man. The irony, of course, is that the lady speaking those lines hasn't seen a pot or pan in years and is, in her way, about as typical a woman as Cleopatra. This is a real dilemma for artists working in a democratic medium like rock 'n' roll…. Rudge [her manager] takes Rose to visit a legendary-country singer named Billy Ray …, one of whose songs she's covered on her last album. Billy Ray snubs her; in his eyes, she's a floozy and an imposter, and the pain and vunerability Midler conveys in this scene are among the most eloquent statements on the precariousness of fame that I've ever witnessed.
‘The Rose is strange that way. Before your eyes, it leaps over its own fatuities, winding up closer to the way life feels on the rock 'n' roll trail than any fiction film ever has….
“Forrest is so terrific he almost steals the picture from Midler…. Undoubtedly, though, the film is Midler's, and if her character's swings in mood (from girlish spite to girlish acquiescence) are sometimes hard to believe, her concert performances are utterly convincing. Rose may be on the skids, but, unlike Kris Kristofferson in A Star Is Born, when she climbs up on that stage, we know why millions adore her. The Rose ranks with The Last Waltz and The Buddy Holly Story in the way it captures the aura of rock performance….
“Is it Bette Midler on the stage or Janis Joplin? The Rose is an unstable compound of the two personalities, but the filmmakers roundly deny that their story's about Joplin at all…. [Rydell], Midler, and producer Marvin Worth all insist that … the current Rose is a mishmash of Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, even Judy Garland. True, Midler onstage employs an incredible array of gestures--not just Joplinesque gropes and foot-stomps but also Mick Jagger prances and headtosses, Joe Cocker spasms and Patti Smith catatonia. That voice, however, that croaking, fogged-out voice--that sounds like Janis to me. (Midler avows it's her imitation of Sam Cooke.) It's not expressive, and sometimes Midler seems to be concentrating so hard on it that she loses touch with the rest of her performance. No matter: the voice is harsh and poignant and convincing. As a movie, The Rose may collapse beneath all those cliches, but Midler deosn't; she gets at the truth behind them. It is lonely at the top. In Midler's scuffed-up warble, you can hear the pain of that discovery, the hurt of every fame-crazy rock 'n' roller who's ever hit the big time only to realize that you're never famous enough.’
Boston Phoenix, November 13, 1979