BetteBack December 21, 1979: Midler, producers deny ‘Rose’ is about Joplin

Santa Fe New Mexican
December 21, 1979

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The creators of “The Rose” now at the Coronado, say their movie heroine isn’t Janis Joplin, but they can’t say who she really is.

“I couldn’t sound like Janis even if! wanted to,” Bette Midler responded, quietly, to questions about “The Rose.”

Faced with her opposition, producer Marvin Worth abandoned the idea of a straight biography of the rock singer who died in 1970.

“I felt Janis Joplin epitomized the female singer of-the times, but I didn’t want to get trapped in what Janis had for breakfast,” he said. “I had enough problems with people complaining about my production of ‘Lenny.'”

Mark Rydell took over the helm after a number of false starts with other stars and other directors, including Michael Cimino (“The Deer Hunter“).

Rydell wasn’t looking for Bette Midler — or at least not the outrageous performer who trashed her way to stardom as the queen of camp comedy.

Now, he suggested, she’s too good for her old gay audience.

“There.might be an ambivalent sexual group who will be disappointed that she’s not back camping it up at the baths, doing a couple of Sophie Tucker jokes,” he said. “But she’s better than that. In this picture she demands to be taken seriously.”

She was introduced by her director to a group of reporters as “a nice middle-class Jewish girl who doesn’t smoke, drink or curse.” She lit up a cigarette and cursed lightly. She did not drink.

Offstage, Bette Midler is serious, low-key and undemanding, unlike her flamboyant, strident stage personality. She is 5-feet-l, with a chubby face, overlapping front teeth and no eyebrows. Her only dramatic feature is a mass of curly yellow hair.

“The Rose” establishes Midler as a major acting talent, with her first major foray into rock music territory.

“I guess that’s why I’m glad I did it, because I’ve always loved it and always wanted to be part of it,” she said.

“You know, the ’60s are due for a big revival come 1980.”

Musical director Paul Rothschild recreated rock concerts of the 1960s for the film. The concerts were staged at theaters and stadiums in the Los Angeles and Long Beach area.

“It was really deja vu between the headbands and the tie-dye. Things got very weird. People were pretending to OD and had to be carried out.”

Someone suggested to Midler that now she might have to give up her old act.

“Sez you! I can’t give that old act up. But in terms of the music, I have much more confidence singing straight rock and roll and rhythm and blues ballads than I ever did.

“For the picture I iistened to Muddy Waters and Tampa Red and Furry Lewis. I didn’t spend much time listening to Janis Joplin, since I realized I could never get that high sound, almost a falsetto. Instead I used Millie Jackson and Etta James.”

The movie revolves around Midler’s singing, but she believes it also touches on an important subject: the exploitation of women in the rock music business.

“Not just women in rock and roll, women in show business.” she said. “It’s hard because women are not used to being in business, being thrust into situations where you have to speak for yourself. Actually, it goes for men too, all artists. You have to learn to count.”

Midler split up with her manager Aaron Russo, coproducer of “The Rose,” after filming was completed.

How is she doing on her own?

“I really don’t know. I’ve been out since last February. It’s really a drag, because your sense of humor flies out the window when you have to figure out ticket prices, pay the band, decide whether they should get per diem.”

Midler drew on her own experiences for the movie’s downbeat scenes: “I used a lot of that stuff — memories of loneliness and childhood terror. And despair, not in terms of my career but in terms of life.”

What keeps her going?

“Just to have a few unadulterated moments of joy. Usually sex,” she replied.

She likes to carry that joy onto the stage: “It’s like giving a party and I am the Grande Hostess,” she said. “I always wanted to be Gertrude Stein and have a salon.”

Another one of Midler’s ambitions is to star in another film.

“I don’t really want to do a slice-of-life film,” she said. “I want to do something with range. Bravura parts, operatic roles. A musical comedy with singers and dancers and my hair all done up in ringlets. One of those Technicolor musicals with the jellybean colors.”

Like Betty Grable?

“No,” she said, “Rita Hayworth.”

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