The best reason to see "The Rose" is to be in a position to relish the inevitable parody on "Saturday Night Live." Here's a sitting turkey that virtually sits up and begs to be plucked.
It's impossible to watch this peculiarly unstirring account of the collapse of a bedraggled, bedrugged rock star (presumably suggested by the late Janis Joplin) without getting many a giggle out of the abundant cliches and superfluous howlers. It would be a crime if Gilda Radner didn't attempt a takeoff on Bette Midler's starring debut as the haggard, hysterical, kunckleheaded Rose.
Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross, perhaps enjoying better counsel, were astute enough to avoid such a blunder when making film debuts in biographical musicals about famous vocalists. They even contrived to suffer more effectively on screen than Midler, whose ghastly Rose is too much of a ranting, groveling, cursing wretch to generate much in the way of pathos.
The surprising lack of emotional rapport one feels with that old sentimental standby -- the once-great performer now in irreversible decline -- may be caused by the sheer difficulty of generating sympathy for anyone immersed in such a corrupt rock music milieu. Her self-destruction seems merely perverse and alienating: It's more a case of "Good riddance to bad rubbish" or "What can you expect if you hang out with creeps and specialize in mock-orgiastic frenzy for zonked-out crowds?"
The wellsprings of pathos are also poisoned by resorting to that maddening new movie-writing technique in which the dramatic curve is Straight Downhill. An old-fashioned movie might have begun with a horrifying glimpse of the heroine in decadent distress, then flashed back to chronicle the significant steps in her rise and fall. Not "The Rose." The heroine comes on with the staggers, then staggers to a predictable drug-induced death while we observe her on her final concert tour, grasping at sexual solace between performances.
In the opening sequence a wobbly Rose klunks her head on the door frame of her private jet. But no one offers to help the star when she bops her bean and falls halfway down the stairs. Alan Bates, as her slovenly, ruthless manager, does stir a bit when she drunkenly drops a bottle of booze on the pavement, but it was probably the spilled liquor that concerned him.
The next scene finds Midler and Bates suddenly snarling at one another in an office. She evidently wants a respite from the ordeal of touring. He's determined that she honor three more years of nonstop concert dates.The argument enters out of left field, suggesting that it may have appeared on about page 90 of some earlier draft of the script.
With the exception of a random "Oh, Baby" or the familiar opening words of "When a Man Loves a Woman," Midler's vocals are totally obscured by the metallic blare of rock bands and her own egregious caterwauling. And Midler's dirty, Jaggeresque antics on stage in the concert sequences are no help.
The filmmakers further guarantee their star (whose career began in gay clubs) a limited constituency by throwing in a sequence where Rose pays a visit to her favorite transvestite club in New York and ends up dueting with the guy who impersonates her. The insiders' hilarity is just beginning. The resident Diana impersonator comes on stage, then the Barbra, then the Mae West.
The only ingratiating performers are Harry Dean Stanton as a country singer who gives Rose a needed comeuppance and Fredemic Forrest playing a kind of Texan Stan Laurel, a sweet-natured and rather simple-minded AWOL soldier who becomes Rose's lover. Eventually, the disorder in her life and mentality drive him away.Poor Rose can't understand her failure to keep a guy. "Where have they all gone?" she asks plaintively, apparently unaware that her slutty, peremptory behavior isn't necessarily endearing.
All Rose really wanted, we learn, was recognition from the folks back home in Memphis, where she felt despised and rejected as an adolescent. Naturally, the maundering scenario is calculated to conclude during her concert appearance in Memphis. It's a wonder she ever makes it on stage in order to conk out, considering the hectic sequences leading up to the denouement.
Rose and the Texan have their last fight. He was big enough to forgive her a lesbian dalliance and her socking him in the brisket, but her whorish behavior at a Memphis bar and another sock prove too much for a basically nice guy to tolerate. After picking her miserable self off the pavement, Rose decides to try to make the concert but finds the line busy on her limo telephone.
This leads to the Biggest Dramatic Scene. The only phone booth Rose remembers is near the stands at the high school football field. (Earlier, she confessed to servicing the whole team in her school days.) Midler is compelled to struggle through a scene stuffed with more than enough cliche-ridden business to demolish a great actress, let alone a misguided novice. Here's an irony guaranteed to choke a horse: At first Rose can't find a dime for a call, although she's got a fat roll of hundred dollars bills. The horror, the horror!
Rose calls for folks, and Midler tries to promote a little heartbreak from a one-sided conversation that falls flat. The camera retreats a discreet distance while the heroine, now really blue, shoots up. It dashes back inside for a dramatic closeup of the fiendish hypo crashing on the grimy floor.
Sad to say, fixing up doesn't cheer up Rose any faster than a chat with Mom and Pop. However, welcome oblivion soon arrives at the Memphis stadium as thousands, brilliantly illuminated by Vilmos Zsigmond, cheer the hometown girl. Better late than never, and Rose graciously forgives them their earlier neglects.
This is a movie that cries out to have the merciful veil drawn, and Bette Midler's big date with movie immortality will have to be postponed. "The Rose" emerges as just Another Fine Mess in a season suddenly brimming with them.