The Penultimate Mile: Bette Midler in The Rose

(one installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)

BETTE MIDLER IN THE ROSE (1979)

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The competition (me: 5 for 5!)

Sally Field in Norma Rae

Jill Clayburgh in Starting Over

Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome

Marsha Mason in Chapter Two

Bette in The Rose is definitely channeling her own stage persona, with its distinctive flavor of sass and vivaciousness, more than that of Janis Joplin, the loose inspiration for the film.  At the same time though, this performance is far removed from anything you’d normally associate with the Midler repertoire–it’s kind of odd to imagine that this is part of what led to her rise to fame.  Similarly, the character seems caught in this no-woman’s land that’s not quite playing herself and not quite inhabiting the spirit of Joplin.  The film is from the same sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll vein that Marion Cotillard and Angela Bassett tapped into for two of my all-time favorite performances in this category.  Midler doesn’t elevates the material in the same way, partly because of the iconic spark lacking in this somewhat indistinct character.  Bette tries to keep up, though: her body language on the stage feels like a harried bid to match Joplin’s energy, trying to compensate in voltage what she can’t in wattage.  She genuinely delivers in the drag show, in which Bette feels truly in her element, and in the final on-stage performance, though, displaying her character’s irreconcilable vivaciousness and frailty that combined to form the epic rise and fall that’s taken for granted throughout most of the film.  It’s an interesting project, though when the dust settles I’ll still side with the Academy’s pick for 1979, Sally Field in Norma Rae.

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