I have been aware of The Rose for most of my life. People had talked about it at various stages, but I made an unconscious decision not to see it. Why? Maybe because I loved Janis Joplin and disliked Bette Midler, so the burning desire wasn’t there. It wasn’t anything about Midler’s acting ability or talents, just that I was certainly not the target market for the remainder of her career. The fact that it was not really about Janis turned me off more than anything else. Having now seen it many years later, I’m actually glad I waited.
First off, this is not about Janis Joplin. In many of the supplements, this is stated and re-stated, and it is unfair to the film to get hung up on her life being the template for the plot. It is only the broad strokes that relate to Janis. This film is about the plight of the rock and roll star, the insatiable need for the rush of attention that one gets onstage, the insecurity off the stage, and the self-destruction in between. The only time that Janis is recollected is in the performances, yet not all of them. Most of the performances are all Bette channeling a 70s rock-starlet persona.
What stands out about the film is the cinematography. From the early scene in a building that towers above Central Park in New York City, to the kaleidoscope of images and colors that are captured in the live performance, every frame looks fantastic. Vilmos Zsigmond is responsible for the majority of the film’s appearance, but he also recruited some of the best in the industry to capture the concert sequences. Rather than go into specifics, I recommend you read Adam Batty’s post about The Eyes Behind The Rose.
The Rose shouts out at a concert that she keeps herself in shape through “Drugs, sex and rock n’ roll!” The order in which she places the words is telling. Most people refer to that era as “Sex, drugs and rock n’roll.” One of The Rose’s problems was that, despite her fame, she was not able to “get laid.” She expresses this directly in the early meeting with Rudge (Alan Bates). We don’t see her delve deeply into drugs until towards the end, which is what initiates her downfall, but the sex and subsequent rejection leads her to search for an escape. Rock n’ roll was last on her priority list because it really was. She was exhausted from all the touring and performing, and desperately wanted a break. Her mental stability was wearing down due to the lifestyle, yet Rudge trapped her. Her desire for the limelight and attention also trapped her. In many ways, rock n’ roll was her drug, only it was not giving her the same high it did before.
Deep down, The Rose simply wants to be appreciated. She’s shy, insecure, and in a lot of ways neurotic. The stage is the only place where she really belongs, where she feels appreciated. One recurring theme is her constant rejection. It begins with Billy Ray (Harry Dean Stanton) not so politely asking her not to sing his songs. Later in her hometown, she is recognized in a familiar shop owner in her hometown as Mary Rose and not “THE” Rose.
Redemption comes her way through Huston Dyer (Frederic Forrest), a limo driver who she steals from Billy Ray and takes on a wild misadventure of sex and shenanigans. Huston, however, is from a different world. He’s actually a deserter from the Army, and cannot relate to the “drugs, sex and rock n’ roll” lifestyle. What they have in common is that he is a deserter, and she wants to leave her rock career at least temporarily, and into his arms seems the most appropriate place to hide. Huston does not approve of what she’s doing to herself, and this comes to a head in the powerful bathhouse scene where he finally lets loose. He comes back to the fold, but the old magic has gone.
The Rose is a mess. “Do I look old?” she asks at one time. She is yearning for any sign of vitality, yet she finds none unless she is on-stage. The breaking point is when Rudge strong-arms her as a power contract ploy and cancels her hometown show. This smoking gun transforms her from a slow descent to a spiraling downfall. She takes solace in every chemical she can find, trying to find a chemically induced feeling that rivals what she feels onstage or in Huston’s arms. When some demons come back to haunt her, she finally caves, only it is too late. The damage has been done. That is the tragic reality of some rock n’ roll lifestyles. Again, even though this movie was not about Janis, her tragic reality is the backbone. The Rose’s downfall is just as tragic, even if fictional.
The performances are truly what makes the film worth watching. Midler owns her role as The Rose, and I was impressed that the star of Beaches was able to convincingly play a rock n’ roll star. Forrest as Huston also shines in the scenes where he gets to be the voice of reason. Even Alan Bates as Rudge does a fine job with what is essentially a flat character. Some of the dramatic choices are a stretch and at times the film gets heavy-handed, but overall it is a worthwhile character exploration.
Film Rating: 7/10
Commentary: Mark Rydell from 2003.
- The band was put together with Rydell, Paul Rothchild, and Bette Midler. They were a real band that played real stories.
- This was NOT the Janis Joplin story as Rydell emphatically states. It was a character based on some of the rock stars in history. It was conceived as biography of her for years. They made a fictional character using the dramatic elements of Joplin’s life that were dramatic and fitting, and invented the rest.
- They shot real concerts, twice at two hours without interruption. There were no interruptions and Bette was really playing to the crowd. These shows were later cut together for the film.
- Bathhouse scene was unheard of. All that male nudity, even if not shown, was shocking for the time.
- Rydell spends a lot of time gushing about the actors. They all exceeded his expectations.
One thing I like about this commentary is that Rydell lets the film breathe. He stays out during important moments, so it’s almost as if watching the film again. He interjects only when he has something worth saying. Sometimes I prefer this sort of commentary to one with endless chatter.
Bette Midler: Interview from 2015.
At first she didn’t want to do it. She was a Joplin fan and didn’t want to tarnish her legacy, so they changed it from being inspired by Joplin and not telling the complete story. She started gymnastics for her stage moves. Wanted to get a panther quality to her moves, “a violent creature” on stage.
She praises Forrest in particular. She thought he did a great job at being patient. She wasn’t prepared for Harry Dean Stanton. He was tough. Everyone wanted her to succeed (except for Harry Dean.) They were supportive, and it was “joyful and full of love.” She remembers it more than most of her movies.
Mark Rydell: Interview in 2014.
He also didn’t want to do a straight Joplin biopic. People recommended Bette Midler and he knew she was perfect when he saw the dailies. She had sung in men’s bathhouses, so they incorporated it into the movie.
Aaron Russo was her manager and was very controlling. “You talk to me before you talk to Bette.” He called the police and got him out of there. Bette got him out of the way then and that began his relationship with Bette.
He talks at length about all the amazing Directors of Photography that he used for the concert footage. He needed nine cameras for these scenes. He asked Zsigmond to pick the best cameramen in town, and somehow he succeeded in getting the the giants of the era.
There were 6,000 people at the concert, who came out because of a radio announcement. They were told not to react unless the performer makes them react. She brought it. “That’s why the concert felt so alive, because they were alive.”
Vilmos Zsigmond: He speaks with cinematographer John Bailey in 2014.
The opening shot was in the Hilton in downtown NYC. It was difficult to light because they had to be careful of the backlighting in the windows.
Of course he also talks about the concert scenes. They lit them differently because they shot them on the same stage. They did the overhead helicopter shot, carefully lit it up, and did so to show the popularity and stature of The Rose. They did a lot of improvising with the shots because the performances were improvised. In addition to the star cinematographers, he also used Dave Myers, who was a big concert photographer, who famously shot Woodstock.
He thinks that the craft is diminishing, and that the concept of lighting is being lost. Too many people are becoming cinematographers. He is trying to teach the youngsters that are using digital cameras to go look at the old films, see how they are lit. Don’t get lazy by how easy the digital camera is to use.
Today Show: Tom Brokaw with Rydell and Midler in 1978.
It shows behind the scenes of them shooting the scene where she leaves a news conference, take after take. Brokaw interviews Rydell and he gives overwhelming praise to Midler for her performance.
Gene Shalit & Bette Midler: Interviews from 1979.
He asks the question about Janis Joplin, comparing the fact that Janis is 1960s whereas Bette is 1970s. Bette said that she did not intend to become Janis. She contrasts the differences. She is a New Yorker, which is a bombarding culture, but she played a Californian, which is more of a laid back atmosphere.
Janis Joplin, Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin inspired her. She saw them all in the same week in the 1960s and that was the turning point.
It is interesting hearing her reflect on her career, which is something she had just started thinking about recently. She says she would be happy if she retired tomorrow. Of course there were would be plenty more to come.
Criterion Rating: 8/10
While Ride in the Whirlwind sbould be compared with the film that preceded it, The Shooting, it is not a carbon copy. It shares many elements in common with the companion film. The most obvious is the cast members of Jack Nicholson and Millie Perkins, but there were also many of the same locations, the same crew, and even the same horses.
Despite these similarities, the differences are more distinctive. First and foremost, the style is different. If these two pictures are considered “acid” westerns, then The Shooting is far more “acidic.” Whirlwind is actually quite linear in comparison. Rather than being oblique with major plot elements left to the viewer’s imagination, this time the narrative is clear and direct. There are four different groups of characters with conflicting motivations, and we get the general idea of what they are about. The first group are outlaws; another is a group of cattle-hands trying to pass through; the third group are the vigilantes, and the final group is a farming family in the wilderness.
The premise is that the cattle-hand protagonists end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. They encounter the outlaws, who unsuccessfully try to pass themselves off as cattle-hands. After an awkward meeting between the two groups, they camp out and find themselves under fire from the vigilantes before they can depart. They are completely innocent, but in the eyes of those with the guns, they are guilty by association.
Only two of the three cattle-hands survive the initial shootout, played by Cameron Mitchell and Jack Nicholson, and they make it out of the camp on the same horse. From here begins the existential dilemma on who is and isn’t an outlaw. Who is good and who is moral?
After escaping out of the valley, they encounter the farming family. They assure them that they are good people, not outlaws, but they have to do certain things in order to escape from their accusers. One thing they need to do is take the farmer’s horse, which is theft. They try to justify it because otherwise they will hang for something they didn’t do, but theft is theft. In the farmer’s eyes, they are taking his horses and that is unjust. They are intruding on the family, eating their food, making them uncomfortable and putting them in harm’s way. As the story unfolds, the ‘innocents’ commit other acts that blur the lines further. Every man that turns towards the immoral has to follow a series of actions. While we side with the main characters that we believe are good people, it is perfectly justifiable that they would be seen as evil under the circumstances.
Nicholson and Perkins play completely different characters than in the previous film. Nicholson’s character is unlike most of what he would play in his later, illustrious career. He is softer spoken, kinder and gentler. He tries to endear himself towards Perkins, whereas most outlaws would not care one bit. He plays the character well, but in an understated, muted fashion. There is no chewing scenery here.
Perkins played a sort of Femme Fatale in The Shooting, but here she plays a meek, naïve and inexperienced young farm girl. She is not nearly as savvy or manipulative. In the special features, Perkins says she tried to play the girl as if she was imitating one of her chickens. That makes sense, as the girl is physically and socially awkward, and does not know how to behave around people outside her family.
It is clear that even when the duo has the family hostage, that Hellman wants us to like them. They remain kind and respectful, and plead that they are not evil people. They even play checkers to pass the time. They can be as nice as they want, but the existential crisis remains. They are in control of the situation, holding people against their will and forcing them to keep their presence quiet. The circumstances of how they ended up in that situation are immaterial. There are there, and in the eyes of the victims, they are just as criminal as the stage robbers.
Even though both of these films were shot inexpensively, they get the most out of the small budget. Visually, both films look far better than other independents from the era, even if The Shooting has more showy shots. Whirlwind is more straightforward, mostly because that is what the plot calls for. There are more characters and more events to unfold, which require shorter shots with more cuts. There are a few exceptions where the camera is allowed to breathe, such as the visually striking scene when the pair are climbing to get out of the valley. Another impressive shot is the final scene. It may be the prototypical cliché shot of a character riding off into the sunset, but it adds some panache. Rather than just watching him ride off, he is enveloped into the misty clouds, or the whirlwind as the title implies. It looks good visually, but it also fits the film thematically. The world has changed for this character, and we know that even though he survives, it will not be a pleasant existence. He has come full circle and is what he hated.
Film Rating: 6.5/10
Commentary: Again, we had the same participants from The Shooting and they had a similar dynamic. The film historians would comment based on their own knowledge and experience, while peppering Hellman with questions about the production and background.
One interesting aspect of this commentary was the level of Nicholson’s involvement. He was not the star that we know today, and he wrote and acted in the film. We don’t think of him as a writer, and it says something that the character he wrote for himself was so far from the type he would play throughout his career. For the screenplay, Nicholson researched stakeouts at the library, and this particular story was based on a real shootout that took place over three days.
It was impressive hearing Hellman discuss how the cabin burning took place. It looks spectacular on the screen, yet they had to contain the fires so they could continue shooting without destroying the set. Had to show multiple stages of the fire, and of course, it ended with the set destroyed. It was risky to try to pull off with the limited budget, but it worked amazingly well on screen.
This was a productive year for Hellman. He had made two Philippines movies prior to this, so with these two westerns, he had made 4 movies in 12 months. That is a third of his career output in one year, which is saying something.
House of Corman – This was a conversation between Roger Corman and Monte Hellman. It’s a very chummy talk. One thing that they do not bring up, that Hellman revealed in the commentary, was that Corman did not want to make the films once he saw the screenplays. He didn’t think they could be commercially successful. Instead they talk about Corman’s decision to make two westerns, and his influence on American filmmakers by that time. His influence was considerable, and Hellman was one of his protégés that would not have the same career otherwise.
The Diary of Millie Perkins – In The Shooting, she put dirt on her face to cover discrete makeup. She wanted some sort of unique look, so the mud became her makeup. She talked about her horseback riding, which she handled quite well, a lot better than the other actors. She had an interesting relationship with Jack during the time, and they are still friends. They bonded.
Whips and Jingles – This is a Will Hutchins interview. He talks about running up hill with chalk. He was in decent shape, but not an easy run and had to call a medic. One thing that comes up often in all these features is Jack and Monte arguing about budget, but they had to pay out of their pockets if they ran over. He accidentally stumbled into a Parisian theater in 1969 and was surprised to see The Shooting and RTW playing. He had no idea it had been released anywhere.
Blind Harry – This was a short discussion between Hellman and Harry Dean Stanton. Jack said don’t do anything, play yourself, just act. That’s interesting because he’s been accused of doing that on a couple occasions. Harry was head of the gang so he didn’t have to do anything. This was a major influence on his future approach to acting.
The True Death of Leland Drum – Hellman talks to B.J. Merholz and John Hackett, actors in Ride in the Whirlwind. They were amateurs, which Hellman makes the point is not a dirty word. They talk about the horse wrangling, which is a recurring theme in all of these supplements because a high percentage of the budget went towards horse wrangling due to the teamsters union.
Heart of Lightness – Hellman speaks with Assistant Director Gary Kurtz. They talk about all the rain early in The Shooting that caused production delays. The crew was small, with one or two in the art department, one horse wrangler, two cameramen, two sound men, and one on wardrobe. Again, it is quite a final product for such a slim production.
The Last Cowboy – They talk to Calvin Johnson, the horse ranger that worked on the films. He had worked on westerns since he was 10 years old. They revisit the locations. Pahreah was one of the towns where they shot, which is long gone now. Talks about shooting at the “staircase” near Bryce Canyon where they had the final scene in The Shooting. The locations were just gorgeous.
An American Legend – This was my favorite supplement on the disc. It is a critical piece by Kim Morgan on the career of Warren Oates. Much of it is a career retrospective, but she also discusses the “it” factor that made him such a renowned actor. She says it starts with the face. He was a type of “gorgeous ugly,” as she puts it, recounting his attractive, grizzled look. The Shooting was his first leading role, which began a Hellman collaboration over a few films. He was thought of as a character actor, which is unfair, probably because his lead films were in smaller, grittier films from Hellman and Peckinpah. He died too young. Who knows what the future auteurs of the 90s and 00s could have done with him?
Even though there are far better movies in the Collection, this disc is loaded with two quality films and a ton of features. One of the notable absences on the features is anything from Jack, although he has been in retirement lately and may not have been up for it.
Criterion Rating: 9/10