It was the end of American cinema's freewheeling 1970s when Vilmos Zsigmond photographed The Rose, the Mark Rydell-directed, Bette Midler-starring, Bo Goldman-scripted movie about a rock ’n’ roll queen, Mary “Rose” Foster — four major artists at the peak of their creative careers in an all too brief era of American auteurism.
“Honestly, we don't even know sometimes what we are doing.”
Zsigmond’s quip during a recent conversation with me about The Rose was not a confession by someone lost inside the maze of his own work, but an understanding of the crucial improvisatory spirit and energy that was so much a part of that decade’s most adventurous movies. It was a heady time, fueled by a new cinematic imagination even more than by the illegal substances that stalked so many filmmakers’ lives. The American New Wave “cineastes” believed they were re-inventing American movies; they were, and they had proven their box-office clout.
The old studio structure had been partly dismantled in the late 1960s, and the 1980s promised (illusorily it turned out) to be even more adventurous than the 1970s. Sure, the blockbuster profits of Star Wars, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were evidence that the mavericks had not yet buried the the commercial system; still, all three of those blockbusters gave more than a token nod toward European New Wave cinema (including François Truffaut’s appearance in Close Encounters). No one could imagine it would be only a few years before the sequels and franchises of big action films would put the squeeze to that era’s more intimate, character-driven movies, many of which had come from BBS Productions. The new capacious cinematic umbrella seemed too big for that drawing down. In hindsight, sadly, The Rose can now be seen not as the zeitgeist of a more earnest and expanding cinema culture, but as one of its most glorious swansongs.
The Criterion Collection has just released a new edition of The Rose. It’s more than a valedictory; it's an inspiration to emerging filmmakers today. The DVD and Blu-ray include recent interviews with Rydell and Midler that place the film in the context of its unique cultural moment. Also featured is an interview with Midler made at the time of the movie’s release, as well as on-set archival footage. The new 4K transfer was made from the 35mm 1:85:1 Panavision negative on a Scanity scanner and was supervised by Zsigmond, who worked with colorist Joe Gawler at Harbor Picture Co., in November 2014.
Also in the package is a recently produced 30-minute conversation between me and Vilmos — an in-depth and emotional testament by one of cinema’s greatest living cinematographers. It’s not just a technical recitation of the cameras, filters, film stocks, lab processes and lights that Vilmos used on the film (though it includes all these alchemical tools of cinematography,) but an intimate confession of how crucial it is for the cinematographer to serve as a kind of medium, a clairvoyant even, who knows how to “read the set” and uses his or her visual sensibility to build image creation into a dramatic mold of character, narrative and emotion. (I still recall fondly the moment in the documentary Visions of Light when Vilmos quipped that movies had lost some of their magic when sound entered the stage.)
In a new interview with Midler, made at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the still charismatic star, wearing a bold red sweater against a darker background, discusses not only her close supportive relationship with Rydell (who had also trained as an actor in Sandy Meisner’s Neighborhood Theater days), but the unified vision of costumer Theoni Aldredge who dressed Bette in pink/rose …
… and production designer Richard Macdonald who somehow found locations and built sets that captured the gritty quality of on-the-road helter-skelter rocker lifestyle while still supporting the poetic realism of Vilmos’ lighting.
Midler discusses how just prior to The Rose, she rejected Mike Nichols’ offer of a supporting role in his upcoming film; she had no major acting credit yet, but had decided to hold out for a leading role. In his interview, Rydell tells how he had to fight 20th Century Fox executives who wanted a star like Jane Fonda in the title role. Rydell insisted Rose had to be a real singer who would command the stage and audience with performances that would be recorded live.
Rydell says, “I want to see the veins in the throat throb with the effort of singing. I was after something raw.” He had seen Midler perform in gay cabarets in New York, and though her style was not at all like Janis Joplin’s (the film’s erstwhile model), he knew Midler’s “panther quality” of moving across the stage would broadcast the latent danger and violence of a somewhat unhinged character. Midler emphasizes that Rose has no “legato” movements. She evokes the spirit of great women R&B singers such as Tina Turner, Big Mama Thornton and the fragile Nina Simone. Midler rehearsed with her band for four weeks during prep, and many of her songs are original to the film. In an interview with the critic Gene Shalit that was done at the time of the film’s release, she reflects, ”I don’t know what to do next. I gotta say, even if I were never to do anything again, I’d feel okay. I’d feel like I’d done okay …. That’s true.” The Rose, the first of her two Oscar nominations, was merely an opening salvo for what followed.
As revealing as these interviews are, I think Vilmos reveals so much more about the film’s dramatic underbelly with his insights into how his cinematography highlights those “throat throbs,” as every character is caught in vulnerable relief in his lens. He doesn’t take credit for this, but simply explains how cinematography that is done “from the inside” can’t fail.
Four brief clips from our half-hour conversation provide a window into the decisions a cinematographer makes not just for the overall visual unity of the picture, but also for the challenges of a single scene. In day-one of the schedule Vilmos was confronted with a scene between Alan Bates (Rose’s manager) and Midler that plays directly in front of a floor-to-ceiling window in a penthouse suite overlooking Central Park. There was no opportunity to use a backlight from the window as a traditional source light.
In the second clip, Vilmos stands back from the actual production of The Rose and reflects on some of the things he feels have been lost in our age of digital cameras. The ability to power up a video camera with auto controls presents a temptation to just “turn the camera on” and “capture” images rather than “create” them. He says that cinematography is about the controlled use of light and shadow; he emphasizes that these are the raw elements of black-and-white cinematography that even when he photographs in color (almost always the fact today), he desaturates the images to more closely approximate the abstracted reality that he feels is the essence of black-and-white cinematography.
There are several live concert performances in the film but it’s the final one at Cal State University-Long Beach, with Rose arriving by helicopter, that is the standout. Rather than hiring documentary cameramen and camera operators to shoot the concert, Zsigmond engaged 10 directors of photography, along with the film’s A-camera operator, Nick Mclean, who, like gaffer Ric Martens, had been with Vilmos for many years. The camera roster was a who’s who of many of Vilmos’ peers: Haskell Wexler, Owen Roizman, Conrad Hall, László Kovács and John Alonzo, as well as newer cinematographers Bobby Byrne, Jan Kiesser, Steve Lydecker and Michael Margulies. Odd man out was David Myers, who was a legendary cinematographer of rock documentaries and concert films. Dave was the Woodstock cameraman who interviewed the Porta-San man while filming him; I was Dave’s assistant on many documentaries, including Mad Dogs and Englishmen with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell. His signature black cowboy hat, black T-shirt and ragged sandals, holding his Eclair NPR like a bazooka, are glimpsed in many of the rock docs of the ’60s and ’70s.
Zsigmond talks about he was convinced that having so many directors of photography at the cameras would heighten the sense of improvisation he felt was key to the sequence’s success, that they had the confidence and experience to “go with the flow” while creating stunning images. Zsigmond singles out Owen Roizman’s profile angle from stage left.
In the final clip, Vilmos discusses the scene that still takes my breath away, the one that went a long way to garnering Midler the Academy Award nomination: Rose’s breakdown in a phone booth. Vilmos reveals that at one point this extended scene was meant to be the last one in the movie, that even now the subsequent concert scene can be construed to be Rose’s last thoughts, the fevered imagination of a dying woman. It is, he says, why he changed from a gritty realism in the first half of the scene to poetic realism in the second half; this lyricism was fueled in part by the drugs she has just shot up. However we are meant to accept this scene, it is one of the most powerful in a decade of extraordinary movie performances.
It is evident in Rydell and Midler’s recent interviews just how closely they worked together. Meisner’s acting techniques must have meshed deeply with Midler’s inherent vulnerability as the character Rose, and with her own need for a strongly supportive directorial voice beside her. It was a time when many directors had deep empathy and bonding with their actors, long before they began to sequester themselves at monitors in video village, out of the actor’s line of sight. It was a time when the director was at his star’s side, as too few are today.
It was also a time before white video-monitor tents isolated the cinematographer from his crew, when there was no DIT color correcting the work shot by shot, when there was no "remote head," and there was an operator on the camera crane. "Analog" meant not just the medium of film stock, but a direct engagement with the camera.
Everything evolves, filmmaking perhaps even faster than the other arts. This is to be expected of an art form that is so driven by technology and so hungry for huge returns on investment. There's no argument about the wonders digital technology has given us-- but it's also impossible to deny that this has come with certain consequences. But that can of worms is best left to open at another time.
The Rose is not just a walk down nostalgia lane. Slough off the skin of the period vehicles and quirky wardrobe (it was, lest we forget, at the time of filming already a period film), and a shiny and vibrant movie slithers into your heart.