Rambling Rose: Martha Coolidge’s Best Film, Coming of Age Tale, Starring Laura Dern and Real-Life Mother Diane Lane

When Martha Coolidge read the screenplay for Rambling Rose, she instinctively felt an urge to make the picture. Adapted from Calder Willingham’s novel, the script had bounced around Hollywood for two decades. Coolidge immediately thought of Laura Dern for the role of Rose, the teenager servant, and of Laura’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd, for Mother, the household matron.

Coolidge’s documentaries, David On David Off (1972) and Old Fashioned Woman (1973) about her family, showed compassion for ordinary life and attention to detail, qualities that she brought to Rambling Rose. At that time, Coolidge was associated with movies like Valley Girl (1983) and Real Genius (1985), teen comedies that became her calling card, and all she was offered were more youth comedies.

Directors, especially women, are often typecast in the assignments that they get, just like actors. With Rambling Rose, Coolidge finally broke out of the “Teen Ghetto.”

It’s 1971 and Buddy Hillyer (John Heard) drives back to his hometown in Georgia, recalling his youth. When Buddy was 13, he had a crush on a sweet but wild woman named Rose. “In deep Dixieland, the month of Octobah is almost summry,” he says in a voiceover narration, before the central story shifts to its Depression setting. Rose, a warmhearted, ignorant girl, moves in with the Hillyers, an upper-middle class family, and wreaks havoc. A rather promiscuous girl, she has been sent to work at the Hillyers after being pursued by too many men at home. She looks both innocent and provocative, her blond ringlets peek out from her hat as her long shapely legs restlessly move beneath a flowered dress.

Rose becomes as infatuated with Mr. Hillyer as Buddy is with her. Coolidge plays the scenes between the two men and Rose for both comedy and poignancy–their delicacy reflects her direction at its best. In their first encounter, Rose stops washing dishes and throws herself onto Mr. Hillyer’s lap begging to be kissed while Buddy observes through the kitchen door. Initially, Hillyer is tempted but quickly comes to his senses: “A man is supposed to be a fool about this, but not women. What are you, a nincompoop”

Later that night, the distraught Rose goes to Buddy’s room for innocent comfort–and arouses his sexual curiosity. Lying next to the eager Buddy (Lukas Haas), Rose says, “You’re just a child and wouldn’t understand what kind of thing can stir a girl up.” Treated with both comic Southern Gothic and erotic audacity, this scene was hailed as a sexual breakthrough in American films. What begins as an intimate conversation turns into an awkwardly heated sexual experience in which Rose allows herself to be caressed by the boy to the point of reaching orgasm. As Andrew Sarris observed, “It’s not so much what’s shown explicitly as what’s accepted matter-of-factly as normal adolescent behavior.”

Later, Rose marches off to town to find a man, with Hillyer and Buddy watching from their car, impressed with the speed of her success. Before long, various men are fighting over her in the front yard. Is Rose a scoundrel A disreputable heroine Unsure, Hillyer thinks she ought to leave the house, but Mother protects her, and ultimately the film sides with her. Mother says, “This girl doesn’t want sex, she wants love.” Actually, Rose wants both.

With moral weight, Mother stands firm against both doctor and husband, refusing to allow them to solve Rose’s “nymphomania” with a hysterectomy. The movie features an anti-establishment stance in the figure of Dr. Martinson (Kevin Conway), who represents the villainous medical authority in his suggestion of abortion.

Even when Rose tries to seduce Daddy (Robert Duvall), Mother shows compassion for her. The film puts the audience in Daddy’s position, as he tries to figure out what to do about Rose and, at the same time, comes to terms with his wife’s enlightened concerns. Mother is a modern heroine: responsible, open-minded and educated, working on a master’s thesis for Columbia University. In her scenes with Rose, she exemplifies a newly discovered female camaraderie.

Seen though the eyes of an adolescent, Rambling Rose is an uncommon coming-of-age tale that raises universal questions about the mysteries of sex and love. Coolidge finds a fresh angle to frame the story, while keeping firm control over the changing emotional tone. The film is structured as one long flashback from Buddy’s POV, turning to his past to retrieve honor and dignity. Coolidge’s films usually lack psychological depth, but Rambling Rose is an exception. Here, the depiction of human decency is not preachy, and her feminist concerns are in tune with author Willingham’s frankness about the frustrations shared by both men and women. Arguably, only a female filmmaker could see the woman’s point of view as clearly and sympathetically as that of the man’s, fully embracing the notion that even the most promiscuous women are looking for love rather than sex.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actress: Laura Dern

Supporting Actress: Diane Ladd

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Jodie Foster for “The Silence of the Lambs,” which swept the major awards.  Mercedes Ruehl received the Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Fisher King.”

End Note

One of the most successful indies of the year, “Rambling Rose,” helped by its Oscar nominations and Spirit Awards, grossed $6,254,095 at the box-office.