The movie was originally entitled "Pearl", which was a biographical movie based on Janis Joplin's life. When approached with the script for "Pearl", Bette Midler believed it was too soon after Joplin's death to portray her life in a movie. Rewrites were then made, with Midler's guidance, that deleted some portions of the original script and embellished other parts of the story. Then the rewritten script was named "The Rose" and Midler agreed to the lead role.
According to the book "The Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History", Bette Midler "nixed" parts in Rocky (1976), Nashville (1975) and Foul Play (1978) in order to play the lead character in this film which would make her "an instant screen icon".
Mal is seen applauding Rose from the wings during her singing of Stay With Me Baby, though it wasn't in the script. David Keith simply spontaneously applauded Bette Midler's heart-wrenching performance. Director Mark Rydell felt it was a good touch and decided to include the scene.
The DVD sleeve notes outline a trivia item about the film's comparisons with Janis Joplin. It reads: "Bette Midler's fictional role bears striking similarities to Janis Joplin, who many say was the film's inspiration. Like Joplin, Midler's character performs while drinking Southern Comfort, she is called 'Rose' as Joplin was called 'Pearl' and she returns home to flaunt her success, just as Joplin showed up at her high school reunion".
Actress Bette Midler played another Rose-named character, Mama Rose in the remake of the classic Gypsy (1993), the name being similar to 'The Rose' / Mary Rose Foster in this movie. Midler was first touted to appear in Gypsy (1993) as early as 1980 when this film was in post-production and Midler reportedly held off signing until after she had seen the final cut of The Rose (1979) and the public's reaction to it.