Bright Lights Film Journal

Come Back To The Five And Dime Sandra Bernhard, Sandra Bernhard


Once upon a time a strange sassy redhead with a big nose and giant lips cropped up as a pathetic obsessed fan in Martin Scorcese’s heavy-handed satire The King of Comedy and stole the show. Although she had been doing stand up in various places before and after, most people really only first got to experience Bernhard’s unique talent there, and in her numerous appearances on the David Letterman show in the eighties; during the course of being interviewed she would, usually, sardonically drop the names of fabulous celebrities and bust out in ridiculous pop tunes. With her angry eyes and huge vicious mouth, she could almost be the personification of Gore Vidal’s camp androgynous self-proclaimed icon-goddess Myra Breckinridge.

Her first book, written in the late eighties, was amusingly entitled Confessions of a Pretty Lady, on the back cover of which Madonna was quoted as saying, “This book saved my life.” Though the book doesn’t really live up to the wit of this ogress parody Diva, its title points the way into Bernhard’s funky sensibility, her weird fake/real send up and celebration of egocentricity run amok, which, in ’88, she turned into the fine show Without You I’m nothing. Part standup, part performance art, Bernhard rigged up her comedy routines skewering American values and pop culture around ludicrous versions of various songs, which she belted out with great robust awfulness. It’s wonderfully funny stuff, though from the evidence of the recording made of it the show still lacked the special whacked out texture it attained when she and director John Boskovich, in 1989, reconceived the material and filmed it on location in Los Angeles. What they produced is a hilarious oddball mixture, drag-camp blended with savage satire.

Bernhard, in the film, plays herself as a kind of monster, a wannabe star musician who has returned to her roots in California after an emotional catastrophe so as to reground herself. This she does by giving an all black audience the gift of her terrible singing and many outlandish self-involved anecdotes. Tastelessly, in the first number, she dresses in a puffy faux-African costume with a grotesquely huge head dress while singing about how tough her life has been as a black whore named Peaches, to the audience’s bewilderment and disgust. During her enthusiastic performance, exuding total self-absorption, the audience frowns, rolls its eyes, becomes annoyed and looks at one another with utter disbelief; toward the end of the film they stop paying attention all together; when, for her show’s finale, Bernhard does a mortifying dance to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” wearing nothing but pasties and a g-string with a print of the US flag covering her muff, everyone bails, except for a glamorous black woman who has been appearing intermittently over the course of the movie, between numbers: carefully, lovingly, she leaves a message in lipstick on one of the tables reading, “FUCK Sandra Bernhard”. Just about every time Bernhard can squeeze it in, she manages to refer to her “fabulous smash hit one-woman show”. Sincerity and fame curdle so completely in Bernhard’s mouth that by its end, the film has revealed an almost naked nihilism, yet it’s thoroughly exhilarating; when the credits roll, you’re still laughing wanting more, more, more!

The movie opens with a hypnotic funny/repellent prologue of Bernhard’s gargantuan vanity. Avant-gardely, over a black screen, we hear metronomic ticking; an old white man dressed from the seventeenth century, powdered wig and all, is shown playing Bach on a forte piano. As the camera pans left, across the piano’s body, it transforms into a gleaming grand being played by an elegant black female pianist, whatever anti-white-patriarchal point this is meant to make, it’s hilarious. Then comes a cut to Bernhard in a robe, seated before a dressing room mirror carefully snipping split ends off her hair. She looks at herself, turns to the side and, just as we think she might finally do or say something, takes a drink from her coffee cup. Bernhard’s stylized timing of this little action for some reason makes me laugh every time I see it. At last she looks at the camera and starts to speak about herself. “I have one of those…hard to believe faces.” She says. “It’s sensual; it’s sexual…at times it’s just downright hard to believe…I wish you were here right now so you could see how truly beautiful I am.” Bernhard’s one of those women whose assertiveness is so wonderfully aggressive and challenging she creates her own new category of sexy by sheer wit and will. She makes making fun of glamour and hotness more bracing, sexual and perverse then probably any other performer.

During the film Bernhard manages to show us every side of her nature, man, woman, straight, gay, black, Jewish and, in one memorable number about the “romance” of Christmas, a gentile girl named Buffy or Babe. When she flicks her eyelashes we laugh. When she mouths the words “Love you” with smarmy intensity we laugh. When she says, “I’d like all my options open, what girl doesn’t?” we laugh. When, dressed as Diana Ross from the Supremes days, she says, “Mister, you look like hell” we laugh and we cringe. The same thing happens as she raises her fist in victory after singing “Me & Mrs. Jones” and shouts, “The sisters are doing it for themselves!”, Thereby turning lesbianic feminism into phony celebrity cant.

Because the audience has been audaciously directed to despise Bernhard, undermining her comedic effectiveness, an acrid tone of sickening self-indulgence and mortification comes to dominate the picture. On the other hand, she does things with such silly elaborateness they turn into eternal pleasures. In the inspired and classic sequence mentioned above, where she performs “Me & Mrs. Jones”, she is dressed in a red satin number with long dragon-lady fingernails. Here she seems to be funning the manner of a great dame of American Jazz like Ella Fitzgerald. The patter she spews before the song is some of the funniest in the movie as she “gets to know the audience a little better right now” by asking about how many Capricorns and Virgos are out there and chastising them for their natures, not paying attention to her. As she begins to sing she says “thank you,” to the audience who, believe me, aren’t applauding. In another number she discusses a fantasy she always had about becoming an executive secretary in San Francisco, which is made up of all the products she’s read about in fashion magazines; it’s played out against a pastiche of Burt Bacharach and ends with several go-go dancers whirling themselves around her seated in an easy chair singing, “This house has become a home…Wow!” In one piece she sings a lovely little Hank Williams tune and almost does a good job with it too, until, near the end, she breaks into cheesy jazz scat and the big barn set behind her opens to reveal fabulous Broadway lit up inside. Before singing this song Bernhard elegiacally intones a routine about buying a kitschy Native American rug from Andy Warhol’s estate sale, whose sentimental value is seriously mistaken by her for genuine feelings of loss and longing. She uses camp here for a kind of conscious satire you don’t generally see, since the impulse toward that sort of gunk is usually unacknowledged nostalgia. Indeed, in later years, Bernhard has occasionally tumbled off the thread-sharp line she walks and seemed to be selling the very things she was sending up. The documentary-ish bits between the numbers are all funny and give Bernhard’s persona something of a story arc. And it really looks terrific too, has bold bright reds, blues and gold tints that make its long lean star look truly bigger than life. Perhaps one criticism is that some of the targets of her humor have fallen into the past. Who still remembers Ishtar or how much annoying buzz there was surrounding Jodie Foster’s Oscared performance in The Accused? I doubt many people these days will recall that Bernhard and Madonna had been friends for awhile in the eighties and had a terrible falling out. Hence the rude, but well edited parodies of a stripper-like material girl called “Shashonna” who dances between Bernhard’s sets.

Now that celebrity culture has grown into an even worse problem than it was in 1990 I wish Bernhard could have gotten a bigger audience for what she was doing. That way she would have more opportunities now to slaughter and slay our country’s bologna values, which I for one would love. She’s been working the whole time though, appearing in films, most famously on Roseanne, and doing more live shows (you can get your hands on some of that stuff if you go to her website, where I saw she has been doing twentieth anniversary recreations of Without You I’m Nothing) No one really does this kind of thing besides her…and that saddens me. Of course Sarah Silverman is wonderful and her Jesus is Magic was terrific, but it doesn’t really develop a single theme with the same kind of artistry as Bernhard’s film did, though Silverman, on a joke by joke basis, is even darker, nastier and more challenging than Bernhard. so there’s hope of more great monster women to come/ Thank you.