The ferocious-faced Sandra Bernhard has come up with a film of her one-woman off-Broadway show, "Without You I'm Nothing," that's like a direct assault upon the audience. Bernhard is peerless in interviews--whether in print or on TV, as in her near-legendary appearances with David
Letterman. When assailing the very latest in ephemeral cultural phenomena (from this week's MTV sensation to the neo-postmodern decor of her home in the Valley), Bernhard can dispense more sarcasm than George Sanders, Clifton Webb, or Eve Arden ever dreamed of. (Her approach is the essence of
brainy, bitchy chic--throwaway but irresistibly funny.)
She has bizarrely chosen a nightclub populated with middle-class blacks as the setting for her filmed show. The frequent cuts to the unresponsive, somewhat hostile audience are funny at first, but with repetition have the deadening, too-cute effect of acts involving unresponsive dogs and desperate
trainers. Bernhard has explained that she has chosen this format as a response to those "performance" movies in which over-responsive audiences are an excruciating embarrassment. However, in performing for a passive audience, she robs herself of an essential part of her act--her blindingly fast
interaction with the audience. Much of what she does here is either so multilayered with meaning or so incomprehensible that moviegoers will be just as stupefied as the audience in the film is.
In the rich tradition of such entertaining Jewish performers as Fannie Brice, Sophie Tucker, Barbra Streisand, and Bette Midler, Bernhard is possessed of killer wit as well as a deeply affecting singing voice. Many of Bernhard's set-pieces begin with her soulfully crooning a pop standard and
interrupting it with some campy oration. (Her voice is lullingly appealing on ballads but evinces strain in the many funkier, black-influenced paces it's put through.) A Diana Ross impersonation segues into a Warren Beatty putdown, Laura Nyro's quaveringly heartfelt "I Never Meant to Hurt You"
becomes a hysterical rant against a neglectful lover, thoughts about Andy Warhol's auction are offset by a country ballad, and so on. After a time, however, these tours-de-force become repetitive and exhausting. And there's more: Bernhard gives us not one but two shattering climaxes. The first is
an intense, screamed berating of the Moral Majority. This is followed by a striptease before a now-emptied room, with the star left clad in the tiniest of American flag G-strings, that suggests the heavy price a performer pays in loneliness and self-exploitation. Or is it just an excuse to flaunt
an admirably svelte, leggy figure? This last act of outrage is prefaced by a clothed Bernhard delivering an out-of-context monolog about wanting to drop the "fame" stuff. Before you've recovered from these exhibitionistic displays (which are as self-indulgent and overlong as they were on the
stage), the last can-we-end-the-show-now fillip is in full swing.
At regular intervals, the live performance is interrupted by shots of a mysterious black woman prowling around Los Angeles and by interview footage of various characters purporting to having known Bernhard "back when." These interviews are alternately amusing (a pompously butch personal manager)
and tiresome (a nattering boy toy). A Madonna impersonator is intermittently introduced as the real star of the show, perhaps in response to overblown media curiosity about Bernhard's relationship with the singer-actress. There's also a shot of Bernhard making love with a black man. Whether this
is meant to answer any questions regarding her much-publicized sexuality is something known only to her and--one supposes--her director, John Boskovich, who seems to have served more in the capacity of supportive, appreciative on-set family member than as a controlling hand.
These serious considerations aside, it cannot be denied that La Bernhard is one powerfully funny lady. The best moment in the film is her volcanically absurd first appearance; outfitted as a capacious African (though not in blackface), she wails Nina Simone's hilariously overblown "Four Women." A
second later she moves on to Israeli folk songs. Bernhard is a cool master of period storytelling, and her childhood reminiscences of the 1965 World's Fair are replete with piquant images of pavilions, Sandy Dennis, and Streisand in her unparalleled Nefertiti mode. Her riffs on a WASP-fantasy
Christmas and a 60s-style executive secretary stoned under the influence of Burt Bacharach are pretty much hilariously intact from the stage show. When she sits enthroned in Vegas-like plastic finery wailing "This house became a home, wow!" with go-go boys gyrating around her, it's hard for anyone
not to crack a smile. Bernhard also performs her audacious, pre-AIDS gay disco homage.
The film is technically very accomplished, with velvety photography by Joseph Yacoe and a capable, eclectic score by Patrice Rushen. Diva that she is, Bernhard revels in a bewildering array of haute couture gowns and wigs. The troupe of dancers, for the most part, add unnecessary frosting.
Ultimately, the film is a celebration of narcissism and will undoubtedly prove something of a turn-off to those who are less than enchanted with Bernhard. But for those predisposed to like her ultra-hip, campier-than-thou brand of humor, WITHOUT YOU, I'M NOTHING will be a treat. (Profanity,nudity, sexual situations, adult situations.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1990
- Rating: R
- Review: The ferocious-faced Sandra Bernhard has come up with a film of her one-woman off-Broadway show, "Without You I'm Nothing," that's like a direct assault upon the audience. Bernhard is peerless in interviews--whether in print or on TV, as in her near-legenda… (more)