PRINT Summer 1990


Sandra Bernhard

I GOTTA BE ME? Some persona said that. We’re ruled by personas, addicted to images, obsessed with celebrities. And Sandra Bernhard presents herself as a pure product of this performance culture. She travels in hyperreality, and she loves it—almost as much as she hates it.

Without You I’m Nothing is the film of a performance about performance, written by Bernhard and John Boskovich, directed by Boskovich. Bernhard plays every side of the media-made equation: spectator and spectacle, fan and star, consumer and commodity. We first meet her in her dressing room, where she looks into our eyes and shares a confidence: “I have one of those hard-to-believe faces.” Her looks don’t fall within the narrow parameters allowed to women in the movies. But more to the point in this film is a whole culture of hard-to-believe, where an intimate-moment-with-a-star like this one is calculated, rehearsed, and usually about selling something. Without You I’m Nothing is a star trip with every artifice on the itinerary exposed. And this “Sandra Bernhard” is just another fiction.

At the start of the movie Sandra’s cigar-chomping manager, Ingrid (Lu Leonard), explains that Bernhard got “too grand” after her success with the off-Broadway version of Without You, and “we had to pull the reins in on her.” For that reason, she’s gone “back to her roots,” playing upscale supper clubs. The film shows us a star who’s being punished for her ego, who has no control over her own career, and who apparently has no fans. Performing an embellished version of her “smash one-woman hit” (as she keeps referring to it), she’s dying up there in front of the supper-club crowd. Nobody laughs. Nobody applauds. Lost year’s hit is this year’s flop. Even when an announcer implores the audience to support “Sarah Bernhardt,” no one responds.

Soon, actors are appearing as “real people” to take credit for her New York success or to tell stories about how close they are to the rich and famous. Bernhard, meanwhile, is trying on personas like they were so many wigs, constantly calling attention to the artifice. In her Carol Channing getup she’s not parodying the star but reveling in the illusion of stardom. She’s kind of a Barbra, kind of a Liza, some sort of Nina Simone. She earnestly leads the audience in Israeli folk songs. (No one sings.) She “gets to know them” by addressing their astrological signs, and—dressed in a long orange gown, bouffant, long red nails—sings “Me and Mrs. Jones.” (No response.) She tells jokes about her family. (No one laughs.) At the end, as she dances in a G-string and pasties, the audience loses interest completely and thins out until only one spectator remains. This is one performance film that never flatters the performer.

Bernhard presents herself as someone who wants to be a star but can’t quite decide what kind. Or as someone who may try anything to please the audience, since without us, she’s nothing. This is really a film about being an outsider. Most of the models for Bernhard’s performance come from movies, television, and advertising, but the film repeatedly and mysteriously cuts away to show us a black woman, Roxanne (Cynthia Bailey), doing things that black women never do in movies television or advertising: working in a chemistry lab. Reading a book on the cabala. Et cetera. In media culture one finds an identity by developing an image, and one accumulates power by controlling that image. When you’re “the Other” you get an image assigned to you.

There are many black people in this movie—like the entire supper-club audience—and, of course, it isn’t their movie. But many of them appear in contexts where we don’t usually see black people: dressed for medieval revelry, or playing Christmas carols on a flute, for example. Bernhard’s manager claims at one point, “She doesn’t have any influences. They’ve all stolen from her—Whoopi Goldberg, Tina Turner, Nina Simone. I’ve seen traces of Sandra in Diana Ross.” In the next scene, we see traces of Diana Ross in Sandra, who steals a classic Supremes moment with the song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Unlike the off-Broadway version of Without You, the film has a quasi narrative about Bernhard’s breakup with a boyfriend (Djimon Hounson)—the same narrative that holds together so many Hollywood films: the boyfriend too is black, though this is never mentioned, never an issue. We only see them together once—from above, for about five seconds, during an absurdly made-for-the-movies sex scene (circular bed, satin sheets). “His name is Joe, just so you can get a visual feel,” says Bernhard.

As it turns out, Bernhard is just the supper club’s warm-up act for “the one you’ve been waiting for, the one you’ve been desperately seeking”—yes, a Madonna impersonator, Shoshanna. While mocking the hollowness of stardom and her own tabloid fame as “Madonna’s friend,” Bernhard acts out the recurring dream of legions immersed in the media—that of knowing a celebrity, or, better yet, of becoming one. Stars are commodities, constantly advertised, never owned by their public, which rarely even gets to meet them. That unfulfillable desire runs mass culture. It sells product, but focusing passion on an image makes for a sick and potentially dangerous relationship. That was the theme of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, 1983, in which Bernhard played a delusional fan obsessed with a talk-show host. The stage version of Without You included a fantasy about getting to be friends with singer/songwriter Stevie Nicks. And speaking of the blurred line between reality and fiction, Bernhard opened a Cinemax special several years ago, before she and Madonna got to know each other, with the sarcastic plea, “Is Madonna here? Is my inspiration for living here? Madonna, please be my friend.”

During the ’80s, the triumph of image over substance crystallized in the person of that revered talking head in the White House, the First Performer. He had sold himself to citizens who were less constituents than fans, less voters than consumers. Folks loved that pure-of-heart, tough-as-nails persona. Like the Bernhard character who knows she’ll find a husband because she’s bought the right shampoo/dress/Pier 1 import, much of America apparently faces apocalyptic crisis with a similar faith in the system. They’ll be good spectators and watch/buy/elect the right thing. Bernhard refuses to be the right sort of spectator.

C. Carr is a staff writer for The Village Voice, New York.