Bernhard, Sandra (1955—)

views updated

Bernhard, Sandra (1955—)

Sandra Bernhard's unique appeal derives, in part, from her resistance to categorization. This Flint, Michigan, native is a comedienne, pop singer, social satirist, and provocateur, often all at the same time. Her talents—wry humor, offbeat looks, earthy ease in front of an audience, and powerful singing voice—recall the cabaret and Broadway-nurtured divahood of Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler; but while Bernhard has the magnetism of a superstar, she has found difficulty reaching that peak, insofar as a star is a commodity who can open a movie, carry a TV show, or sell millions of albums. She has fashioned a career from the occasional film (Hudson Hawk, 1991) or TV appearance (Roseanne, Late Night with David Letterman); humorous memoirs (Confessions of a Pretty Lady); a dance album (I'm Your Woman); and most notably, her acclaimed one-woman stage shows, Without You I'm Nothing (a film version followed in 1990) and 1998's I'm Still Here … Damn It! To her fans throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bernhard has been both glamour-girl and truth-teller; her voice a magical siren's call from the surly fringes of mainstream success.

The King of Comedy (1989), the Martin Scorsese film which introduced Bernhard to the world, encapsulates the entertainer's contradictions and special allure. In this dark comedy, Robert DeNiro and Bernhard play a pair of star-struck eccentrics who hatch a bizarre plot to kidnap the object of their fantasies, a Johnny Carson-like talk-show host (Jerry Lewis). As Masha, Bernhard plays her deranged obsessive compellingly, triumphing as the one bright spot in this rather sour film, which is widely regarded as one of Scorsese's lesser efforts. In it she displays an outsize personality, hilarious comic delivery, and an undeniable presence, yet instead of offering her a career in films, Hollywood didn't seem to know what to make of Bernhard's strange gifts (in much the same way that Midler suffered a dry spell after her stunning debut in The Rose [1979]), and a mainstream movie career failed to materialize. In the 1990s Bernhard accepted roles in low-budget independent films such as Inside Monkey Zetterland (1993) and Dallas Doll (1995). Television gained her a wider audience, as with her 1992 HBO special Sandra After Dark.

The performer and the character share the same problem: both are unnerving in that they expose America's neurotic preoccupation with celebrity. As Justin Wyatt writes, "Bernhard's film debut as the maniacal Masha … offers a paradigm for the development of her subsequent career." Bernhard and Masha are not synonymous, yet they intersect at crucial points: having seized the spotlight by playing a gangling, fervent girl with stardust in her eyes, Bernhard has assumed a persona that rests on a love/hate relationship with fame. Having portrayed a fanatic who, in skimpy underwear, takes off down a Manhattan street after a star, in her later stage acts Bernhard's bid for stardom included facing down her audience in pasties or diaphanous get-ups. Finally, after putting her illustrious costar and director to shame in The King of Comedy as a novice actress, by the late 1990s Bernhard had become a skilled cult satirist accused of having greater talents than her world-famous targets.

Onstage, Bernhard is often physically revealed, yet protected emotionally within a cocoon of irony. Her humor relies on an exploration of the magical process of star-making, and her own thirst for this kind of success is just more fodder for her brand of satire. She both covets fame and mocks it. As New Yorker critic Nancy Franklin observes, "It has always been hard to tell where her sharp-tongued commentary on celebrity narcissism ends and her sharp-tongued narcissistic celebrity begins." Bernhard's references to figures in the entertainment world are trenchant but rarely hateful. When she sets her sights on various personalities, from Madonna to Courtney Love to Stevie Nicks, one finds it difficult to separate the envy from the disapproval, the derision from the adoration, as when she offers her doting audience the seemingly off-hand remark (in I'm Still Here): "Tonight, I have you and you and you. And I don't mean in a Diana Ross kind of way." She takes Mariah Carey to task for her using blackness as a commercial pose, and (in Without You I'm Nothing) gently mocks her idol Streisand, for singing the incongruous lyric to "Stoney End": "I was born from love and my poor mama worked the mines." Bernhard casts a doubtful look: "She worked in the mines? The diamond mines, maybe."

At times one finds it hard to identify her sly anecdotes as entirely fictional, or as liberal embellishments rooted in a kernel of truth. Even the seemingly genuine details about palling around with Liza Minnelli or sharing a domestic scene with Madonna and her baby are delivered in quotation marks, which is why Bernhard's art is camp in the truest sense; if "the essence of camp," according to Susan Sontag, "is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration," then Bernhard must qualify as its high priestess. But there's a catch: she enjoys the facade almost as much as she enjoys stripping it away.

A few critics find this ambiguity trying, but many more applaud her ability to negotiate this tightrope successfully. Just as a female impersonator's act is comprised of both homage and parody (the artifice is simultaneously celebration and critique), Bernhard's take on fame carries a similarly ambivalent message, its pleasure deriving from its irresolution. For stardom, this absurdly artificial construct inspires in the performer deep affection as well as ridicule. She succeeds in transforming a caustic commentary on fame into a kind of fame itself, massaging a simulacrum of stardom into bona fide notoriety. The very tenuousness of her status functions as an asset—indeed, the basis—for what New York Times critic Peter Marks called her "mouth-watering after-dinner vitriol," as he recommended her show to anyone "who's fantasized about taking a trip to the dark side of People magazine."

—Drew Limsky

Further Reading:

Bernhard, Sandra. Confessions of a Pretty Lady. New York, Harper &Row, 1988.

Chua, Lawrence. "Guise and Dolls: Out and About with Sandra Bernhard." Village Voice. February 6, 1990, 6.

Franklin, Nancy. "Master of Her Domain." New Yorker. November16, 1998, 112-113.

Marks, Peter. "Comedy Whose Barbs Just Won't Go Away." The New York Times. November 6, 1998, E3.

Sontag, Susan. "Notes on Camp." Against Interpretation. New York, Anchor, 1986, 275-292.

Wyatt, Justin. "Subversive Star-Making: Contemporary Stardom and the Case of Sandra Bernhard." Studies in Popular Culture. Vol. XIV, No. 1, 1991, 29-37.