I had been a fan of Sandra Bernhard for many years now. Having grown fond of this lanky lady through reruns of Roseanne, her outstanding role in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy, her brief appearance in Madonna's Truth or Dare documentary,the crazy appearances of Letterman and for her deliciously wicked Excuses for Bad Behavior, Part I album from 1993. I had long tried tracking down a copy of her 1990 pseudo stand-up comedy film Without You I'm Nothing. Having finally been successful, I can say without a doubt that it lived up to everything I had heard from its dearest fans.
Without You I'm Nothing? Without Sandra Bernhard I'm nothing!
Directed by John Boskovich and, quite improbably, produced by Nicolas Roeg, Without You I'm Nothing is very much a curiosity of a film. Similar to Bette Midler's Divine Madness in its mix of stand-up comedy and cabaret style musical numbers, the film is actually not a documentary at all. Filmed several years after the her "smash hit one-woman show" took Broadway by storm (according to her), Without You I'm Nothing sees Bernhard perform her act in front of a crowd of sceptical African Americans and includes feature film effects that wouldn't be possible in a simple films stand-up show like those of the equally provocative Margaret Cho (Without You I'm Nothing, Notorious C.H.O.). It's a risky gamble, especially when her dedicated fans would have gone along either way (it made a surprisingly robust $1.2mil at the US box office), and yet it pays off. Without You I'm Nothing is unique and truly a one of a kind work that succeeds at providing a dramatic platform for Bernhard's stage act.
Bernhard takes on several different personas throughout the 90 minute running time - gay disco diva, suburban housewife, stripper, Earth mother, etc - as she mixes personal memoir with absurd comedy. Like Margaret Cho would do to great affect many years later, Bernhard swings precariously on a tightrope between gags about race and sexuality. In fact, as the bright wordsmith Nick Davis reflected in his piece, she hooked her claws into the issue of white culture's appropriation of black culture long before anybody else did (most notably Warren Beatty with Bulworth. Through a dizzying array of glamourous costume and wig changes (right on through until she all but strips bare during a daring, risqué dance to Prince's "Little Red Corvette" in the final scene), Bernhard creates a character that is as confronting as it is hilarious. Mixed with seemingly non-sequitur sequences of a black woman (played by Cynthia Bailey) walking around time (occasionally naked), a none too subtle recurring joke at Madonna's expense and the constantly bemused reaction shots of the crowd, the film sure does have balls to spare as Bernhard takes her turn at pop standards sung by African American legends like Nina Simon and Tina Turner. That she makes fun of herself in equal measure through her comedy as well as mockumentary talking head interview segments is just some of the reason why she gets away with it.
I can't vouch for the original stage production from the mid 1980s, but the film is an uproariously funny journey into the brilliant mind of this crazy woman. Her spoken word segments are frequently full of tart zingers and fascinating rhythm. I got particularly amusement out of her story of how she used to pretend her mother was a waitress at a bar and after having ordered her meal she would ignore her. Or how about the brand-dropping satire piece that got in on that act a decade before Fight Club. If people are only aware of her insane Masha act from Scorsese's classic 1982 film or her latter day frequenting of LGBT cinema then Without You I'm Nothing could come as quite a shock, but it's place as a defining work of art is unmistakable. A