Sandra Bernhard says that her smash one-woman show Without You I’m Nothing — it ran for six months off-Broadway in 1988 — has been opened up and “elevated” for the cinema. Don’t be too scared off. It’s still the same sweet Sandra, insulting stars from Barbra Streisand to Prince, turning “Me and Mrs. Jones” into a lesbian torch song, tattling about the night she urged a Warren Beatty-like star to put on two condoms and thrusting her impertinent breasts at the audience in a strip finale.
The clever opening up of the play involves a narrative. Bernhard’s manager (Lu Leonard) has deemed the star “too grand” after her New York stage success and has sent her back to L.A. to play small jazz clubs where the mostly black audiences zone out during her Nina Simone medleys and routines about a Jewish girl’s fantasy gentile childhood (“I wish you weren’t my brother, Chip, so I could fuck you”). A stripper named Shoshanna (Denise Vlasis), who resembles Bernhard’s pal Madonna, keeps upstaging her. An actor buddy, Steve Antin, chats camily about Bernhard’s relationship with a black hairdresser (Djimon Hounson). In a flashback, her lover’s naked torso grinds into Bernhard’s on satin sheets.
The “elevated” part is more problematic. A young black woman (Cynthia Bailey) keeps popping up as Bernhard’s alter ego. She’s a metaphor, says Bernhard, for “being on the outside.” Try figuring that out on your own. The film is sometimes needlessly arty, perhaps because of the influence of Nicolas Roeg, who directed Bernhard as an oversexed nurse in the vexingly oblique Track 29 and serves as this film’s executive producer. You can also see the effort that Bernhard and director and co-writer John Boskovich expended on transforming song numbers into performance art (she wraps herself in the flag to sing “Little Red Corvette”).
The wigs, costumes and fancy trappings may seem an encumbrance, but ultimately they serve Bernhard’s Brechtian plan to reach an audience through alienation. She can touch a nerve singing Laura Nyro’s “I Never Meant to Hurt You” and then expose the emptiness of her sentiments with a few piercing asides. A stunning monologue about an Andy Warhol auction evokes both the spirit and the shallowness of the Seventies.
The impulse behind Bernhard’s humor is clear: to make us laugh, think and squirm. Maddening at times, she is also bold, inventive and incisively funny. While Ullman is fighting to be heard within the traditional system, Bernhard is struggling to mold film into a new form of self-expression. Whatever the failings of these efforts, both women’s voices come through. In her movie, Bernhard shouts, “The sisters are doing it for themselves.” They’re going to have to, judging from the doormats-or-sluts view of women that still dominates Hollywood. The good news is that Bernhard and Ullman have only just begun to rattle their cages.