Review: ‘Sandra Bernhard: Confession of a Pretty Lady’

The Queen of Appropriation gets full-frontal exposure in "Sandra Bernhard: Confession of a Pretty Lady," a midlength docu that's short on confessions but comes as close as any film is likely to get to the sassy entertainer-cum-gay icon. Packed screenings at the Berlin fest testify to its long legs in specialized situations.

The Queen of Appropriation gets full-frontal exposure in “Sandra Bernhard: Confession of a Pretty Lady,” a midlength docu that’s short on confessions but comes as close as any film is likely to get to the sassy entertainer-cum-gay icon. Packed screenings at the Berlin fest testify to its long legs in specialized situations.

Core of the pic is excerpts from a 1992 N.Y. nightclub routine, whose tone is already familiar from John Boskovich’s semidocu “Without You I’m Nothing.” Bernhard’s one-liners like “My father’s a proctologist and my mother’s an abstract artist, so that’s how I see the world” provide a jumping-off point for director Kristiene Clarke’s non-judgmental probing into the star’s myth-laden background.

Though turned down by Bernhard’s former close friend Madonna, Clarke finally gained access to both the star herself and her mother Jeanette, both of whom give good value without actually saying a lot. More interesting are family photos of Bernhard as an ugly duckling in Scottsdale, Ariz., and explicit footage of the artiste during her nude shoot for Playboy.

Media mavens like Camille Paglia expound on Bernhard’s position as a performer, linking her to the neurotic Jewish school pioneered by Lenny Bruce during the 1950s. Martin Scorsese also offers a brief tribute. On the much-discussed question of Bernhard’s private sexuality, however, the docu never succeeds in cracking the glass wall the star herself has constructed.

Commissioned by British pubcaster BBC for its arts program “Arena,” the film was yanked at the last minute from its slot last year and has yet to air in the U.K. Clarke says she has enough material to expand it to a feature-length documentary, but Bernhard herself has so far nixed requests for theatrical showings outside fests.

Sandra Bernhard: Confession of a Pretty Lady

Production

A BBC-TV production. (International sales: BBC Enterprises, London.) Produced by Sarah Mortimer. Executive producers, Nigel Finch, Anthony Wall. Directed, written by Kristiene Clarke.

Crew

Camera (color), Fawn Yakker; editor, Julia Meadows; sound, John Vincent. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama section), Feb. 19, 1994. (Also in London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.) Running time: 46 MIN.

With

With: Sandra Bernhard, Martin Scorsese, Camille Paglia, Jeanette Bernhard, Mo Gerow, Zelda Gerow, John Boscovic, Jeff Yarborough, Abel Zaballos.
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