Art / Culture //

If You Pass On Seeing Sandra Bernhard, the Terrorists Have Won

Her first one-woman show remains a high-water mark of biting, smart social commentary.

Ernest Hardyby Ernest Hardy
Sandra Bernhard; still from

Sandra Bernhard; still from “Without You, I’m Nothing”

In a long, storied career that has ranged from her almost stealing a movie from Robert DeNiro (King of Comedy) to playing a lesbian on the TV show Roseanne long before queerness was cool in the mainstream, to being one of the few guests who could truly fluster the unflappable David Letterman, Sandra Bernhard’s professional peak remains her dazzling one-woman stage show Without You, I’m Nothing, directed and co-written in the late 1980s by the late queer artist John Boskovich, a brilliant writer/visual artist/teacher in his own right who has gotten erased from the credits of both the stage show and the 1990 film, which he directed. The fact that none of Bernhard’s subsequent one-woman shows have come near the wit or smart, truly subversive bite of Without You speaks volumes about his contributions to making the stage show and film the cult classics th ey’ve become.

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The film Without You tracks the awkward obliviousness and slow unraveling of a self-important white singer who’s playing before an old-school black nightclub audience, a crowd who looks like they’ve shown up to hear Johnny “Guitar” Watson and gotten this incomprehensible white woman instead. As her act unfolds, what the film-going audience (versus the club audience onscreen) gets is a woozy but gleamingly incisive look at celebrity and delusions of grandeur, swift deflating of the myth of the all-American family, and shrewd tackling of race, cultural appropriation, and queer sexuality. Musical numbers pay homage to artists from Burt Bacharach to Nina Simone, from R&B great Billy Paul to the late disco queen Sylvester. It all ends with a striptease that finds Bernhard dancing in pasties and a g-string to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” and the camera zooming in for shots that would make a gynecologist squirm. It’s a perfect way to celebrate “the freedoms” this holiday weekend.

Screening date: Friday, July 3; 10PM

Location: Dixon Place (161 Chrystie Street; Lower East Side, Manhattan)

Sandra Bernhard; still from

Sandra Bernhard; still from “Without You, I’m Nothing”