Sarcastic Sandra shows off a softer side
In an issue of Artforum, Sonic Youth co-founder Kim Gordon pinpointed the delicate psychological calculus between rock performer and audience member.
“People pay to see others believe in themselves,” she wrote.
Could Gordon’s adage apply to Sandra Bernhard, who has settled her sour, insouciant, long-limbed self into the Darryl Roth Theater for a run of her latest show, “Everything Bad & Beautiful?” Equal parts rock set, coffee klatch, runway show, and screed, “Everything Bad & Beautiful” is for fans who thrill to Bernhard’s special brew of insider hauteur and outsider bile.
Bernhard’s armor is armadillo-thick. She might not admit a need for our support, but her defensiveness is a recurring subtext of all her solo shows. Or maybe not so sub—just look at the titles—“I’m Still Here… Damn It!” and “Without You I’m Nothing.” With her pit-bull visage and sarcastic tongue, Bernhard is too threatening to be a bona fide star. Her career is a series of Molotovs thrown from the margins. Bernhard debuted as an unhinged fan in Martin Scorcese’s 1983 “The King of Comedy,” and, in a case of life imitating art, has been rapping on fame’s door ever since. Like Parker Posey, she can’t seem to decide if she wants to squat in the mansion or flame the whole damn place.
In “Everything Bad and Beautiful,” as in her previous shows, the damaged diva acts out unmet career expectations by crucifying more successful, less deserving celebrities. Bernhard takes predictable swipes at Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey—“She owes her comeback to me.” A revolutionary pose to take at the outset of her career—the foolhardy skewering of the hands that could feed—this shtick feels less fresh in an age of Star magazine and red-carpet carping. Her influence dispersed in the culture at large, Bernhard’s bile has less bite.
But Bernhard has variety going for her. First off, she looks great—with her waved hair and svelte figure, she is a kind of cubist take on the model Gisele Bundchen. Ladies will love the on-stage costume change, with Bernhard shedding a slinky spring halter dress for tomboy jeans and cowboy boots.
Tonally, Bernhard finds her sweet spot when she celebrates and parodies in the same breath—in other words, when she camps in her unique Bernhard-only register. As a show opener, Bernhard croons Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” that exhausted anthem of teenage self-esteem, mocks the treacliness of its fantastical premise—”I am beautiful / no matter what they say”—and in doing so, admits its piquancy, particularly as the song’s lyrics widen to include the audience. It would be tough to peg this indefatigably ironic broad as sincere, but when she sings, Bernhard is freed from her sourpuss persona, and it’s a reprieve.
Soon Bernhard is back on the attack, nailing the Bush clan’s sexual hypocrisy. Laura Bush advising AIDS-afflicted Africans to practice abstinence? Bernhard pounces on the hard-partying, “pug-nosed” Bush daughters, demanding they be held to similar standards. Condoleezza, “Support Our Troops” stickers, Julia Roberts on Broadway are next in the firing line—not exactly difficult targets. In her social critique, Bernhard can’t be held to any kind of consistency. What great mind can? She mocks Meg Ryan for flying to an enlightenment center in her private jet, then boasts later about flying to Australia in first class.
With a wife and baby at home, Bernhard has admittedly softened. And though I don’t welcome this defusing of a queer firebrand, I find the strongest parts of the show to be those in which Bernhard explores her new domesticity. Bernhard’s wife decides to return to the office at an extended hiatus, leaving Sandra Sugarmommy at home with little to do but hit the gym and write emails to the wife, which Bernhard recites in a delightful babyish sing-song that my boyfriend and I were mimicking days later—“Missing you loving you lovely lady busy here too!” She even pokes fun at her former fabulous status when an invite to a Karl Lagerfeld party has her cajoling her infant daughter—“Truffle pasta at midnight!”
Though Bernhard blustered when Hello! magazine wanted to photograph her preggers—”This is a baby, not a publicity stunt,” she snarled—the unlikelihood of a p-whipped Bernhard may be her most compelling career turn yet.