‘Without You I’m Nothing’ at 30

❉ This is not a film for everyone and the rest of us may need another 30 years to catch up.

“Bernhard is hardly the most humble of performers. And why should she be? She fought for her own unique space in the industry; surely borne of a lifetime fighting for her own space in the wider world too. But here, and in her ‘real-life’ big Hollywood moment, she chooses to show herself struggling.” – Alexis Gregory.

“Pretend its 1978…and you’re straight.”

Actress/comedienne/singer/writer/general all-round fierce-rulin’ icon Sandra Bernhard’s 1990 film Without You I’m Nothing, based on her 1988 off-Broadway one-woman ‘smash hit show’, as we are so oft-reminded in this film version, is no-run of the mill stage-to-screen screen adaption.

Of course it isn’t. This is our Sandy we’re talking about.

Co-written and directed by John Boskovich and exec-produced by Nic Roeg, Bernhard described the screen adaptation as an ‘elevated’ version of her stage show.

The studio version blends re-enactments of the original show’s pieces with ‘concept’ vignettes and ‘talking heads’ testimonials, from actors playing her manager or ex co-star etc, exploring the relationship the real and the pretend, the performer and the audience.

In this case, her mostly black audience are a very disinterested crowd. The setting is an upscale supper house. We find out that Sandra has been dispatched to perform in front of them. Her ‘manager’ explains that after her recent stage success she got ‘too grand…way out of hand’ and needs sending back to her roots. But whose roots are they really?

The result is Bernhard deconstructing the notion of what a screen adaption ‘is’ or ‘can be’. Here, it is genre-busting, post-modern, biting, political, subversive, raw and at times, baffling. It’s also bittersweet, angry and sexy. Often, all at the same time.

An obvious choice for an artist making the step from cult NYC off-Broadway show to the big screen, would be to show themselves storming their onscreen performance, wowing the world with their ‘break’ inducing moment.

But not Bernhard. In Without You…. she appears to explore the notion of failure. Bernhard is hardly the most humble of performers. And why should she be? She fought for her own unique space in the industry; surely borne of a lifetime fighting for her own space in the wider world too. But here, and in her ‘real-life’ big Hollywood moment, she chooses to show herself struggling.

The club MC gets her name wrong, introducing her as ‘Sarah Bernhardt’. Between each number, there is only ever a smattering of bored applause, at best, sometimes none at all and plenty of audience eye-rolling.

Still, Bernhard goes all-out and delivers a storming performance, taking us on a whirlwind cultural road-trip, passing through Hollywood, show-business, her Jewish upbringing, the art world, country music, high art and low culture, race politics, sexuality, consumerism, black culture, gay culture and Americana; or notions thereof.

Sandra Bernhard in Without You I’m Nothing (1990)

With Bernhard as an outsider in all of these worlds, much as she finds herself as one in the club setting, she takes on the role of professional shapeshifter, striking a series of collective cultural poses; diva, lounge singer, political aggravator, a straight man ‘accidentally’ stumbling into a disco (see the quote that opens this piece) and even as….’herself’. The film also references (dishes on?) Streisand, Bacharach, Warhol, Prince, Warren Beatty (allegedly) and of course that “lucky lucky star”… Madonna.

Sandra’s cover versions of famous songs, re-contextualized in this new setting, take on  brand new meanings. Me And Mrs Jones, who’ve “a fundamentally funky thing going on” (just so you know) becomes, in her hands, a lesbian torch song. Sylvester’s throbbing disco stormer Do You Wanna Funk becomes a furious political polemic, a call to arms and paying tribute to the change makers that came before; “Gandhi had the beat, Martin Luther King had the beat and a dream”.

Bernhard also choses to throw herself under the bus in the way she presents herself as a culture-appropriator too; apparently (though clearly tongue in cheek) blindly taking from whichever source she sees fit.

Her manager, at one point, absurdly states; “They’ve all stolen from her; Donna Summer, Tina Turner….Whoopi Goldberg…Nina Simone….and I have even seen traces of Sandra in….Diana Ross”, as we swiftly cut to Bernhard on stage, flanked by two female back-up singers, all in Diana Ross and The Supremes ‘drag’; gowns, wigs, long gloves, and about to launch into Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.

“If you should need me….call me….”

Is the joke on Sandy or us? You decide.

She even brazenly takes on Nina Simone’s Afrocentric Four Women.

In Catherine Halley’s 1995 essay; ‘The Mouth that Launched a Thousand Rifts: Sandra Bernhard’s Politics of Irony’, Halley states that Bernhard is “posited as an inauthentic performer…who naively and guiltlessly appropriates African-American culture…. She consciously calls into question her own performance of this song as fraudulent and appropriative”.

Sandra shifts from character to character, revealing everything about them, yet nothing of herself. Although one of the film’s most famous, literally, revealing moments is her now notorious cover of Prince’s Little Red Corvette, that she performs, stripped down, again literally, in her (little) red, white and blue G-string; perhaps a reference to the ‘new and brave America’ that Bernhard seems to, so vocally, long for.

At this moment, at her most vulnerable, exposed and ‘authentic’, Bernhard reveals herself as a fake to the audience and states that she’d like to give them their money back, although a second later she also adds; “I’m sorry I can’t do that”.

Sandra Bernhard in Without You I’m Nothing (1990)

Halley writes; “As she changes race, class, gender, and sexuality in her monologues, she exposes her own artificial occupation of these positions…it is not really an act but a fantasy about a series of acts, in which she adopts wigs, makeup and disguises to show that she can “be” anybody – or that there is no real person there”.

A striking black woman, whom we assume to be a love interest, has been watching the show the whole time. At the end of the film we see her scrawl in lipstick, on a nightclub napkin, ‘Fuck Sandra Bernhard’. She then gets up and leaves, deserting Bernard who is totally alone in the auditorium.

Bernhard, after giving till it hurts and delivering (several) tour de force schtick upon schtick, is dismissed on her own project.

The ‘New York Times’ reviewed the film as walking ‘a razor-thin edge between bold, revelatory wit and impenetrable contempt…the result is at times ingenious and unsettling. Too often, though, the contempt wins out, and Ms. Bernhard’s attempt to remain a taunting, facetious enigma becomes perhaps more opaque than she means it to be’.

Without You I’m Nothing is not a film for everyone.

But our Sandy was always ahead of the game, and this piece of high-art exists on its own plane and the rest of us may need another thirty years to catch up.

I watched the film recently among a queer audience at Film Fringe Fest and the audience, a real cross section in terms of age, gender etc, was with it every step of the way, laughing at the films subtleties and idiosyncrasies; no mean feat for a film seemed in and commentating on a series of thirty year old pop culture (i.e. ever changing) references. And let’s face it, thirty years is even longer in ‘gay years’.

The LGBTQ+ appeal of Sandra Bernhard is obvious. Whilst always refusing to label herself as a lesbian, she is a bona fide gay icon, breaking through as a queer counterculture icon and enjoying what I consider to be her ‘peak’ period of success in the ‘90s; riding the drag revival of that time and being more ‘drag’ than some of those real drags (honey!). Her humour, and indeed body of work, is camp but not in an obvious way. She is much more arch.

Cultural commentator and writer Michael Musto states, “Bernhard uses strategies of camp humour, such as irony, hyperbole, and parody, to political ends in the film”. Musto went on to describe Bernhard as ‘new camp; dedicated especially to queer causes, and hence, more political.”

Bernhard redefines art, celebrity and fame, and the intersection of them all. She herself is influenced by Bette Midler and “every diva that gave ’til it hurt” and in other artists’ work; for example that of Kiki and Herb or Our Lady J and, as a result of her work on current hit TV series Pose, she has gone on to be influence a whole new generation of (queer) audiences.

Quizzed herself, on how best to describe her work she did so as; “Giving energy, glamour, big hair, moving forward, throwing shade, vogueing, striking a pose, posing a strike. Whatever’. The interviewer tried to press her to break it down further and earnestly queried; “Is it performance art?” “No”, Bernhard came back with; “It’s entertainment, baby”.

❉ ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ was released on VHS video cassette on December 19, 1990 and in 2000 as part of the “MGM Avant-Garde Cinema” collection. It was released on DVD on 23 August 2005, and on DVD-R 16 December 2014. It is currently unavailable on home video.

❉ Alexis Gregory is a playwright and performer. His plays are published by Bloomsbury Publishing.

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  1. Interesting piece, though Sandra’s work perhaps warrants a more considered analysis, contextualised beside the work of her contemporaries? Often verges on histrionic and indulgent in tone but included a really insightful discussion of Halley’s essay/Bernhard’s appropriative relationship with African-American culture.

  2. Really loved Without You I’m Nothing (as a kid who moved from Michigan to NYC and felt out of sorts in both states, there was something emboldening and aspirational about the celebration of Sandra’s otherness in WYIM), however I found this a confusing read. At times it feels like recitation or a synopsis, at times it feels like recalling the actions of a friend over a WhatsApp group chat, at times it feels like analysis. Too often it feels like the writer is infusing Sandra’s “camp humour…irony, hyperbole” into the writing, only for it to feel like a mass of tongue-in-cheek asides. I really wish it was one thing or the other. The film is 30 years old and there’s much that could have been said about its enduring legacy and influence.

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