Anyone who goes to see Sandra Bernhard’s Without You I’m Nothing under the delusion that it’s going to be funny will probably want to strangle the projectionist within 20 minutes. On the other hand, if you feel like witnessing a rare spectacle of American show-biz narcissism gone psychotic, there is much to savor here.
Working with cowriter-director John Boskovich and executive producer Nicolas Roeg, Bernhard has refashioned her much-heralded Off-Broadway show (which ran in 1988) into a kind of one-woman Star Search, a performance-art catalog of her mock-celebrity obsessions.
The movie has no straight comedy routines. Instead, we get extended high- camp nightclub numbers, in which Bernhard, appearing in a variety of chanteuse guises (disco diva, C&W queen, Diana Ross), sets out to prove she can actually carry a tune — and with soul. We get autobiographical monologues in which La Bernhard basks in her success and then, shifting into a full-throttle confessional mode, reveals she’s still tremendously angry about all the lies on which this culture is based. And, in the grand finale, we get Bernhard stripping down to pasties and a G-string for a down and dirty, this-is-what- you-really-want-isn’t- it-America? bump-and-grind number.
The movie presents Bernhard as a free-floating wanna-be: the Last Warhol Superstar. Those eager to see the teasing dervish who can be so hilarious taking the wind out of David Letterman’s sails will be stunned to encounter this solipsistic mixture of preening and poisoned sarcasm. Clearly, Bernhard has come not to please her audience but to terrorize it. She wants to pummel us with Truth.
Yet there’s something disturbingly retrograde about her notion of the subversive. In Without You I’m Nothing, this outrageous, talented woman is, more than anything, obsessed with black people as symbols. A white-girl/black-goddess dichotomy runs throughout the movie — whether it’s in the mysterious scenes with Bernhard’s anonymous (and beautiful) black alter ego, her tireless renditions of black-pop standards, or the bizarre, masochistic moments in / which her jokes are greeted by the silent stares of black patrons in a cool- jazz nightclub.It’s no great surprise that Sandra Bernhard is torn between self-glorification and self-hatred. But does she have to dehumanize blacks into icons to complete her psychodramatic canvas? She was a lot more appealing when she kept her fantasies under wraps.