Sandra Bernhard's Without You I'm Nothing, the movie released in the winter of early 1990, followed on the heels of her 1988 off-Broadway stage production ... what she and others refer to in the movie as her "smash-hit one-woman show." There were several changes in monologues and one-liners to update the comedic appeal of the show. And the movie version visually re-vamped the story, taking Sandra from a fabulous existence as a successful stage performer in New York, during what she calls her "superstar summer," to an illusory existence back in her home in Los Angeles - her fictional manager in the film refers to it as getting Sandra back "to her roots, to ... upscale supper clubs like the Parisian Room."
There's a point to be made here. Sandra tries to appeal her liberal worldview to an audience that doesn't completely see it. In L.A. she's playing to a predominantly black audience, trying to relate her ideas and comedy when all these people seem to want is "Shashonna," a Madonna-look-alike stripper. And even then, with Shashonna dancing to drum beats that resemble those from "Like a Virgin," there's not much to be said for the audience's enjoyment of the show. The scene in the club throughout the movie is dryer than a bone. A funny scene to catch is of a rotund man from the audience helping Shashonna out of her pants.
But, if she's going down, Sandra's going down with style and force, conveying everything from foul confidence to punctured vulnerability ... right to the point at which she's naked (literally), pleading with the audience for acceptance and, yet, somehow still swimming in the pool of her own transparent stardom. Her interactions with celebrities like Calvin Klein, Jerry Lewis, Bianca Jagger, Ralph Lauren and (what we're lead to believe is) Warren Beatty are fictional and hilarious.
Sandra begins her show in her most awkward moment, performing a quiet but mystifying rendition of Nina Simone's song "Four Women" while dressed in African garb, singing lines such as "my skin is black," "my hair is wooly," and "they call me Sweet Thing."
She resurrects and celebrates the ghosts of underworld art: "Leave it to Andy [Warhol] to have the wisdom and sensitivity into the hours and hours of toil and labor that went into the Indian product ... that they've been so lucky to cash in on this whole Santa Fe thing happening."
She expounds on the excessiveness of Hollywood, consoling a distraught friend then admonishing him, saying "Mister, if this is about Ishtar, I'm getting up right now and walking out of your life forever because that's too self-indulgent for even me!"
Sandra illustrates the expectations of women in the age of feminism. In retelling her young-girl fantasy, she eventually concludes in relief, "I'll never be a statistic, not me. I'm under 35, and I'm going to be married!"
And she extols the opening of sexuality in society: "When he touches you in the night, does it feel all right, or does it feel real? I say it feels real ... MIGHTY real." And, finally, she cries for change in American society by channeling disco greats Patrick Cowley and Sylvester and proclaiming, "Eventually everyone will funk!"
All this comes in the form of glitzy, schmaltzy but wonderful cabaret performances of songs written and originated by Billy Paul, Burt Bacharach, Hank Williams and Laura Nyro, to name a few. At the same time, the idealized, fictional incarnation of Sandra -- her self-generated mirror image -- floats around town, a beautiful model with flowing gowns and tight bustiers reading the Kabala, studying chemistry and listening to NWA rap music.
Without You I'm Nothing exposes Sandra in what was then her most intimate and direct engagement with an audience to date. She explores emotions and existences that, up until then, she'd only toyed with as a regular guest on Late Night With David Letterman. Her almost child-like enthusiasm for shock, exhibited throughout the '80s, is thrown aside in the face of a subtler allure, and her confidence in the face of materialism and American celebrity proves refreshing. This approach to comedy would change Sandra's direction forever and mark the more mature, more personable entertainer to come.
If you like subtle humor to the point of engaging in inside jokes about glamour, celebrity, sex, loneliness, despair and shallow expressions of love and kinship, this movie will keep you in stitches. But see it with a friend "in the know" because it's definitely funnier that way. Before you know it, the two of you will be trading Sandra barbs and confusing the hell out of everyone else.