Pretty Ugly: Sandra Bernhard's 'I'm Still Here ... Damn It!'

By Trebay, Guy | Artforum International, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Pretty Ugly: Sandra Bernhard's 'I'm Still Here ... Damn It!'


Trebay, Guy, Artforum International


She likes to wear high heels by Manolo Blahnik or Robert Clergerie. She once wrote admiringly of the beautiful bulge of her own calf. She once said of her face that it is sensual and sexual and also "just damned frightening." She used to perform a cover of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." She says that she has had to leave many people behind. She once remarked of herself that she rarely feels vulnerable because there is "not time for weakness in life." She says she believes there is not time enough for vengeance either. She claims that she learned this from studying the mystical cabala. From Dorothy Parker she learned that life will come up with fancier revenges for one's enemies than one ever could: "Make a bowl of popcorn," she says, "sit back, and enjoy the show."

Sandra Bernhard inhabits an array of often contradictory voices and stances. If she seldom settles for long in one, she is nevertheless always intensely sincere. She loves enthusiastically and hates lavishly and shuttles between the two emotions with a public ferocity that gives us reason to be glad that, undiminished by fifteen years at the perimeter of the spotlight, she has managed to stick around.

In I'm Still Here . . . Damn It!, the comedian/actress/singer once described by a critic as "a pathetic neutered Barbie doll with a frightening Medusa head" (and by another as a "terrorist lap dancer") struts the stage of a dingy West Village theater wearing a transparent Isaac Mizrahi dress over a black lace G-string; her hair is a wild, vaguely Medusan tangle, and she is fully sexually charged - not the least bit pathetic - as she riffs, with her customary scattershot brilliance, on our garbage culture. She mocks, by turns, the sham pathos of Gianni Versace's funeral, the edgy animus behind Caller ID, the grief orgy ensuing from Princess Diana's J.G. Ballard - esque demise. She rhapsodizes, as she always has, about that order of beautiful nobodies known as supermodels, a cult of which she is herself an ordained priestess. She transforms herself into a strutting Naomi Campbell and sings a self-infatuated Versace "tribute" called "On the Runway." She becomes a lurching Liza Minnelli performing a trouper's medley of "alternative music" tunes that lapse reflexively into the druggy Weimar shtick of Cabaret. She slags, in no particular order, Madonna, Courtney Love, Tina Brown, Elton John, Tom Cruise, New York Times columnist Alex Witchel, and David Letterman. She purifies the theater with an Indian sage stick. She impersonates a jive-talking spider skittering down a silken thread to bite a sleeping Sandy on the arm. "I love a good bayberry candle," she remarks, as she puts a match to that definitive symbol of shopping-mall gentility. She sings the Rolling Stones' "Angie." She sings "Midnight Train to Georgia." She reads a couple of awful poems.

The ambient rage that binds Bernhard's performance is not easily captured on the page. It does not seem to be an act, but it is also not something Bernhard readily admits to feeling. "Anger is so negative," she remarked not long ago over lunch at a tiny West Village restaurant. The two of us awkwardly shared a minuscule table. Between spoonfuls of leek-and-potato soup she spoke of an ambition to take her career to "another level," a plateau that would appear to involve a Sonny & Cher-style television variety show, on which Bernhard would appear in confections whipped up by her many designer friends, ruminate in her singular comedic way, and entertain a series of "surprise" guests. As if on cue, a series of surprise "guests" arrived at the restaurant: first the ornamental actor Rupert Everett with his black Labrador, Rosie; then the dully beautiful blond Scottish model, Kirsty Hume; and then Hume's pretty husband, Nancy Boy singer and sometime model Donovan Leitch. Bernhard greeted these demicelebrities expansively, lavishing them with show business bonhomie, air kisses, backstage invitations, etc. …

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