Thursday, July 19, 2012

Reverend's Interview: One Grand Dame

Sandra Bernhard has distinguished herself in the entertainment industry since the late 1970's as a stand-up comedian, singer, actress and author. More recently, she has gained regard as an advocate, activist and mother. For all her achievements to date, Bernhard is being honored as Grand Marshall of the San Diego Pride parade on Saturday, July 21st.

She often wields a harsh or bitter attitude in her comedic performances, which landed Bernhard in hot water in 2008 when she declared that then-Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin would be "gang-raped by my big black brothers" upon her arrival in New York City. Fortunately, Bernhard was nothing but pleasant and gracious when Reverend spoke with her recently.

"I know, isn't that exciting?," she replied to my congratulations on being named Grand Marshall. "It's always great to be among my people and to appreciate each other." Bernhard was so honored previously during the St. Louis Pride parade two years ago and reflected fondly on the experience. "It was great, so fun; there was definitely mutual admiration" between her and that parade's spectators.


Along with the elders among us, Bernhard has watched the growth in prominence and equality of our LGBT community over the past few decades. This growth has exploded in just the last few years. "I think it's really timely and the perfect evolution of the gay movement," Bernhard noted. "It's a natural thing, but it is an ongoing battle and we need to keep those in mind who have paved the way for us: feminists, black people, and others who have suffered oppression."

Bernhard was raised in a Jewish family and came of age (along with Reverend) in Scottsdale, Arizona. After graduating from high school, she lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year. She then moved to Los Angeles and began to develop her stand-up comedy while making ends meet as a manicurist. Soon after, Bernhard became a regular performer at The Comedy Store and was cast on The Richard Pryor Show, which she describes as "a great learning experience." She presently ranks among Comedy Central's listing of the 100 greatest standups of all time.

"When I was really little, my inspirations were Carol Channing, Carol Burnett and Phyllis Diller," Bernhard shared. "My musical influences were Tina Turner, Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell. It's pretty obvious I've always been attracted to tough, ballsy women."


The comedian-turned-actress made a big splash with her first major film role in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983). As Masha, a psychotic woman who stalks and ultimately kidnaps a talk show host played by Jerry Lewis, Bernhard inspired Oscar speculation and won the National Society of Film Critics award that year for Best Supporting Actress. Other prominent movie turns followed including Casual Sex?, Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird and, my personal favorite, Hudson Hawk. She plays the megalomaniacal Minerva Mayflower in this campy, 1991 comedy-adventure.

Though the big-budget movie starring Bruce Willis in the title role became a notorious flop at the box office, Bernhard has no regrets. "It was a blast, to live in Europe for three months and just fool around, because they spent so much money on that movie. Also, Richard E. Grant, who played my husband, and I have remained very good friends since then."

Bernhard was also famously good friends -- and possibly more -- with Madonna for a time. During an appearance together on The David Letterman Show in the late 1980's, the women alluded to a romantic relationship between them and staged a sexy confrontation before the flummoxed Letterman. Bernhard also appeared in Madonna's documentary Truth or Dare but the pair later grew distant.


As one of the first actresses to portray an openly-lesbian recurring character on TV, Bernhard had a six-year run on the hit sitcom Roseanne. She also played herself on two renowned episodes of Will & Grace. She includes these among the highlights of her career to date, along with The King of Comedy and her one-woman show Without You I'm Nothing, With You I'm Not Much Better, which became a movie in 1990.

"For me, almost every time I get up to perform live, it's a major moment," Bernhard said. "To still feel that way after thirty years is a great feeling." Today, she is making the rounds with a new live show, working on a new book, and working with some producers to try to resurrect her 1992 late-night show Sandra After Dark, at least as a weekly show. Bernhard also continues to make frequent guest appearances on various TV series, including recent shots on Hot in Cleveland and the final episode of GCB.


"On a career level, just getting up every day and being creative is something I enjoy and am blessed to be able to do," Bernhard reflects. "On a personal level, spending important quality time with my daughter and spending time with my family and friends" is important to her at this stage of her life. Bernhard, who lives in New York but gets back to Southern California and Arizona regularly, has been partnered with her girlfriend for the past 13 years and their daughter, Cicely, will be starting high school this fall.

Before concluding, I asked Bernhard if there was anything she wanted to say specifically to the GLBT community of Southern California. "I think it's really important to stay mobilized and to stay clear about our goals, and to get marriage equality recognized at the federal level," she replied. "There shouldn't be any question about that."

To keep up with Bernhard, visit her website.

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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