Sandra Bernhard


A fine actor and unsettlingly abrasive comedian, Sandra Bernhard gave one of the scariest performances of all time in Scorcese's brilliant King of Comedy in 1983, playing the celebrity-obsessed fanatic who helps the equallybesotted Robert De Niro kidnap TV talk show host Jerry Lewis. De Niro and Lewis were great, but it was Bernhard's demented intensity that registered.

She was still making waves in 1998 with her solo show, I'm Still Here . . . Damn It! "An angst-ridden, foulmouthed, poison-laced joyride that banks and careers frenetically through the worlds of fashion, celebrity, rock and religion," said The New York Times, while Bernhard herself - somewhat disturbingly - commented: "It's like hanging out in my livingroom."

She has taken her shows all over America and Europe, played lesbian Nancy Bartlett in Roseanne from 1991-97, posed nude for Playboy and had a much-publicised alleged fling with Madonna. In all of these endeavours, her private and public life merge: even before Playboy she was the most naked of performers. But the narcissism is calculated; she undermined the concept of celebrity. She said: "My whole career is about creating false mythology because I think it's a fantastic way of manipulating the media."

Sandra Bernhard was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1955, and after graduating from high school lived in a kibbutz in Israel before moving to Los Angeles as a manicurist in 1974. She developed some comedy routines and went into the business full time in 1978.

She was a regular guest on NBC's Late Night With Letterman, and it was on that show she and Madonna flirted suggestively; she later featured in Madonna's controversial documentary film, Truth or Dare. Since then, Bernhard has mostly concentrated on her stage shows, a mix of sometimes cringe-inducing self-revelatory stand-up and big production numbers, with music provided by her backing band, The Strap-Ons.

Camille Paglia wrote: "Sandra Bernhard has Lenny Bruce's brooding menace and quick, razor-sharp mind . . . her technique is not the tiresome, sterile irony of postmodernist `appropriation'. On the contrary, she daringly explores a raw, stormy emotionalism, sudden tantrums that repel or terrify."

Two cult favourites met - albeit one of them posthumously - in 1999 when Bernhard starred in the movie, I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, adapted from a never-produced screenplay by "worst director of all time" Ed Wood. In spite of a cast including Billy Zane and Christina Ricci, the film, in common with everything else remotely connected with the hapless Wood, was condemned as appalling, and has still to reach Ireland.


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