Sandra Bernhard on Leaving Bitchy Behind
“I miss seeing you on television!” an elderly woman named Renee squawked at her neighbor the actress, comedian, and singer Sandra Bernhard. They were in front of the stately brick Frederic Fleming House, on West Twenty-second Street, a residence for formerly homeless New Yorkers, where Renee has lived for sixteen years.
“But, honey, you see me all the time,” Bernhard replied. (She walks her dog, George, along the block daily.)
Renee, who has no teeth and a quantity of chin hair, eyed Bernhard up and down and told her, “You look different on television!” Bernhard is starring in the second season of “Pose,” the Ryan Murphy drama about the gritty, glamorous world of transgender women and gay men who staged New York’s legendary drag balls. She plays an activist nurse at Roosevelt Hospital during the height of the AIDS crisis.
“We’ll put your show on the schedule,” Martha Binikos, Fleming House’s manager, who was passing by, promised.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” Bernhard said. “This place keeps the neighborhood grounded in old New York—like there’s still a place where people can live, and not be pushed out by twenty-million-dollar apartments.”
Season 2 of “Pose” is set in 1990, when there were still hookers on the piers and Madonna’s “Vogue” video introduced the culture of ballrooms to viewers of MTV. It was a time when Bernhard and Madonna were tight—they were often photographed out together, like a kind of two-headed It Girl. “It was really fun. We would go to parties and be bitchy—we were bitchy to Joan Rivers,” Bernhard said. “I had a little crush on her, and I loved that people were, like, ‘Ooh, Madonna likes Sandy!’ ”
Bernhard has been with her partner, Sara Switzer, for twenty years, but she doesn’t use the word “lesbian” to describe herself. “How about ‘sophisticated’? How about ‘groovy,’ ‘sexual,’ ‘international,’ ‘hot,’ ‘swinging’? Those are all words that work for me,” she said, and laughed. She played one of the first queer characters on television, on “Roseanne.” “People used to attack me for not coming out and saying, ‘I’m a dyke,’ ” she said. “All these tastemakers in the gay world were handing me my ass, and I thought, You don’t even get it! I was in the trenches in the seventies breaking all the rules about what sexuality was! Even when I was sixteen in Scottsdale—the most conservative place on Earth!”
Bernhard’s father, a proctologist, and her mother, an abstract artist, moved Bernhard and her three brothers to Arizona from Flint, Michigan, when she was ten years old. “As smart as I am, I didn’t really apply myself in school, because all I could think about was leaving and becoming this fabulous, international, sophisticated person,” she said. From the time she was a child and saw Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly!,” she knew that she wanted to be a performer. After high school, she went to Israel and worked on a kibbutz for nine months, then moved to Los Angeles. She supported herself by working as a manicurist: for five years, she clipped cuticles and entertained her clients, who included Victoria Principal—“always in a jaunty hat”—and Dyan Cannon.
“I became part of whatever was happening at the time, going to Studio One—which was like Studio 54, in L.A., but with all gay men. I was the only woman in there.” Like Bette Midler—one of Bernhard’s early idols—who got her start performing in New York’s bathhouses, Bernhard was embraced by the drag demimonde. She could relate to drag—creating a persona was as much a part of her art as singing or standup was. “I was used to being brash and over the top and fun, and making declarations and proclamations,” she said.
Berhard’s edge—her roiling mix of passion, rage, and wit—is what led Martin Scorsese to cast her as Jerry Lewis’s stalker in “The King of Comedy,” her breakout role, in 1981. “Just getting the role, I had arrived,” she said. “Debra Winger was up for it, and I think Meryl Streep. Nobody else could have done it—he was looking for the person I was to make the role work.”
Now the sixty-four-year-old mother of a college student, Bernhard, who was dressed, in a style she called “nautical but nice,” in a striped jersey and jeans, has a disarmingly gentle vibe in person. “I’ve gotten less shady,” she said. “People still want me to be bitchy, but I don’t enjoy it anymore.”
Renee produced a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket and asked for an autograph. “To the coolest lady on W 22nd St,” Bernhard wrote. ♦