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IT’S HER PARTY, AND SHE’LL BE WRY IF SHE WANTS TO : Sandra Bernhard Unveils a Work-in-Progress at the Coach House

<i> Janice Page is editor of OC LIVE! </i>

On film, it’s a primal scream of a face--all Streisand nose, Jagger lips and dark, cavernous eyes.

Suitably framed by smoky auburn take-me-as-I-am hair, it’s the kind of face one might expect to stick out like a plate of spinach fettuccine amid the meatloaf-and-potatoes diner decor of Du-par’s in the Valley. Yet here Sandra Bernhard sits, smack in the middle of a bustling lunch scene on a warm August afternoon, with little more than her trademark pout distinguishing her from the crowd.

In person, her acid-tongued, antagonistic persona all but dissolves. She’s almost--dare we say it--nice, calling everyone “sweetie” and “honey,” urging her late-arriving, traffic-frazzled interviewer to “relax, take a deep breath.”

Could this be the same Sandra Bernhard whose shocking stage behavior and rapier-like wit regularly caused David Letterman to quake in his Adidas? The woman who has built a career out of simultaneously embracing and assailing everything--including audiences--within reach? The self-proclaimed “Sade of Comedy”?

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Indeed, Bernhard sometimes appears nearly as incongruous as the Diane Von Furstenberg paper towels she mocks. Which could be why fans have come to expect anything and everything from her concerts, from stripteases to semi-serious musical interludes. At the Coach House on Friday, she will unveil the seeds of a new one-woman show, a work-in-progress that she only half-kiddingly describes as “rock ‘n’ roll.”

“I like to think of my shows as a party where people are invited in,” she says in mock Hollywood nothing-speak. It’s the same line she used to describe her first one-woman show, “Without You I’m Nothing,” which ran for seven months Off Broadway before becoming the basis of a film released last year to somewhat less-than-enthusiastic box office. Like that outing, this new show, which begins an open-ended East Coast tour early next month, is a montage of “personal reflections,” cultural observations, and song.

“It’s always pretty biographical,” she says. “With some, if not a lot of, embellishments.”

John Boskovich, her collaborator on “Without You I’m Nothing,” is on board again, ensuring a similar format, she says, with one notable exception: This time around, Bernhard is backed by a band.

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A keyboardist, guitar player, drummer and backup singer will accompany her in an array of jazz, disco and rock numbers interspersed throughout the show.

“We rock the house,” she insists wryly.

Music always has been nebulous terrain where Bernhard is concerned. Her untrained voice is far more at home over a hairbrush-microphone in front of the bathroom mirror than on a concert stage, making it perfect for skewering the MTV generation but hard to take seriously otherwise--a fact that Bernhard herself once readily acknowledged.

In a 1989 interview, she insisted that a singing career was not in the cards: “I like it, but I’m not prepared to compete in the world of Stacey Q and Paula Abdul,” she said. “Even if I had a hit it would be, like, kind of embarrassing in a weird way. . . . People would say, ‘Oh, and now she’s singing ,’ because my work is all about the irony of all those worlds, so I shouldn’t fully participate.”

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But the universe seems to have gotten smaller for Bernhard in the last few years, and now she as often is seen cavorting with pop stars (ie. Madonna) as ridiculing them. In February, she checked her sense of humor in the Arsenio Hall show’s green room for a deadly serious performance of a song (“Cruel War”) in support of Persian Gulf troops--a statement she now says was not political in any way, though “certainly that war proved to be another big waste of time, ultimately.”

Asked whether her musical dabblings, in fact, have become something more serious than parodies, Bernhard counters that her performances were never parody.

“It’s more laced with irony,” she insists.

Furthermore, she takes her musical performances very seriously.

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“My music is as much a part of me as my monologues,” she says.

OK. But it’s not hard to understand the confusion, given that when last we left her on the New York stage she was singing Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” in her underwear.

As for having assimilated into the mainstream, Bernhard says it isn’t so; she continues to walk that “fine line” between being an audience’s ally and its entree to the worlds she mocks.

“I don’t really play the star, and if I do it’s dress-up--it’s an act.”

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Unfortunately, neither the media nor the American public always has been quick to get the joke where Bernhard is concerned. Take her now-infamous 1987 appearance on Letterman’s “Late Night,” when Bernhard and pal Madonna pranced on wearing matching outfits and proceeded to commandeer the show, insinuating, among other things, that they not only had slept with each other but also had actor Sean Penn in common. The bisexual rumors flew for weeks; both stars expressed surprise at being taken so seriously.

Of course, there was a time when not being taken seriously was Bernhard’s biggest problem.

The fourth child of a proctologist father and an artist mother, Bernhard--now 35--grew up in Flint, Mich., and Scottsdale, Ariz., amid somewhat privileged surroundings.

“My parents wouldn’t join the country club,” she wrote in her 1989 autobiography, “Confessions of a Pretty Lady” (Harper & Row). “My mother, being an artist, thought it was pretentious. It’s because of that I never had a nose job and consequently became the girl I wanted to be.”

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At 18, Bernhard moved to Los Angeles, where she struggled for several years on the local comedy club circuit, her quirky blend of song and wry cultural observation largely dismissed by the setup-and-punchline establishment. Among ways she found to support herself was a pedicurist job that literally put her at Hollywood’s feet. (“I did Dyan (Cannon) one time ,” she relates in “Confessions.” “And she never looked at me as I dug sand from under her big toenail.”)

Her big break came when she landed the role of Masha, the obsessed fan who holds Jerry Lewis’s talk-show host character hostage in Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film, “The King of Comedy.” As with virtually every performance that has followed, her over-the-top portrayal scored big with critics (she won a Best Supporting Actress award from the National Society of Film Critics) but earned only a cult-like audience. It was a start, though.

Other movies (Nicholas Roeg’s “Track 29,” the recent “Hudson Hawk”), the stage show and even a couple of records have followed, but it was TV that ultimately made Bernhard a “star.”

In her monthly appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman,” she garnered quite a following, even though she often alienated the host, who clearly was not as taken with her unbridled, domineering presence. But the pair’s cat-and-mouse-like interplay produced moments that were fresh, funny and nearly always interesting, and audiences ate it up.

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Of course, that was before Arsenio Hall arrived on the late-night scene. Now, Bernhard can afford to be more vocal about her dislike for certain Letterman traits (moodiness and misogyny, she intimates) and her distaste for doing the show. Recently, she even was reported to have said she would not go on the show again, a statement that she says was misquoted.

“No, I’ll do Letterman again,” she says. “He’s hard to deal with, but when I need him I’ll do the show again. . . . When I have something I just want to plug the ---- out of.”

She favors Hall’s show, she admits, because she finds the host easier to work with. When it’s suggested that she doesn’t really come across as the type to opt for easy, she replies: “No, but it’s nice when someone gives me a little more room. . . . Arsenio’s not mean.”

Bernhard never has been one to hold back her opinions of people, particularly stars. She is equally clear about whom she likes. While she claims not to be enamored of the Hollywood scene (“my daily life isn’t really about being ‘Sandra Bernhard’ ”), a new friend and object of admiration is Roseanne Arnold, whom she met at a party.

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“I think she’s really cool,” Bernhard says. “Very real and doesn’t take any bull.” In fact, most of her heroes are the outlaw type: Guns N’ Roses bad boy Axl Rose, Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler, the late author and actress Jacqueline Susann. “I’ve stepped out a few times myself,” she explains, “so I always look up to people who do that.”

And speaking of stepping out, she’s quick to defend another acquaintance whose alleged violation of social mores has put him much in the news of late: fellow comic Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman. Regarding Reubens’ arrest in Florida (“the bastion of hypocrisy”) on charges that he exposed himself at an adult movie theater, Bernhard has this to say:

“I think it’s ridiculous, that’s what I think. He was doing something in a place that people go to relieve themselves. It’s not like it was anything violent or anything. We’re so focused in on these cultural reprimands. Maybe if more people went to porno houses there’d be fewer serial killers.”

Given her penchant for not mincing words, and her public support for AIDS and abortion-rights causes, one might think she’d have an opinion or two regarding the current political climate. But Bernhard steers clear of such weighty topics, both on stage and off. Asked what she thinks of the current Administration, she replies blankly: “I don’t think about them,” adding that she sticks to personal and cultural rather than topical material because “it’s not really going to change anything if I focus on (topical) subjects. People can read the newspaper for that.”

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Hollywood, on the other hand, is something Bernhard thinks a lot about. Specifically, why she can’t seem to crack the inner circle of acceptance that might send more opportunities her way. She says she’d love to do more movies, but “between the Hollywood competition, (filmmakers’) ideas of what the role should be and yours, you don’t always get offered the parts.”

Still, she is philosophical: “There are some films I haven’t done that I wish I did (she reportedly turned down the receptionist role in “Ghostbusters” that ultimately went to Annie Potts). Then there are films I did that I wish I hadn’t.”

The latter comment seems a ready-made segue to her role in what roundly has been thrashed as the summer’s--possibly the year’s--biggest flop, “Hudson Hawk.”

Yet even this she is philosophical about.

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“I’m not sorry I’m in it,” she says. “The original script was good, but a lot of things were wrong about the situation.

“It wasn’t like the most highly artistic experience I’ve ever had, but it was OK.”

Actually, Bernhard--who plays half of a maniacal, comic-book-caricature husband and wife team out to rule the world--escaped the brunt of the critics’ wrath, which landed squarely on star Bruce Willis. And for this, she is eternally grateful.

“I figure if I can come out of that unscathed,” she marvels, “I’m doing OK.”

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Whether she came out of her other recent film appearance, in Madonna’s “Truth or Dare,” unscathed is a matter of opinion. The concert documentary includes a short scene in which Bernhard and the pop star trade snippets of their sex lives, including Bernhard’s troubled relationship with a female gallery owner. The scene received a lot of attention in some circles, but Bernhard is loath to discuss it.

“I guess I was probably the most real person in (Madonna’s) life,” she says dismissively. “So people are intrigued.” She then adds tersely, “I didn’t do it for my career, I just did it ‘cause we’re friends. It didn’t mean anything to me. And it doesn’t.”

The film she would rather talk about is her upcoming “Inside Monkey Zetterland,” directed by Jefery Levy (whose “Drive” is entered in the upcoming Venice International Film Festival) and currently wrapping production. Unfortunately, the movie, written by Steve Antin (mostly known for his acting credits in such films as “The Accused”), has such a quirky plot it apparently defies description. Bernhard could only reveal that she plays Antin’s girlfriend and that co-stars include Katherine Helmond, Martha Plimpton, Sofia Coppola and Ricki Lake.

Her high hopes for the project, though, are evident. And combined with the stage show, it seems reason enough for Bernhard to be relatively content.

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“I have a great life,” she remarks offhandedly. Still prone to the occasional “plunging, V-necked depression” described in her book, but immeasurably better than the days spent attending to Hollywood’s cuticles. It’s a happiness she says comes with “maturing, growing up, expecting less from people; just mellowing out a bit.”

Indeed, the woman occupying the center booth at Du-par’s seems nearly as laid back as her black T-shirt, worn blue jeans (“I didn’t wear them in, of course. Who has time?”), tan cowboy boots and shades.

She doesn’t even worry all that much about being funny.

“I feel pressure only to be whatever I am at the moment,” she says. “I like to be funny, but I’m not always.”

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And she certainly isn’t worrying, she says, about tailoring her act to Orange County audiences, whatever that means.

“I try not to have preconceived notions about any place I go, since I appeal to a certain segment anyway.

“I don’t worry too much about the population in general. They won’t be coming.”

Who: Sandra Bernhard.

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When: Friday, Aug. 16, at 8 and 10:30 p.m.

Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Center.

Wherewithal: $26.50.

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Where to call: (714) 496-8930.


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