Sandra Bernhard Has a Real Attitude Problem, and Fans Like It That Way

updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sandra Bernhard saunters onstage with a smile menacing enough to send a Doberman whimpering. Decked out in a gold-and-black minidress that effusively hugs her body, she sways to the song "Black Velvet." But dancing solo gets real boring, real fast. She motions a young man from the Columbia University audience to join her. Standing there, wearing jeans, T-shirt and a bright red blush, the kid doesn't know quite what to do. But Bernhard does.

She starts feeling his biceps, his triceps, his quadriceps. Not to put too fine a point on it, she's reading the guy in braille. Soon, however, the woman with the Mick Jagger lips is bored again. Tiring of bachelor No. 1, Bernhard enlists the terpsichorean services of a young woman. And, ladies and gentlemen, the crowd goes wild.

"Society is one big screwed-up mess. Nobody knows what they want and where they're going," Bernhard, 35, announces before reading selections from a philosophy book, singing a few Israeli folk songs and launching into a tirade about "polyunsaturated sexuality."

"Oh, there is so much I want to tell you tonight," she tells her audience in a motherly tone. And there is so much her audience wants to know. For example, they want to know—despite the reams of paper already devoted to the subject—about the precise nature of her relationship with gal-pal Madonna. Remember that the pair came on the David Letterman show two years ago dressed in identical jean shorts, T-shirts and cowboy boots, and Sandra warned Dave not to flirt with her girlfriend Madonna. And recall that last year the two appeared at a "Don't Bungle the Jungle!" benefit for the rain forest, cooing "I Got You Babe" to each other while bumping behinds.

"Can you tell me what Madonna's bra size is?" asks a Columbia kid.

"No, darling, I can't," admits Bernhard. "Believe me, I can't. But she would be glad to answer that if you call her directly."

"Is Madonna as sexy in bed as she is out of bed?" someone else wants to know.

"She's probably a total bore," says Bernhard. "I have not slept with the woman, so I cannot tell you. Do you think I would be right here now if I were? I'd be in Japan spending all of her money."

Here, briefly stated, is the Sandra Bernhard credo: I provoke. Therefore I am. Nowhere is that provocative sentiment more in evidence than in Without You I'm Nothing, the movie version of her one-woman show that ran for seven months off-Broadway. During the course of this shockumentary, which is now playing around the country, Bernhard sings a little, whines more and receives visits from friends like cable-TV porn star Robin Byrd, who stops by to take a shower on camera. At the end of the proceedings, Bernhard strips down to a G-string and dances to "Little Red Corvette," gold tassels dangling wildly from her breasts. As she says of the film, "It's no Lambada, I can tell you that. It's entertainment! Entertainment! Entertainment!"

The girl is strange, no doubt about it, but she has an explanation. "My father is a proctologist, and my mother's an abstract artist. That's how I view the world." The youngest child of Dr. Jerome and Jeanette Bernhard (yes, a proctologist and an artist, respectively), Sandra and "my three sensitive older brothers" grew up in Flint, Mich., where she read Nancy Drew but says she preferred Jacqueline Susann. By age 3, she'd already made her career plans clear. "She would mimic everybody." remembers her mother. "I would have these friends of foreign extraction come over and Sandra would just mimic their voices. I was a little embarrassed. I guess she was gathering material even then."

When Bernhard was 10 her family moved to Scottsdale, Ariz. The wonder years were not great for Sandra. "She was the geeky one," says her brother Mark, a doctor in L.A. "They really mistreated her. Lots of people put her down. She was tall, thin and had those big lips. All those things I thought were so sensuous."

After graduating from Saguaro High School, Bernhard spent a year on a kibbutz in Israel, then decided to try her luck in Los Angeles. "I wanted her to be something practical," says her mother. "I tried to encourage her to become a dental hygienist." Her daughter had somewhat grander plans, and in an old, run-down, mustard-colored Plymouth Volare Bernhard headed for Hollywood. She worked as a manicurist by day; at night she tried out her frequently abrasive monologues at clubs like the Improv and the Comedy Store. Fodder for the act was her family, her Midwest upbringing and—once her parents divorced after 38 years of marriage—her father's second wife, whom she called "a blond bimbo with a bubble hairdo and no lips." Her father was not pleased that Sandra was using him as a whipping post. Better received were her "Oh, Rob!" impersonations of Mary Tyler Moore, which led to appearances on the Richard Pryor specials in 1977 and to her role as an unstable groupie opposite Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis in 1983's The King of Comedy. (She's now filming Hudson Hawk, an action comedy due out next year, with Bruce Willis.)

"She's very ironic. She plays very close to the edge," says John Boskovich, director of Without You I'm Nothing. "When I first went to see her perform I thought she was this amazing creature that no one understood."

Many still don't understand, but they are trying. Mostly they're trying to understand what gives with her and Madonna. And frankly, Bernhard is pretty sick of the whole subject. "If people aren't smart enough to know what I do in terms of the irony about my relationship with Madonna, I don't think I need to spell it out," she says heatedly. "If Madonna and I were really having an affair, I don't think we would be talking about it in public. She's a nice friend, and I have a great time with her. She has a lot of money and takes me out to dinner."

Bernhard's father isn't certain the friendship is such a good idea. "I don't know much about Madonna," he says, "but she doesn't seem like that well-rounded a person nor the kind of influence I would want for my daughter." Sandra's mother is of a different opinion. "We had dinner with Madonna one night," says Jeanette. "She seemed like a very sweet girl." Admittedly, Mom has never witnessed the belching contests Madonna and Sandra often stage when they're together.

When Bernhard isn't answering questions about Madonna, she's often fielding queries about her own sexuality. "If I'm with a man," she says, "it's because I'm with a man. If I'm with a woman, you know, every woman that I'm seen with I'm not sleeping with. And I'm not sleeping with every man I'm seen with either. Anything goes in my life. I'm an adventurous person, and I'm also a very sexual person, and I like interacting with a lot of people. I think it's boring to be stuck in one genre.

"I'm not a lesbian and I'm sick of being called one. I'm not, and I want to set the record straight." To prove that claim, Bern-hard says she intends to be married and starting a family within the next two years. "I'm going to blow everybody's minds," she promises. "I'm going to get married and belong to Hadassah."

Meanwhile, she's honing her domestic skills in her simple ranch-style San Fernando Valley home—"I vacuum in Chanel and can whip up amazing mashed potatoes"—and waiting to see if her movie can reap some respectable coin. "I'm getting closer and closer to the kind of success I deserve," she says. "It's imminent." Hadassah and showbiz success. Oy veh!

—Joanne Kaufman, Sue Carswell in Los Angeles and New York City

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