Sadly, I didn’t discover Sandra Bernhard’s work in chronological order, or in qualitative order either. My first exposure must have been through the sitcom Roseanne, where her tall, slim frame made her stand out rather dramatically alongside the plumper lead character… with that voice… and those eyes… and those lips… Oy! I can’t really remember how I felt about her as an actress back in the day, but I know I was pleased to see her again when a friend lent me his video tape of Hudson Hawk. After that came (by far) her best film to date, Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy*, and then finally the tapes and CDs of her incredible stand-up/cabaret act. During my time at uni, I spent many a happy evening downing chocolate milk, scoffing cookies, and listening to Excuses for Bad Behaviour. Good times. While I now primarily think of Bernhard as a stand-up, or a singer… since so many of her TV and movie appearances are too obscure to root out in this country… I still have a soft spot for her performance in Bruce Willis’s misbegotten, blockbuster-budgeted “B-movie”.
Over at the AV Club site, Hudson Hawk rated not only a “My Year of Flops” entry, but also a “Commentary Tracks of the Damned” dissection. In the former, Rabin describes it thusly: “The Bruce Williest of all Bruce Willis movies… nothing more or less than a giddy little vanity project for [Willis], who gets to sing, romance a sexy nun, save the world and wear a porkpie hat and shades that lets audiences know that he’s a rocking, blue-collar kind of dude.” In the latter, it is accused of committing such cinematic sins as: “Burying a lightly comic, intermittently enjoyable caper story beneath blockbuster excess, random vulgarity, and graphic violence”, and “Letting producer-star Bruce Willis indulge his lifelong wish to play a super-slick, boyish safe-cracker, the kind of asshole who thinks he’s opposed to assholes.” And I’m not arguing with any of that. For me, even as a teen, the bits where Willis and Danny Aiello get together to trade smug banter were always the least interesting, and over the years they’ve just become unbearably irritating. It’s also true that the movie seems to have a serious tonal discordance, splicing a wacky, cartoonish crime caper together with a hard-hitting, foul-mouthed action movie. According to the director’s commentary, this discordance was intentional, and all part of “the fun”. I do believe that it was done on purpose, but I don’t believe that it was a very good idea. He says the film was “ahead of its time” too, but its been a good eighteen years now since it was released, and the problems are just as glaringly obvious today as they must have been when it first tanked at the box office.
Still, with Michael Lehmann (the director and writer of Heathers) on board, there are occasional flashes of dark wit on show, and I’m always partial to a little live-action cartoonery. Which is why, I suppose, I am most drawn to the insanely over-amped performances that Richard E. Grant and Bernhard put in as the Mayflowers, a mega-rich, megalomaniacal married couple intent on nothing short of WORLD DOMINATION!!! And yes, that does have to be in all capitals… and you have to imagine Grant raising his arms to the ceiling and bellowing it out with childish glee. In an earlier draft I found online, Minerva had a lot more lines, and I would have loved to hear her deliver the reams of villainous dialogue, in her dry drawl… but as it stands, it’s probably better for Bernhard’s reputation that she put in a smaller, forgivable cameo. There are too many good jokes and neat visual twists in Hudson Hawk for me to deny my admiration entirely… and as I find myself writing comedic-action-adventure scripts of my own, I’m no doubt being unconsciously influenced by it… but that doesn’t mean I’d place it anywhere near my Top Fifty films of all time (if I were ever to take the time to compile such a list). The Mayflowers, however, are almost certainly on my Top Ten list of fave movie villains… along with The Tremor Brothers from Smokin’ Aces… and ‘Debbie Jellinsky’ (Joan Cusack) from Addams Family Values.
In his scathingly funny diaries from the period, as published in the collection With Nails, Grant depicts Bernhard as rather a soft-hearted and sentimental soul, albeit one prone to unfortunately ranty outbursts. Since he spent so much time trapped in Budapest with the woman, waiting out various production snafus, I’m inclined to accept his insight… and even though it’s none of my business, and has no bearing on my life whatsoever, it’s somehow comforting to know that there might be a sweet and self-deprecating, flesh-and-blood human being hiding behind the stone-cold sarcasm and casual offence that she dishes out on stage.
* Also Scorsese’s best film, if you ask me, but I know I’m in a minority on that one.