I know who Sarah Bernhardt was, but I had never heard of Sandra Bernhard—that is until I saw a commercial she recently cut for MAC, the cosmetics company. I watched the segment transfixed, as one would maggots squirming in a piece of rotting fruit—with the fascination you reserve for the truly repulsive.
Bernhardt was a 19th century Jewish actress—a great beauty about whom Mark Twain wrote, “There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses—and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.”
Bernhard is Jewish too, I fear, and a 21st-century vulgarian. Sarah Bernhardt inspired Oscar Wilde to write Salome. In a world less vulgar, Sandra Bernhard would be the muse of a meat cutter with salami breath, not a model for MAC.
In promoting MAC’s “Plushglass” lip potion, the “performer” referred to the prototypic Republican woman as a “little freaked out, intimidated, frightened, right-wing, thin-lipped bitch.” This, presumably, is in contrast to her own centered, courageous, larger-than-life, left-wing, and lush-lipped persona.
Bernhard’s slur, the focus of conservative ire, however, isn’t the salient feature in this coarse creature’s shtick. Her delivery is: its contents; her demeanor—everything about this woman is sickening.
Allow me to talk you through the MAC ad, which I’ve transcribed verbatim. If it appears disjointed and nonsensical, it’s because this folderol is intended as a bit of choppy, esoteric, performance poetry.
It begins with Bernhard striding onto the stage, departing, and then reappearing. The actions, presumably, of a woman both strong and unpredictable. Once suctioned to the camera, she gestures maniacally to exhibit A, the ugly orifice, and begins:
Yes I get it, it’s about my lips.
You’re always ready to move on with your lips
Bernhard then snaps her fingers to indicate she’s down with the rhythm:
You got in your Pontiac station wagon and you drove cross-country and you saw the world as it was
You took the little highways, the byways
The evolution of music and radio
At this point—and throughout—Bernhard’s hands are gesticulating in an unseemly, wild manner. Many pretentious celebrities have been similarly afflicted. When I was a child, my mother would say, “Don’t talk with your hands.” Mom also advised not to speak with your mouth full. As ill-suited to obedience as I am, it struck me then, as it does now, that good manners make life pleasant. To Dame Bernhard, they’re probably evidence of a constricted, uptight personality.
The act gets uglier. Bear with me, please:
This little mouth was here, in New York City, eating a Belgian Waffle
Can you really handle it? I mean, when you think about it, can you really handle these lips?
Although there is nothing remotely girly about this gargoyle, Bernhard here displays the first—and last—sign of femininity: she tosses her hair and touches a few strands. A cameraman then abruptly zooms in on the expansive cavity that stretches across a crass and confident mug.
Onward, brave reader:
There I am with this mouth, with these lips [grows quiet and serious]
Lips represent sexuality, first and foremost
Bernhard then opens a Mouth as wide as that of the dummy that played Jaws.All of a sudden she grimaces in contempt and utters the line conservative commentators have complained about:
Oh she’s freaking me out; she’s scaring me
Exposing her fangs, she snarls:
If I had thin lips, I could never express myself the way I’m able to express myself with the kind of passion
Sarah Bernhardt had a slender, chiseled mouth. Concocted in the rooms of plastic surgeons, misshapen, bulbous lips that resemble “mating abalones” were not among the beauty requirements of her day. She expressed herself just fine.
Then comes a deafening roar:
Sexy, power pout
With decibels lowered, Bernhard mumbles inaudibly about a rooster’s comb, and suddenly stiffens and crows, tossing her head hither and thither: “COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO.”
Full-bodied lips, sexy in seconds
Full in seconds
It all comes together [voice rising to operatic levels]
From the inside out [hands to the enormous slit, then outward, to the world]
Buxom, full and fleshy, shapely, spicy, ample, plump-seeking pucker [Puckers up in a slobbery kiss]
Finally, Bernhard cradles herself adoringly, shudders, simulating exquisite arousal and sways, as in a trance. And then, into strong-black-woman mode she launches, yelling:
Are you ready to be grabbed and… and thrown down on a bed and ravished?
Kissed and loved and adored for the responsibility that you’ve created? [Orgasmic shudder follows].
I’m talking about MAC ‘Plushglass,’ volumizer, powerpout and color
At best, this stuff is inauthentic, banal, and pretentious—a genre at which Amiri Baraka, New Jersey’s Poet Laureate, is so much better (and he’s way prettier). As offensive as that one-liner may be to some, it’s the totality of Bernhard and the sensibility this dreadful woman represents that makes one bilious.
©2006 Ilana Mercer