Then Playing — Without You I’m Nothing; Love Is Strange; The One and Only Dick Gregory

Without You I’m Nothing (John Boskovich, 1990). Too much of an iconoclast to have an easy path in the world of entertainment, Sandra Bernhard had to make her own way. In the late nineteen-eighties, she mounted a one-woman stage show (supported by a small music combo) that became something of a sensation, running for six smashing months in New York. In an era where Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia found success in art-house cinemas, a film version of Bernhard’s hit was a natural choice. Directed by her stage collaborator John Boskovich, the film is less its own successful work than a handy time capsule of a certain type of esoteric, deconstructionist performance art at the peak of its popularity. Bernhard is a charismatic presence, scowling enticingly through a series of cabaret-style songs and oblique monologues. Portions of the film haven’t aged well, but the arch daring of the piece’s conception and Bernhard’s performance remain impressive.

Love Is Strange (Ira Sachs, 2014). New Yorkers Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been a committed couple for many years. Not long after New York State legalized same-sex marriage (and before the same basic civil right was extended nationwide by Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges), Ben and George tie the knot. Their celebration is cut short when George’s new marital status prompts his church employer to fire him, despite having full previous knowledge that he was in a romantic relationship with another man. Down to one income, Ben and George need to sell their apartment and spend time relying on friends and family to give them housing, usually separately. Director Ira Sachs tells his story with deep empathy, digging into the delicate, intricate emotions and allowing the actors the room to inhabit their roles with impressive sensitivity. Lithgow and Molina are equally strong, and Maria Tomei adds to her large collection of warm, insightful supporting performances.

The One and Only Dick Gregory (Andre Gaines, 2021). This documentary life and career of comedian Dick Gregory, making a strong case that he deserves to be more widely celebrated as a trailblazer. The clips of Gregory’s nineteen-sixties television appearances are sharp and bold, proof on their own of the value of his artistic contributions. Director Andre Gaines is even more interested in Gregory’s political activism, emphasizing his time side by side with the titans of the civil rights movement. The construction of the film can be a little haphazard, and the choices for what to focus on. Gaines elides Gregory’s quixotic run for the President of the United States and his notoriously titled 1964 autobiography, but he makes plenty of room for his time hustling diet shakes. Gregory’s life is compelling. The film about it falls short.

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