Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

In truth, the trailers for The Outrageous Sophie Tucker were particularly uninspiring. It looks cheap. It sounds cheap. And, of course, it is cheap—it's a documentary, after all—but most documentaries try in the trailers to draw you into the story or the mystique so that you overlook the cheap. These trailers are more of a ta-dah!

You know: "Sophie Tucker: Ta-dah!"

And that's really how the movie itself is. So I can sort of see where the critics tended to give it mixed reviews (currently at 72% on RT) while still siding with the regular viewers (at 92%). The critical detractions are mostly of the "It could've been so much better!" And there were certain things that I didn't care for:
  • They built up a song, "The Angle Worm Wiggle", and the dance for which Tucker was apparently arrested for, and then neither showed it, nor played it, nor anything, really.
  • Tucker played in blackface, and they have a story with her grand-niece calling her on it, with Tucker having some story about having to and getting out of it by "forgetting" it. Consider that a personal peccadillo. I prefer we just admit nobody (nobody white, anyway) thought anything of it and leave it at that. 
  • Dumb story outright stating Hoover was a cross-dresser. The idea that he was a cross-dresser and gay is only slightly less preposterous than the idea it was an open secret in Hollywood.
  • They use the same technique for suggesting Hoover was gay to suggest Tucker was gay, mainly, "Hung out with a member of the same sex for decades." We used to call those "friends".
  • Tucker's son comes off as a loser. I've mentioned here many times that hagiographies are acceptable—it isn't necessary to dwell on a person's failings to make a good documentary. But Tucker abandoned her boy as a youngster and there's no mention of how this might have played into his future womanizing and incompetencies. 
  • The recent practice of animating still photos is weird and creepy. I'm sure it's compelling for the producers, though, given the static nature of a lot of this stuff.
  • The movie ends with producer Lloyd Ecker choking up about Tucker's death. I get this: A lot of work went into this project, and the person feels like a friend or family member. At the same time, dude, you weren't a friend, you were some guy who read her memoir and scrap albums. It's an odd choice to make your emotional response to the 30-year-old death of an 80-year-old woman who lived a great life the centerpiece of a scene.
These are pretty minor points. If there's a major flaw with the film is that it absolutely sparkles when it shows clips of Tucker and yet it shows very few clips. And there, it seems to me, is the real magic that the filmmakers didn't quite bring out.

How does a fat, homely Jewish woman sing-talking about how sexy she is become an international star? That's amazing. (Carol Channing is in this, and she has the audacity to claim that Tucker was beautiful when younger—but the pictures do not bear that out.) And by the time she appears in a movie (the flop vehicle Honkey Tonk), she's 43 years old! According to the movie, the near 60-year-old Sophie Tucker was a pin-up for some soldiers. (One of the best stories of the movie involves a GI who wanted to play the banned "My Yiddishe in Momma" in Berlin.)

Well, one thing movie illustrates well is that Tucker was a true professional with a grasp on publicity, to say nothing of a love of people that great performers have. She always made her commitments. She did her own books. She kept a record of everyone she met and wrote them notes when she came into town. She did product promotions for just about everything. 

She had no problem singing "I Don't Want To Be Thin":
Those slender-waisted women
They make me laugh
My goodness
Men like to see a little fore and aft 
I don't want to reduce
Furthermore, what's the use?
When the men follow me around
Like Mary's lamb 
The girls who talk of dieting
Gee, they get on my nerves
If you want to keep your husband straight
Show him a lot of curves
There's some great back-and-forth with her pianist, too:
"Keep your mind on your music"
"I can't when you're around"
"Look where I am not"
"I can't see that far."
By the way, her weight, according to that song, is 163, which is about the weight of the average American woman. But she could sing that and then sing:
Nobody loves a fat girl
But, oh, how a fat girl can love
Nobody seems to want me
I'm just a truck on the highway of love
She had stage presence. And she had it up to her final performance at the age of 79, when cancer struck her down. Whatever its flaws, this turned out to be a really enjoyable film. On the three-point scale:

1. Subject matter. Interesting, for sure.
2. Presentation. Fairly typical. Nothing especially noteworthy, good or bad.
3. Spin. The aforementioned hagiographic aspects mixed with some dubious sensational elements. Nothing egregious.

Worth checking out.

The Eckers (producers of the film) wrote a fictional memoir of Sophie Tucker which is available for purchase in the foyer, $27.50. $10-$20 for web extras.

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