Pretty Things, Liz Goldwyn's new documentary on burlesque striptease (HBO, July 19, 10:30 p.m.), is a tease. It claims to be an homage to a vanished art form, but actually it reveals the limitations of the au courant notion that burlesque striptease is a form of self-invention.
The most fascinating aspect of Pretty Things is the collision it enacts between different cultural views of sexuality and the sex industry, of which burlesque striptease is a predecessor. Front and center is Goldwyn's Third Wave feminist point of view, which projects onto the octogenarian burlesque strippers a glamorous sheen: For Goldwyn, who is in her late 20s or early 30s, burlesque is "liberating." And then there is the often hilarious, politically incorrect, and anti-psychological point of view of the octogenarian strippers themselves, who are baffled by Goldwyn's naiveté and her, er, naked, interest in their lives. Their outlook exposes how dramatically our ideas about sex have changed since the 1960s, and not all for the best.
Burlesque remains the most unsung American theatrical form, in part because its main event was the striptease. It was invented in the 1860s and flourished in the decades following the First World War, achieving its greatest popularity between Black Tuesday and the Summer of Love. The burlesque initially centered on performances by bawdy comics, but by the 1920s strippers were the main draw. They wore handmade "strip gowns" that looked like antebellum dresses or Spanish flamenco costumes or 19th-century harem robes, and, unlike today's strippers, stripped only as far as pasties and "net pants" (nylon panties) or a G-string. Working-class men and women, as well as intelligentsia like Edmund Wilson and Hart Crane, regularly attended performances, which were generally held in vice districts and immigrant ghettos. Striptease was not just bumping and grinding. It was influenced by Broadway and the movies, and it influenced them back. Some striptease stars, like the infamous Gypsy Rose Lee—the Dorothy Parker of burlesque—crossed over to Broadway. But most continued to take it off until they retired or got married. "We were just people trying to make a living, and this was the ground floor," says Marie Bradley, a former chorus girl, in Pretty Things.
Goldwyn, the granddaughter of Sam Goldwyn and a jewelry designer-costume archivist-writer-director, spent almost a decade making Pretty Things. She began by collecting striptease costumes because she thought burlesque strippers "hadn't been given their due." The documentary consists of interviews with half a dozen reclusive former grande-dame strippers, including Sherry Britton, Zorita, Dixie Evans, Lois de Fee, and "Ball of Fire" Betty Rowland, which are interspersed with Goldwyn's own attempts to perform a striptease. The best parts of Pretty Things are the interviews with the performers, each of whom flaunted her own gimmick: Zorita, known for her sinuous snake dance, describes its finale as "banging the snake"; Dixie Evans, the former "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque," jokes about impersonating "a star of the first magnitude." Explaining the difference between striptease then and now, Lois de Fee, "The Eyeful Eiffel," dishes that strippers today "come out nude, get lewd, and get screwed." There is some great rare video footage of the performers when they were young: In Zorita's "spider web" number, which I had never seen, Zorita wears a ruby floor-length sequined gown slit up the side and undulates in front of a sparkling web. "I wanted to be spectacular," Zorita says. She was.
But the contrast between the strippers' spectacular onstage looks and their bios is stark. While Hollywood stars sometimes came from lowly beginnings, too, they could achieve much greater fame and fortune than strippers ever did. The strippers mostly came from humble backgrounds and began to strip to escape rural poverty or abuse or tragedy. (A dog dragged Zorita's mother into the street, where she was hit by a car.) Burlesque was no Broadway: Men masturbated under newspapers, sometimes to the rhythm of whatever the orchestra was playing, as Lois de Fee recounts. The women lived through raids, botched plastic surgery, nervous breakdowns, abusive bosses, jail time, fires, and stage-door Johnnies. Now in their 70s and 80s, their days of stripping behind them, they live in obscurity in Florida or California. They wear marabou-trimmed robes and all own impressive collections of G-strings, pasties, rhinestone tiaras, and bustiers.
Goldwyn worships the strippers as models of sexual self-empowerment, but the film is confused by the projection of her own post-feminist ideas about sex onto these women, and her desire to wield the kind of sexual power she sees them as having had. She is surprised to learn that the strippers never thought of themselves as sexy. (Mostly while they stripped they were thinking about their light and sound cues, or about being raided, they say.) Her subjects may talk about their personal lives with a verbal panache that makes our own porn-obsessed era seem prudish, dull, and estranged from the language of desire—when Goldwyn asks Sherri Britton whether she slept around, Britton crackles, "A bit. But I sent out the invitations"—but they aren't feminists, even if they are savvy and tough, and they didn't enjoy the security or independence that women like Goldwyn today take for granted. And the film itself undercuts the strippers, as though to say (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) that what they are saying about their own lives cannot possibly be true. When a pinup of Britton appears on the screen, a cash register "ka-chings," and a dollar sign is superimposed on her image—right after Britton says that she has never turned tricks.
The problem with Pretty Things is that the story Goldwyn really wants to tell is how striptease transformed her from ugly duckling to sexually confident swan. At one point, wearing Britton's favorite pink costume and rehearsing her own striptease number, Goldwyn becomes mesmerized by her own rotating breasts so that Britton has to chastise her: "Don't you look! Look at the audience." But given Goldwyn's membership in the Hollywood elite, not to mention her Twiggyish beauty, her self-conscious voguing strains the viewer's sympathy. For Goldwyn, striptease is ultimately a sexual game. As she says about learning to strip, "I never connected it with doing something appealing for an audience. It was always about constructing an image of self."
Striptease died in the 1960s, when going topless became de rigueur. Porn films proliferated, feminism took hold, and American culture became too impatient for "the tease." By the 1970s, former burlesque theaters were staging bottomless and live sex shows. "Look but don't touch" was replaced by "look and touch." And then came our modern era, one in which porn has proliferated in the cultural mainstream, showing up in movies like Boogie Nights, in best-selling memoirs of former porn starlets, and on HBO in the form of documentaries like this one or in shows like Real Sex, a kind of sociological look at the state of sexual relations today. Goldwyn's own striptease finale draws its inspiration not from the era of her subjects, but from a post-sexual revolution era in which striptease had already become obsolete. She strips to Cy Coleman's 1967 "Hey, Big Spender" and dresses herself more like Madonna circa the Blonde Ambition Tour than Gypsy Rose Lee. What Pretty Things makes resoundingly clear, in the end, is that the striptease, which Roland Barthes called "a few particles of eroticism," has disappeared in a tsunami of pornography and pseudo-pornography and muddled ideas about what sexual liberation for women really means. And maybe that is a tragedy.