It Ain't Over Till the Fat Lady Sings
Body-image controversy over anorexic runway models, and the big full-figured Williams sisters as against slender blonde Maria Sharapova, pales in the face of zaftig Sophie Tucker’s gleeful celebration of her own ample girth, for example “Oh, How a Fat Girl Can Love.” If you don’t know diddly-squat about this once über-famous personality-performer -- today “celebrity”-- The Outrageous Sophie Tucker has everything and then some you always wanted to know (but were afraid to ask). Or at least “85% fact. The other 15% who knows?”
The ninety-six minutes from William Gazecki derives from eight years’ research and writing of producers Susan and Lloyd Ecker, who also provide talking head narrative throughout, even to an embarrassing teary wrap-up. Their serious cheerleading commentary is so hundred-ten percent that neither they nor the documentary raises an eyebrow about some among its subject’s cronies like J. Edgar Hoover, Al Capone, Joseph P. Kennedy, King George VI of England and seven U.S. presidents, her insistent cheating at cards for petty cash, and leaving her newborn Albert with family in Connecticut to pursue performance dreams in New York under stage surname Tucker, from Louis Tuck, whom she had married at sixteen and soon left.
The film bombards the viewer with too many snippets from the six decades’ career, a number of them still photos from her four-hundred-plus scrapbooks and some of them jazzed up in hokey animation. There are clips from her few movies, including a studio-ruined Broadway Melody of 1938, notable for her befriending and mentoring the fifteen-year-old Judy Garland.
The Eckers got Tucker-interested, -infatuated, -enamored, -besotted on their very first date, a college concert by Bette Midler, whose aggressive bawdy routine seemed patterned on that of another Jewish girl, born Sonya Kalish aboard the ship carrying her parents away from Russian pogroms in what is now for the moment Ukraine, to the New World where they took the name Abuza and opened a kosher restaurant in Hartford, Connecticut. There, delivering and handing out menus to the many Jewish actors, their daughter peeked into a theater and caught the bug.
The subsequent career included just about everything in every entertainment medium available, from beer garden singing waitressing to amateur performances through blackface (to hide her being “so big and ugly”), Vaudeville, burlesque and Ziegfeld Follies to films, major hit recordings to a record of her “My Yiddishe Momme” blared in Hitler’s backyard, her championing of Ethel Waters and a returned Josephine Baker, packed night clubs to a Royal Command Performance in London, her own radio show and appearance on others’ and on TV--buddy Jimmie Durante’s and almost a regular guest on friend Ed Sullivan’s -- and national and world touring with longtime pianist-songwriter and straight man Ted Shapiro. She was, in addition, a ubiquitous product endorser years before anyone else.
Tucker is here resurrected as the outré style-setter she was, in her outfits and frank humorous but pointed sexual banter from a female point of view, an inspiration for Mae West way before Madonna and the Divine Miss M and model for youngsters who went on to become superstars in their own right, many of whose glowing testimonials are hastily shoehorned in beside end-credits. Awkwardly rushed over as well are the late close-to-intimate relationships with several women. The acquaintances, adventures and stories of this “Forrest Gump of the first half of the 1900s” may not all be true but, like her, are entertaining.
OST is, however, no better than just another niche documentary life, a film in which too many pieces overwhelm the whole. Not “the rags to riches story” as advertised but nostalgia interest for those old enough to remember, this gushing picture of the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” does not deviate from current, apparently inescapable format.
(Production Company: Innovative Films. Not rated by MPAA.)