Moment of Truth: Burlesque Myths Shattered in Burly Q
Welcome back to Moment of Truth, Movieline's weekly spotlight on the best in nonfiction cinema. This week we hear from Leslie Zemeckis, whose film Behind the Burly Q opens Friday in NYC and May 7 in Los Angeles.
The new burlesque documentary Behind the Burly Q began as sort of a happy accident for director Leslie Zemeckis. The endlessly fascinating (if mildly hyperactive) results reflect something far more deliberate: A definitive glimpse at the lost era of popular stage shows combining musicians, comedy, acrobats and yes, a few underdressed ladies. Everyone who was anyone from the era -- and who was still alive when Zemeckis came calling -- appears in Burly Q, and their stories make for revelatory viewing. And not just because the pasties come off from time to time. either.
Through her introductions to everybody from Alan Alda (who was virtually raised backstage while his father Robert toured tirelessly as a comic) to Kitty West (better known as Evangeline the Oyster Girl for her elaborate, erotic routine involving a human-size oyster shell), the filmmaker illustrates the complete picture of burlesque in its '30s and '40s-era glory days. Zemeckis talked to Movieline this week about her documentary quest, the historical misunderstandings of burlesque, and seeking advice from the other director in her household -- her Oscar-winning husband Robert Zemeckis.
How did you determine you wanted to make a documentary about burlesque?
I was doing a burlesque inspired show. It wasn't really burlesque, but it elements of it -- kind of like a Gypsy Rose Lee. So I started investigating what burlesque really was. I talked to some women who used to be in burlesque as strippers, and their stories were so interesting. I realized they never told them before; nobody had ever even asked them. So I just did a whole hunk of research and said, "I'm going to make this documentary." Not just the strippers, though, but about the whole burlesque show.
I was looking some related films up, too, and it seems mind-blowing to me that there really was no documentary even vaguely about this era.
No! And it's so unfortunate because these people's stories are gone. I mean, 12 have died since I interviewed them. This history is just lost. And what's really sad is that when you talk to these people who are really, really open about it and love to talk about it, nobody asked them about it. Nobody cared.
Why do you think that is? Burlesque was such a big deal for so long; why have we let that history fade away?
I think it was really marginalized. At the time there was a stigma to it. When it faded and was no longer something that anybody went to, I mean... Today most people just think burlesque is strippers. They don't understand what a burlesque show was, so that's easy to dismiss -- "Oh, it's just women getting up and taking off their clothes" -- not understanding that these women did it with an art and spent great amounts of money on their costumes and things like that. I think that's why nobody really investigated it. And it was partly because many of them never went on to anything else. The comedians did, and there have been documentaries about the comedians -- but no one else, because no one else crossed over.
I'm really interested in your process here; if there's anything your film is, is pretty sweepingly comprehensive.
Thank you! That's the word I wanted: Comprehensive of what a burlesque show was. Like if you went to a show, you'd get elements of every point in that show.
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