Behind the Burly Q
We can't deny that we're in the midst of a Burlesque Renaissance, at least in New York City—go to any club downtown and see for yourself. But there's also no denying that the art form has undergone a drastic change since its heyday, if not in the style of performance then in how its performers are received. Today there's something kitschy about women stripping down to pasties and shaking it 'til their tassels twirl. What was once our version of pole dancing has developed an innocent gloss with time. Nostalgia has helped us to appreciate burlesque for both its titillation and its humor, and to consider its performers not only strippers but also gifted comediennes.
In Behind the Burly Q, countless dancers from burlesque's "golden age" remind us that, even then, humor was always key, but that we shouldn't forget what the art form's really about. One former dancer recalls a remark made by her husband long after she'd stopped: "You weren't a stripper; you were in burlesque." She replied, "Well honey, what do you think I was doing in burlesque? I wasn't playing the piano."
This tongue-in-cheek attitude must have rubbed off on director Leslie Zemeckis, as she does her best to keep the film light even when approaching the darkest of subjects. Like many of those working the strip club circuit today, burlesque dancers of the thirties typically grew up underprivileged and often abused, with little hope for advancement. Some of the most famous performers, like Lili St. Cyr, carried their demons well into celebrity, falling into depression and drug use. Still, all of Zemeckis' interviewees look back on the era fondly, even when discussing their own struggles, and Zemeckis underscores their resilience with jaunty vaudevillian music throughout.
It's impossible to estimate how arousing burlesque was for audiences contemporary to its prime, but according to Behind the Burly Q, its performers were admired and courted by movie stars and politicians alike (including a young JFK). Burlesque brought them money and adoration, more than they could have garnered in any other profession available to them, and many of them truly enjoyed what they did. In fact, some dancers performed well into middle age, Ann Corio into her 80's. The film retains that same bawdy, shameless joy, while still managing to give proper reverence to its subject—and its originators.