The Watcher - Pretty is as pretty does

Director's ego gets in the way of burlesque documentary

Pretty Things Image Image Image Image Image The HBO documentary Pretty Things is loaded with film clips of old-school burlesque icons like Lili St. Cyr, Georgia-born Tempest Storm and Dixie Evans strutting their stuff. Amid the film's sways, dips and bounces, a case is made for the difference between the show-and-tell stripping of contemporary times and the slow-burn tease of classic burlesque.

Pretty Things, directed by Liz Goldwyn and shot by documentary legend Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter), features interviews with some of these storied dames including the acid-tongued Zorita, a tough cookie of epic proportions. Even into grannydom, Zorita has a mouth like a longshoreman and matter of factly describes her tit-for-tat exchange of sex for General Motors stock. The octogenarian is a fascinating study in contrasts, wearing a caftan and elegantly coiffed hair while describing her 1950s burlesque glory days as an on-the-make lesbian whose signature act with a python "looked like I was banging the snake."

Also interviewed are Sherry Britton, still a knockout in a Louise Brooks pageboy at age 86; the 6-feet-4-inch Lois de Fee, who says her favorite fans were female; Betty "Ball of Fire" Rowland; and Dixie Evans, the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque and current proprietor of the Exotic World striptease museum in California.

Pretty Things is a kind of companion piece to Ruth Leitman's Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling, in which comparably salty broads relive the down-and-dirty world of old-time lady wrestling.

The primary conceit of Pretty Things appears to be Goldwyn's desire to plumb the depths of the glamour and stage craft that makes burlesque so enthralling to a new generation of hipster women tired of the contemporary sexuality, where little is left to the imagination.

But burlesque fans will have to wade through a heap of Goldwyn's "issues," including a desire to be the center of attention, even amid all of these burly queens. Hogging screen time, the granddaughter of legendary Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn uses burlesque as a mirror through which to appraise her own sexual appeal.

Part of Goldwyn's modus operandi is a desire to get to the heart of the beast by donning burlesque costumes and getting tips from the dancers on how to find her inner sexy. A collector of vintage burlesque costumes, Goldwyn leaves Zorita and Britton looking alternately irritated and amused by her efforts to "borrow" or otherwise acquire their costumes. An inordinate amount of time is spent watching Goldwyn sashay for the dames or mince around a rehearsal space en pointe preparing for her big number.

When the film takes a creepy detour away from Goldwyn's fixation on burlesque's "glamour" to talk about the abandonment, rape and abuse that defined several of the dancers' childhoods, Goldwyn appears at a loss. She persists in her efforts to paint burlesque as a virtual feminist revolution in a G-string, evidence to the contrary. Several dancers express disgust for the work and their customers, who were as often as not out in the audience masturbating their appreciation.

Not since Michael Moore has a filmmaker hijacked a subject so completely to promote her own agenda. Goldwyn's Bob Fosse jazz hands conclusion, in which she performs decked out in a white satin jacket and tap pants, has to be seen to be believed. Her showboating finale suddenly seems the real intent of the entire film, a way to validate her need for the spotlight by "studying" burlesque.