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Disowned by Star Sandra Bernhard, a Long Lost Queer Film Can Be Seen Again

"Dallas Doll," starring the comedian as a menacing bisexual seductress and a young Rose Byrne, was never even released on VHS.

Sandra Bernhard in “Dallas Doll”

Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection

A rarely-seen queer film, starring Sandra Bernhard and a young Rose Byrne, will finally see the light of day. In a partnership with NewFest, New York’s Quad Cinema will show the film on the big screen for the first time since its release. Experimental filmmaker and queer film historian Jenni Olson lent a rare 35 mm print from her personal collection, and will introduce the film and lead a post-screening discussion. Bernhard is not set to appear.

Released in 1994, “Dallas Doll” is Australian filmmaker Ann Turner’s loose riff on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Teorema,” with Bernhard in the Terence Stamp role. She plays an American golf pro who, on a trip to Australia, begins seducing her way through a bourgeois family and country-club set. The film received mixed reviews during its limited theatrical run, including from Bernhard herself, who made no secret of her feelings. She distanced herself from the film in interviews, saying at the time: “It was not a particularly wonderful artistic experience, and I am not particularly pleased with the result. I don’t want to talk about it. I did it with the best of intentions and that’s it, I don’t wanna say anything negative about it.”

“They should have made a movie about the making of the movie. That would have been the real movie,” she added.

Devoted cinephiles disagreed. Jonathan Rosenbaum, former chief critic for the Chicago Reader, wrote that the film was “much too goofy to qualify as an absolute success, but it’s so unpredictable, irreverent, and provocative that you may not care.” He added that the film also included “one of my favorite performances by a dog.” Variety’s David Stratton acknowledged the film’s flaws, but added: “When the film does work, its blend of sensuality and sardonic humor is strikingly effective.”

“It’s a very weird film,” Olson said. “It is comedic, for sure. But it’s a dark drama. It kind of has a little bit of everything. I think her performance has a comedic undertone, that I think of as her strength.”

Olson was first taken with “Dallas Doll” when it played Outfest in 1995, following a brief limited theatrical release in 1994. Olson said that Bernhard and the director Turner butted heads; at one point the director threatened to sue her lead actress. “It was a little mysterious at the time…it seems like there were issues during the production,” Olson said.

The film wasn’t even released on VHS, which was unusual given that Bernhard was a huge star at the time, coming off of her comedy special “Without You I’m Nothing” (1990).

“It’s a really dark film, you have this sense of her seducing this whole family, and it’s creepy and there’s a lot of psychological undercurrent that is successful,” Olson said. “It’s unpleasant…and the film does a good job at that. It just gets so wacky, which I think is more of a problem in the script, that it kind of collapses, or doesn’t entirely succeed. But I think her performance is really amazing.”

“The other thing about it is that it’s particularly compelling, it’s a bisexual portrayal, that was essentially lost,” she added. “Very few people have seen it since then. To me, as a queer film historian I’m always interested in seeing any historical queer portrayals.”

“Dallas Doll” is playing at New York City’s Quad Cinema on January 22. 

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