Film Review: THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER (Directed by William Gazecki)

by Milo Shapiro on August 21, 2014

in Film

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A BLAST OF THE RED HOT MAMA

“I believe in tit for tat.  And if that’s not true, someone owes me a lot of tat!” – Sophie Tucker

A good line, if you’re Kathy Griffin, Lisa Lampanelli, or Roseanne Barr living in 2014.  But if you’re Sophie Tucker, breaking into show biz during the Teddy Roosevelt administration, damn!  That’s bold!

This was a time when women were expected to be demure – and thin.  Or at the very least, they should have the social grace to act embarrassed and apologetic for not being thin.  But as demonstrated in Susan and Lloyd Ecker’s documentary film on the life of this stage and film legend, Sophie had nothin’ to feel sorry about.

The Eckers had been long time fans of Bette Midler, who frequently referenced and quoted Tucker in her acts for over 40 years.  One day, it struck the couple that they didn’t know much about their idol’s idol so they began to research her themselves.  Together, they uncovered a wealth of information and became such fans themselves that this documentary became their labor of love.

Through a combination of stage clips, movie scenes, television appearances, interviews, and commentary by Lloyd Ecker, Oscar-winning director William Gazecki takes us the life of this fascinating woman and unlikely starlet unfolds.  First and foremost, Tucker was a woman trying to be taken seriously as a performer and business person.  Worse, she was a mother, so societal expectations of how she should be spending her time were not aligned with the stars in her eyes (Tucker was so driven that she eventually left her son to be raised by her 14-year-old sister).

Tucker was openly Jewish at a time when name changes were common to hide the stigma of ethnicity.  And in a time of flappers and Ziegfeld Follies dancers, there was fat, plain-looking, busty Tucker.  Not only did she do nothing to hide her largesse, she sang proudly about it to the delight of titillated audiences.   She celebrated the big, bold woman that she was with songs like “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” which became her tagline for the rest of her career.  (Some say the improbable crooner rivaled Betty Grable in the “pin-ups” found among WWII soldiers.)

Barbara Walters appears a number of times, remembering the years that Tucker worked at her father’s theater.  Barbara, no shrinking violet herself, speaks candidly about her admiration for Tucker’s stage presence, her keen business sense, and her big heart.  Interviews with family members of Tucker’s reveal both the softer side of Tucker and insight into her shrewd industry savvy.  Soph rarely let anyone leave the theatre without buying a signed copy of her book at her table (which blocked the exit).   Others sharing stories of Tucker include Carol Channing, Tony Bennett, Michael Feinstein, and numerous other familiar faces.

The Eckers vast effort in research shows in the thoroughness of this film, but no one could have done more to document this broad life than Soph herself.  An empassioned networker, Tucker rarely let anyone who might hold value to her escape without giving her their full name and address.  Late into the night, Tucker would handwrite letters and postcards to maintain contacts yielding a wealth of correspondence.  Letters, cards, photos, and telegrams from the likes of Bing Crosby, Elvis, Al Capone, and numerous U.S. presidents fill over 400 scrapbooks that Tucker herself put together during her six-decade career.  The Eckers gained access to much of this collection, bringing it to life in countless tales overdubbing the memorabilia that we see.

For this reviewer, who knew little of Tucker going in, 96 minutes flew by as the reign of one of the grande dames of stage was so lovingly revealed in the Eckers’ production.  It becomes easy to see why Ecker himself became misty-eyed talking about her passing in 1966; Tucker was a tremendous and influential force in stage history, well-remembered by so few today.  Perhaps this film can restore some of that glory, especially once it becomes a DVD release.  Soph would have liked that, other than the fact that it would bug her that she couldn’t charge you fifty cents to sign the cover.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker
Menemsha Films
USA / English / 2014
96 minutes / no rating
screened at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival
for more info, visit www.menemshafilms.com/outrageous-sophie-tucker
and  www. sophietucker.com

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gene Kalish November 12, 2014 at 11:12 am

Speaking as Sophie’s cousin, this is very well done.

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