The elusive, oftentimes falsely romanticized, proto-Playboy Bunnies, the "Burlesque Queens," who ruled Hollywood's dark underbelly in the 1940s, have finally found their hero. And her name is Liz Goldwyn. A jewelry designer and the granddaughter of legendary Hollywood studio executive, Samuel Goldwyn, the 27-year old first-time film director spent the last 10 years documenting the lives of Tinsletown's oft-overlooked burlesque dancers. Her hard work can be viewed in the form of an hour-long documentary, Pretty Things, which premieres on HBO on July 19.
Goldwyn first became interested in burlesque at the age of 18, after she stumbled upon two antique burlesque costumes at a New York City flea market. An interest rapidly turned into an obsession, and Goldwyn started actively collecting burlesque dresses. While studying photography at the School of Visual Arts, Goldwyn embarked on a series of self-portraits, in which she took photos of herself decked out in burlesque costumes. "I looked at these old pin-ups of burlesque queens," Goldwyn explains, "and there was something so attractive about them. These women had so much power. I, on the other hand, didn't think that I radiated sex appeal or self-confidence."
In 1997, Goldwyn landed at Sothebys, where, under Tiffany Dubin, she helped found their fashion department. "No one else was collecting burlesque costumes. I was obsessed. If anyone came across burlesque dresses, they would call me." Goldwyn believes that she probably has the largest collection of burlesque costumes in the United States. Her interest in the clothing they wore ultimately led Goldwyn to the women themselves, many of whom had already passed away, but some of whom were still alive -- waiting for their stories to be told.
"Burlesque wasn't considered legitimate theater, while vaudeville was," Goldwyn says. "The burlesque dancers never really got their due. The artistry surrounding them was never looked at with a scholarly eye." It was this gaping hole in the scholarship, and additionally, Goldwyn's visceral desire to document these women's lives, that led her to make the documentary. Says Goldwyn, "It was really important for me that these stories didn't die and fade into obscurity." After a year and a half of developing pen-pal relationships with various burlesque legends, and sending them the photos of herself wearing burlesque outfits, Goldwyn finally met up with some of the former dancers, face to face -- and the documentary-making process began. "It took me a long time to commit to film," says Goldwyn. "Everyone would ask me, since the time when I was two, are you going to be in the movie business? And I always said no way."
Goldwyn's obsessive, almost Single White Female-style adoration of these women is evident in her documentary. Half of the documentary is pure storytelling -- interviews with the women, mixed with footage from their burlesque-dancing days. The other half of the documentary centers around Goldwyn, her own feelings about burlesque, and her transformation from a plain Jane into a sexy, self-confident burlesque dancer. Not only does Goldwyn physically transform herself into a burlesque queen, she devotes her spare time to dance lessons, and, at the end of the documentary, performs a choreographed number to "Hey, Big Spender" -- but she also embarks on a more spiritual transformation as well.
After talking extensively with these women about their pasts, Goldwyn inevitably came to terms with the fact that her romantic visions of burlesque dancing were not entirely accurate. "I realized I had this romantic ideal of what their pasts were like. But I couldn't lie. I had this illusion that these women were so self-confident, that they were totally in control of their sexuality." In reality, the burlesque dancers with whom Goldwyn spoke, for the most part, did not lead the sexually empowered and glamorous lives Goldwyn had initially fantasized about. They were driven almost solely by financial needs and received little respect from the men they worked for and the men who frequented the clubs. Many of the dancers had been sexually abused as children. "Part of the process of making this movie," says Goldwyn, "was deconstructing the glamour surrounding these women." And by including herself in the film, by making the documentary's pièce de résistance, Goldwyn's burlesque act, "I thought I could somehow make up for my false notions of their pasts. I could still realize my fantasy."
One of the most striking aspects of the film is the candor with which these octogenarians speak to Goldwyn, and, frankly, how delightfully nuts they are. Goldwyn clearly got to know these women quite well and they opened up to her in a way they probably wouldn't have to someone who had not established a decade-long relationship with them. Among others, there's Betty Rowland, aka "Ball of Fire," a red-headed beauty known for her bumping and grinding; Gussie Gross, the famed "pastie" designer; the 6'4" Lois de Fee, aka "Queen of the Glamazons" who counted John Jacob Astor as one of her admirers -- he allegedly sent her ten 100 dollar bills following each show; and, of course, Zorita. Remembered for her outrageous snake routines, the lesbian burlesque legend is at once sarcastic and dry and at the same time extremely sympathetic. It is with great sadness that we learn that she passed away in 2001, shortly after Goldwyn interviewed her. "I had a very special relationship with Zorita," Goldwyn recalls. "She was a broad, an original true character. She taught me a lot about manipulation and about sexuality. She challenged me and was hard on me in a good way." Indeed, it was the relationships Goldwyn developed with these dancers that ultimately meant the most to her. "It was a thrill for them to see how much I idolized them," she recalls. "It was hard for them to believe it, to believe that someone not involved in their world would be looking at them like I did."