The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is a loving portrait of a larger-than-life figure, delivered in a tidy package.
One of the preeminent women of the vaudeville scene, balancing popularity and provocation in the early half of the twentieth century, Tucker was an astute self-marketer who knew how to leverage her celebrity — she appeared in endorsements for brands before it was commonplace.
As one of the scholars interviewed says, “She was like P.T. Barnum, but her circus was herself.” Though not a conventionally attractive woman — much of her act played on her fatness — she made a name for herself as a “Red Hot Mama” in garish outfits, singing sexually suggestive songs. The film ends with her death in the 1960s, and given the fullness of her life such an ending feels abrupt.
Though some more exploration of Tucker’s influence would be welcome, the documentary does make fine use of archival materials culled from Tucker’s immense collection of scrapbooks from every year of her career: the membership cards for her fans, “The Amalgamated Red Hot Mamas of the U.S.A.,” are fascinating proto-feminist ephemera, and images of her with stars from Judy Garland to Jerry Lewis illustrate vaudeville’s connection to Hollywood.
With her elaborate hairdos and brusque voice, singing songs like “I Don’t Want to Get Thin,” Tucker was a true sassy showbiz broad. While the documentary illustrates this, it remains formally simple, and a bit tamer than its star ever was.
The Outrageous Sophie Tucker
Directed by William Gazecki
Opens July 24, Cinema Village
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 21, 2015