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FEATURING: Sophie von Haselberg
PLOT: A one-woman 1970s TV special slides into a psychedelic nightmare.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) nightmarish and always unpredictable, Give Me Pity! is a surreal showcase of female insecurity, acted out on a disco stage where glamour fades into mockery.
COMMENTS: Sissy St. Claire’s first prime time special (set in the indefinite late 1970s) takes quite a journey. Her opening monologue begins, creepily enough, with her dressed as a little girl, describing her dreams of someday having her own prime time special. In the closing monologue, she appears as an angel, reveling in the fact that she finally “made it.” Throughout, she’s a woman craving adulation, just like her inspiration in the entertainment field: Jesus. Yet the film’s overwhelming impression is not one of triumph or celebration, but of vanity: St. Claire’s own superficial vanity (there are lots of scenes of her staring into mirrors), and her vain dreams of immortality through celebrity.
The film is simultaneously a parody of 1970s celebrity specials and of confessional “one woman” shows (the type of off-Broadway performances no one ever attends, but knows about through sitcom punchlines). The production design puts us in an authentic kitsch nightmare during the musical numbers: glowing pink backgrounds, mirror balls, laser spotlights criss-crossing the screen, Sissy crooning disco ballads in a glittery jumpsuit as backup dancers parade in silhouette behind her. These productions alternate with sketch comedy scenes that go horribly sideways (the actress in the “psychic” sketch refuses to read Sissy’s palm because she has a “demonic” energy, there’s blood on the envelope of one of the fan letters Sissy picks to read, a special guest stands up the live show at the last moment and Sissy has to perform both male and female parts.) Then there are Sissy’s monologues to the audience, which are, at the same time, boastful and needy, addressing the actresses’ insecurities about her appearance (a plastic surgery sketch is done in horror film style) and general angst (she sees both terrible posture and an existential void in an impression of her performed via interpretive dance.) Recurring motifs about longing for a child and early widowhood drip out, suggesting a possible backstory much different than the confident facade Sissy projects onstage. Oh, and if all this wasn’t enough, there are frequent glitchy bursts of buzzing video distortion and solarization and shots of a creepy-faced man waiting backstage, which grow into a full-fledged acid freakout late in the show. (The film probably would have been just as effective without the psychedelic frippery–the monologues and absurdist sketches are ominous enough–but hey, who’s complaining?)
Rather than a sketch of an established performer deteriorating from self-doubt, the entire special feels like the dream of an ordinary woman living a delusional fantasy of a fame she’ll never merit. St. Claire is attractive enough, but far from gorgeous; her singing and dancing is competent, but far from diva quality. She’s a creation of gilded glamour, a housewife covered in layers of barely-convincing glitz and sequins. In short, despite what the existence of a 2-hour block of TV programming devoted to her implies, Sissy seems nothing special. If this assessment sounds like I’m demeaning von Haselberg or her performance, that’s absolutely not the intent. Sissy St. Claire can’t be too good at what she does; that would undermine Give Me Pity!‘s entire theme of ambition outstripping reality. Von Hasselberg in fact hits a difficult mark here: she’s cast as a reputed superstar who lacks actual star appeal, a woman playing a part she doesn’t live up to. Her clearly-manufactured, forced-upon-the-audience charisma rings as hollow as the canned applause, which becomes tinnier as the night wears on. The fact that there’s nothing truly exceptional about either Sissy’s performance or her persona gives the film its pathos. Her tragedy is her yearning to be extraordinary, to be worthy of what all of us want deep down: a TV special that will grant us immortality, just like Sissy’s inspiration, Jesus.
Sophie von Haselberg is Bette Midler’s daughter (her mom is the kind of star who might have actually gotten a 2-hour special in 1979). Give Me Pity! was Amanda Cramer’s second weird movie of 2022—she also brought us the underrated and underseen Please Baby Please. She is definitely a talent to keep an eye on, assuming she can keep finding funding to put her oddball ideas onscreen.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… a wholly bizarre movie from start to finish, but with such a fully realized vision from Kramer and an entrancing lead performance, ‘Give Me Pity!’ is lovably unconventional.”–Louisa Moore, Screen Zealots (festival screening)