Monday 9 December 2019

Leslie takes peek behind burlesque curtain

Actress Leslie Zemeckis rifled through sequins, feathers and fantasy to reveal the stories of women working in a glitzy US tradition, writes Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

Generally, comparing women to cartoon characters goes down like a lead balloon. It seems patronising, trivial, dismissive, maybe even sexist. But when the cartoon character in question is the gorgeous, curvy, warm-hearted Jessica Rabbit, and when the woman in question happens to be married to the man who directed the 1988 film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, it suddenly becomes irresistible.

Anyway, Leslie Zemeckis doesn't mind. "Not at all," she laughs. "I'd love to look like Jessica Rabbit. I wish I had her costume -- it's very burlesque!"

Leslie was in town because her documentary, Behind the Burly Q, about the glory days of American burlesque, was shown at the Jameson Dublin Film Festival. Fresh off the red-eye from LA, she is sipping water in the Merrion Hotel, wearing a fuchsia-pink silk top, neatly tailored black suit and spiky fuchsia-coloured Jimmy Choos. On her ring finger is a diamond bigger than the Ritz.

Behind the Burly Q is an absorbing, moving and cleverly constructed look at the tradition of American burlesque when, for a dime apiece, punters could step into a world of sequins, feathers and fantasy, laced with comedy and high drama. Escaping the Great Depression, the Second World War and the bleakness of everyday life, they would find chorus girls, strippers, comedians, musicians and clowns, all bound together in one spectacular revue.

These were more innocent times, where nudity was only hinted at, yet burlesque was generally perceived as sleazy, and the girls involved were pretty much on a par with today's pole-dancers. "It was very risque," says Zemeckis, "even though the vast majority never showed anything. There was a stigma to it."

So what drew her to make the documentary? "I wanted to tell the story of these women because nobody had and because it was touching to see how much they wanted to tell their stories. They had been dismissed, nobody cared about them. And they were great -- so fun, so vital, they're my friends today."

The stories are rollercoaster rides -- there is an awful lot of misery and squalor behind the sequins; women who have been abused, abandoned, exploited and drugged. And then there are the lucky ones, the big stars who earn serious money -- as much as $5,000 a week -- who marry well (one dancer lands a French baron), or who live the dream (like the high-wire performer who ends up as Walt Disney's first Tinkerbell, at the age of 70). And in between are the many for whom this was just a job, a way of supporting their families, who travel the country, work hard and simply get by.

Zemeckis first came across these women while researching songs for her one-woman show, Staar, a performance piece about a naughty but lovable professional mistress. It's a show that began life in a theatre company, with just one song. "Staar is definitely my alter-ego", says Zemeckis, with a slight purr. "But I never do it as me, I never credit myself as doing it. She's a little bit of a throw-back to the Gypsy Rose Lee, Mae West era, which isn't me, but I'm really fascinated by people's prejudice and dismissiveness. People think, 'Oh, you took off your clothes, you have no value.' That interests me. I really want to push people's buttons."

Zemeckis began her career as a model, and moved to Hollywood from San Diego "because that was always the dream". She successfully got into acting, appearing in Beowulf, A Christmas Carol and Polar Express among many other films.

So when, and how, did the elusive "break", that vital stroke of luck, or fate, come along? "That's the beauty and the mystery of Hollywood, there's no rhyme or reason to it. It's just being in the right place at the right time, being connected to people -- and I was in an amazing acting class, that really kept my head straight. It's about working and meeting people, and doing other things, not just being an actor. You have to live a life."

Some years ago, she met Robert Zemeckis, one of the most established Hollywood producer/ directors, whose credits include Back To The Future, Forrest Gump, Cast Away and, of course, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (good news for Rabbit fans, a sequel is currently in development), at a charity benefit.

"We met, and that was just it." Really? An instant click? "For him," Leslie says, purring again. He pursued? "Yeah, and then it was just like, yeah, this is perfect." The couple wed, have three children, aged two, five and six, and live in Santa Barbara, to get away from the Hollywood scene. "We don't want to live amongst it; we don't do the party thing; it's all about our family and other interests. It's much more interesting like that."

Behind the Burly Q was shown as part of the Jameson Dublin International film festival www. also see

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