“An intoxicating mix of private thoughts and public behavior, A Wink and a Smile exposes more than the human body by putting gender, power, sexuality, and social identity under the glittery spotlight as it follows the lives of ten “ordinary” women who do something extraordinary — learn the art of burlesque dancing and striptease.
“Through their adventures, we see how a homemaker, a reporter, a doctor, an opera singer, a taxidermist, and a college student join the American cultural revival of burlesque, as it moves from fringe fascination to mainstream obsession, engaging a world where performance art and showgirl spectacle, music, theater, and sensuality crash into over-the-top glamour — a world where many want to go but very few dare.”
On Saturday, May 2, I performed with some of the subjects of this film at Quad Cinema in New York, so I took it upon myself to interview the director.
Tell us a bit about your history as a filmmaker.
My film-making career began with acting school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when I was 19. I wanted to be an actress but gave up on those designs when my family made it perfectly clear that acting was bad, like stripping!
It turns out that they were wrong on both counts, but I listened to them anyway and instead became a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and online publications. But you can’t control fate.
I started dabbling around with screenwriting a few years ago, and that was the beginning of the end — or the end of a false beginning, perhaps. I wrote script after script. And then I took film classes to learn how to turn those scripts into reality.
After making 15-some short films, I set out to make a feature-length movie on something that was sweet, funny, edgy, sexy, female oriented and true. And when you add all that up, it equals a documentary on burlesque!
How did you get interested in the subject of burlesque?
A little embarrassing disclosure here: I did not know what burlesque was back then. There. I said it. I was rearing a child as the “burlesque renaissance” was ramping up, so somehow I missed its emergence from the fringe world to the mainstream clubs and cabarets.
When I met a woman who was studying burlesque at Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque in Seattle, however, I almost fell over.
I knew burlesque would contain everything that would make a film I could be proud of: cultural revolution, fantastic music, beautiful costumes, true tales, and sex appeal that would speak to every age, race, gender and size.
What drew you to the Academy of Burlesque?
After first hearing of the Academy of Burlesque, I contacted the headmistress, Miss Indigo Blue, and I told her that I wanted to make a film about burlesque. I also told her that I’d never made a feature-length film before and that I would be flying by the seat of my pants with her, if she were to be involved.
She listened but certainly didn’t respond as if this were the best coffee date she’d ever had. When I settled on an angle that I found interesting — the journey of becoming a striptease artist — I asked her if I could cover her 101 class.
She didn’t answer my request for a long time. Then she sent me an e-mail that just said, “Yes.”
How did the students respond to your presence?
It’s certainly awkward having cameras and lights in your face with some stranger asking you intimate questions about your body image, your sexual journey, and your basic life motivations — not to mention that you’re stripping for the first time in your life with cameras recording every angle. Can you imagine?
So in the beginning, I’d say that the ladies were more reserved with the cameras and my questions. But at some point, everyone just let go, gave me their trust, opened up, and ran with me.
That was very exciting. That’s when I knew we were going to reach some epiphanies that would not only help the film but would help the film’s audience in reaching their own life epiphanies.
What was the most surprising thing about filming the students? About filming the shows?
Two things about filming the students: I was surprised at how loving the whole process was, and I felt very maternal toward the women and the project all the way through.
And I was oddly surprised at how sex and self-image were so entwined in the process of learning the art of striptease. Looking back, that seems like a major “duhhhhh,” but really, I was so fixated on the glamour of burlesque that I hadn’t thought much beyond that.
As far as filming the shows, the professionals were mind-blowingly professional. Most of them didn’t receive their music until right before the show.
But they showed up and they blew us away with their creativity, their beauty, and their great senses of humor. I just want each and every one of them to receive the acknowledgment (and remuneration!) that they deserve considering the high level of entertainment that they bring to fans.
Did you ever take a class? If so, what was it like?
Yes, I did. I’m a ham from A to Z and I was only too happy — at the age of 42 and having nursed for more than two years — to get on stage, be funny, and strip. And I don’t even like to be naked!
I’ll never forget the first time that I stood on stage twirling tassels, looking out into the audience and seeing about 20 friends — men and women — laughing and holding up their drinks. I thought, “Well, so much for being self-conscious.” It was extremely freeing.
In the long run, it has also made daily dressing and just walking down the street a lot more fun! I feel like it’s something everyone should try once in their life, even if it’s in the privacy of their own home.
Do you think you’ll stay interested in burlesque?
Yes. Our company, Golden Echo Films, shoots burlesque shows whenever possible. Burlesque performers are smart, hard-working, focused, fun, talented, and experimental.
As I shift into making narrative musical films, I will continue to tap into this fantastic pool of talent. The burlesque community definitely feels like family to me.
Tell us about what’s next for A Wink and A Smile.
What’s next for you? Any other subjects catching your eye?
We’re now editing our second documentary, Pretty Funny Women, which will be completed this year. It’s about a particular group of female stand-up comediennes in LA.
It will be funny, perhaps a little sad, and peppered with snippets of ridonkulous dancing. And I’m now writing scripts for narrative musicals. Stay tuned!
– Jo Weldon
Jo Weldon is headmistress of the award-winning New York School of Burlesque and is a regular burlesque performer. Visit burlesquedaily.blogspot.com to read her daily blog.