Popcorn Preview: The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

04/10/2015 10:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (2014)
Cast includes: Sophie Tucker, Barbara Walters, Tony Bennett, Carol Channing, Michael Feinstein, Shecky Green, Bruce Vilanch
Director: William Gazecki (Coming to America, Future by Design)
Genre: Documentary

In Sophie Tucker's words... "I was around when the Dead Sea was only sick." And she was... she was around at least a decade before the people we usually think of as cultural pioneers. She was the pioneer to the pioneers. Born in 1887 while her parents were en route to America from Ukraine, Sophie was a hardworking daughter in her parents' kosher restaurant in Hartford, CT. One day her father sent her to the theater to hand out flyers to the Jewish performers, trying to drum up business. When Sophie found the stage door open, she snuck in and discovered the world of vaudeville. She thought she'd discovered her calling, but got sidetracked at age 16 to marry Louis Tuck and have a baby. As soon as she realized her mistake, she divorced Tuck, left the kid with her 14-year-old sister, added "er" to Tuck and took off for New York... over the strong objections of her orthodox Jewish parents.

The problem was that Sophie had absolutely no possibility of becoming a showgirl. She was... to put it bluntly... fat. And there was no place in show biz for a fat girl. That's when she started performing in blackface. The blackface act gave her a start, even though she wasn't proud of it. One day she "accidentally" forgot the makeup and theater managers discovered that audiences loved her anyway. When movies were new, they used to have to entertain audiences while the reels were being changed. Sophie sang and entertained until the headline performer got jealous and had her fired. That's when Sophie decided she had to pay more attention to her marketing. Unlike many other performers, Sophie Tucker's career never had serious dry spells. For 6 decades, she was huge... in every way. Everyone loved her... not just her act, but the woman herself. She knew everyone from kings, queens and presidents to both J. Edgar Hoover and Al Capone... not to mention all the entertainers she mentored. But that wasn't enough... in every town she played, she personally knew and corresponded with everyone she met, including the flower delivery guy.

She was the first woman to include risqué material in her act. She wasn't "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas"... she was the first. She promoted and taught classes for young women who wanted to become Red Hot Mamas, too. Everything she did was original... she was one of the first jazz singers... certainly the first of the white jazz singers.

Thanks to the devotion of two "young" fans, Lloyd and Susan Ecker, who talked the New York Public Library into giving them access to Tucker's 400 scrapbooks, Sophie Tucker's amazing story is now being told. They've just published the first of three books on Tucker, and there's a play in the works. The film does more than give us the highlights of Sophie's life and career... it gives us a real look at who she was. Sophie herself wrote an autobiography... in which almost every word was a lie... but she insisted people buy it. She was the first to do book signings as a promotional tactic. When a man paid for her book with a $50 bill and waited for change, Sophie finally scowled at him, "What are you waiting for!" She was truly outrageous... and she never gave change.

4 popped kernels (Scale: 0-4)
You probably don't know why you should know about Sophie Tucker, but you really should

Popcorn Profile
Audience: Grown-ups
Gender Style: Neutral
Distribution: Art House
Mood: Upbeat
Tempo: Cruises Comfortably
Visual Style: Unvarnished Realism
Nutshell: Discovering Sophie Tucker
Language: True to life
Social Significance: Pure Entertainment & Informative

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