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Behind Burlesque With Leslie Zemeckis’s Fleshy New Film

Behind the Burly Q, a look back at the glory days of burlesque from writer/director/producer Leslie Zemeckis, fascinatingly strips away at the myths surrounding the most popular American entertainment form of the first half of the 20th century. On the eve of the documentary opening in New York on April 23 en route to other cities, I phoned Leslie (whose husband, Robert Zemeckis of Forrest Gump fame, executive produced the doc) for some burly talk.

MM: Hi, Leslie. How was Behind the Burly Q born?

LZ: I’m an actress and did a show that had elements of burlesque in it. I started to research it and realized no one had done a comprehensive documentary about burlesque, told by the performers. I thought, ‘I’ve got to record this for posterity.’

MM: When you interviewed the former strippers—many of them now in their 80s–did some of them start re-enacting their old competitive patterns?

LZ: Not really. But some wanted to strip again! I thought, ‘I’m not sure where you’re gonna find a job, but God bless you.’ For a lot of them, it was the high time of their life and they wanted to recreate that.

MM: Some observers might see these strippers as having set back women’s rights, but it seems like they were actually using their wares for female empowerment.

LZ: We see that in our perspective now. But back then, a lot of these women had no other options. There was nothing else for them to do, even the ones that wanted to be actresses. They didn’t have the skills or the knowhow. They thought of it as getting money. That’s why there’s a huge resurgence in neo-burlesque–‘Oh, they were trailblazers’–and they WERE, as a by-product. But a lot of them came from hard circumstances–poverty and abuse–and simply had to get out.

MM: In New York clubs, there’s been a burlesque revival for over a decade!

LZ: I get emails from clubs all over the world. In Dublin, there’s a huge neo-burlesque scene. It’s fun to have pretty girls taking off clothes. Women of different ages are interested in the women of that time.

MM: I loved the stripper’s comment about the legendary Gypsy Rose Lee in your movie: “She had no talent. She couldn’t sing, she couldn’t dance, she wasn’t pretty, and she had a very bad body.”

LZ: But she was very intelligent and smart and street savvy. She made a career out of it and everyone knows Gypsy.

MM: As they say in Gypsy the musical, “You gotta get a gimmick.” Anyway, your husband, the Oscar winner, executive produced this film. How did that work?

LZ: He paid for it! He let me do it. ‘Can you watch the kids? I’ve got to go to Tennessee and do an interview?’ ‘OK.’ And I’d show him results and he’d give notes. He’s very good at shaping a story. It was great to have his story eye.

MM: And he is, after all, the man who brought us Jessica Rabbit.