Is she a woman pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman? Or is he a man, pretending to be a woman, pretending to be a man?
Such is the disingenuousness proposed in Blake Edward's hilarious gender-bending musical farce, Victor/Victoria (1982), placing the transparently feminine Julie Andrews at the heart of the query. And it is saying a great deal of Ms. Andrews, that despite her instantly recognizable fresh-faced innocence she managed to summon something of the impersonator’s hauteur and more than an ounce of androgyny in her pantomime; enough, at least, to carry off this supremely wicked masquerade in spite of her soprano vocalizations of the deliciously dreamy Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse score. At a time when movie musicals were generally considered ‘box office poison’, Edwards proved that with the right vehicle and star at his disposal the results could still be magical and profit-making; dusting off an old, and all but forgotten 1933 German film, ‘Viktor und Viktoria’ while only ever so slightly tweaking the particulars of its hermaphroditic dilemma. There is a studio-bound elegance to this exercise; Edwards, contented never to leave the sound stages, enveloped by quaint cycloramas, and, save a few back lot facades, remaining deliberately ensconced in the artifice of making a classic – and very classy – old-time entertainment. While Julie Andrews has more epic musicals in her repertoire, Victor/Victoria shines like a gemstone from another era entirely; Edwards blending the leitmotifs, risqué naughtiness and pseudo-European sophistication of a pre-code dazzler a la Ernest Lubtisch with his own tongue-in-cheek tease from 1963’s The Pink Panther. Even in 1982, there was something quaint about Victor/Victoria, though in the very best sense, as well as the tradition for adapting great theater to the cinema screen. And the results have held up remarkably well in the thirty plus years since its debut; the picaresque quality of its cabaret-styled gay-liberation only becoming more seasoned and sassy with age.
It is to Edwards’ credit the film’s deliberately ‘camp’ elements, and Robert Preston’s breakout performance as the flamboyant Toddy, are tempered with equal dollops of style and substance as well as sexual titillation; Edwards, expertly avoiding the crass and witless didacticisms; too easily, the fallback to transform such lithe specimens into a tedious yawn. We must reconsider that in 1982 AIDS was yet to be misconstrued as interchangeable and synonymous with the gay lifestyle; the epidemic to follow its diagnosis and outbreak casting a pall on the already ‘closeted’ overview of homosexuality in general. Yet, Edwards is not particularly interested in taking the familiar approach in treating homo-erotica as either dangerous and/or counterculture; nor in making it obvious and spitefully silly for which a slew of 80’s comedies are guilty. Instead, cribbing from Hans Hoemburg’s original concept, later fleshed out by Reinhold Schünzel in the original movie, Edwards’ screenplay is a mostly adult affair that runs the gamut from tender clichés of the ‘old queen’ to astutely empathic depictions of gays as people too; different, but equal and undeniably resilient as contributors to this artistic milieu. In Victor/Victoria’s case, this unfamiliar territory is dotted with some sparkling slapstick. Largely green lit on Edwards’ reputation, a sort of pledge of good faith by the studio and nod to his hit-making track record, Victor/Victoria emerges as an escapist fantasia of sublime comedy, superbly photographed by cinematographer, Dick Bush (whose name alone is rife for blatant double entendre, sincerely abstain from, given the subject matter at hand. But draw your own conclusions…smile – and relax).
It was, in fact, a big year for cross-dressing at the cinema; Sidney Pollack doing as much for ‘straight’ comedy with Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, released just a few months earlier. Like Pollack’s non-musical, Victor/Victoria is a tale of necessity as the mother of invention – literally. In this case, Victoria Grant, a young woman of great talent but virtually no opportunities – and worse, no money – is taken under the wing of an aging homosexual impresario and nightclub performer, thus remade into drag queen extraordinaire, Count Victor. As Victor, Victoria vamps the part of an erstwhile cabaret entertainer that catches the eye of a celebrated ‘butch John’ – played with magnanimous severity by James Gardner. Confusing, I know – but devilishly satisfying as an exercise in misappropriated gender traits and biases. Clever too, in Edwards’ own slick and stylish rewriting; shaking up the ensemble with the overt ‘girlie-girl’ (Leslie Ann Warren as the proverbial ‘dumb bitch’ in gold digger’s frilly lace panties), and, Alex Karras – playing against his own image as an ex-footballer/pro-wrestler cum actor; herein, the least likely man one might expect of harboring latent homosexual tendencies.
Edwards is, of course, cribbing from a rich – if slightly one-dimensional stereotype; that to appreciate musical/comedy one has either to be female or of the gay persuasion; hence, his emphasis on the gayness of the piece progressively evolves with a wink and a nudge. Critics in 1982 were rather unkind to condescending, carpet-hauling Edwards’ efforts as a deliberate and/or artificial miscalculation. In the wake of Edouard Molinaro’s more naturalistic approach in La Cage Aux Folles (1978), perhaps there was a point to be made – idiotically so – but made nonetheless. Besides, in Reinhold Schünzel's 1933 original, Renate Müller had cross-dressed her way to celebrity as a stand-in for a genuine female impersonator, Hermann Thimig, while London Lochinvar, Adolf Wohlbrück (having astutely found her out) indulged in a tortuous initiation to get Müller to confess the truth before professing his love for her. This situation is uproariously subverted in Victor/Victoria; the male stud of the piece, King Marchand (James Garner) made to suffer and question his sexuality; quite unable to reconcile his usual tom-catting with bubble-headed gun molls with an inexplicable attraction to someone who gives every indication of possessing the same anatomical bits as he. Naturally, this unusual attraction rootles deep into his masculine conceit and ego. Thus, King is determined to understand it by getting to know the Count better.
Edwards’ succès de scandale is capped off by an inspired ‘big reveal’: making the butchest bloke, Marchand’s rotund bodyguard, ‘Squash’ Bernstein (ex-footballer and future Webster co-star, Alex Karras) the real closeted queer, later to be satisfied with an invitation to Toddy’s bedroom. Still, the most outlandish of the lot in this sex-confused milieu is Lesley Ann Warren’s scene-stealing/disgustingly uncouth, Norma Cassidy; an overwrought buxom trophy, draped like the proverbial cheap suit across King’s arm. In a sort of Jean Harlow-esque homage, a la Marilyn Monroe, and, a little Mamie Van Doren mixed in, Warren’s sex-crazed viper is un-apologetically light-headed and giggly; an uber-erotic sex kittenish foil. While Julie Andrews’ central performance is chronically restrained – though never hampered – by the fact she must temper her desire to be a lady – except, of course, when her nightclub act permits the ‘illusion’ of as much – Warren’s brassy bombshell is estrogen-nutty shock therapy with no compunction to indulge in the froth and frilliness of being an undulating sexpot. And while in life there are undoubtedly female impersonators who practice their craft so flawlessly as to create the seamlessness of being ‘real women’, Victor/Victoria’s tour de force is in the art of knowing more than the characters do; Andrews making us buy into her drag queen nonsense while still knowing it’s all just an act. Herein, we really must tip our hats to Julie Andrews; clever enough to recognize her reputation as America’s favorite nun/nanny precedes her; sharp enough in her perceptions to tweak, mimic and occasionally convince us into at least enjoying the gender-bending conundrums that follow. Thus, the bright-eyed comedy comes from a rather buoyant contemplation on how absurd we are when we take sex too seriously.
Fair enough, the film would be nothing at all without Julie Andrews’ at the top of her form, belting out a great Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse score. But equally as integral to this highly stylized exultation of Paris is the character of Toddy, the self-professed ‘old queen’, quizzically reflecting on a failed relationship with sycophant lover, Richard DiNardo (Malcolm Jamieson), before investing in Victoria’s sham. This puts a new ‘oo-la-la’ in his step. And Robert Preston, who initially had misgivings about accepting the role, proves a sheer delight on par with Andrews; whether philosophically contemplating his flawed life’s pursuits, buoyantly embracing/promoting the reputation of his slickly packaged Polish cross-dressing Count, or, in the exuberantly raw ‘Shady Lady from Seville’; unconvincingly masquerading as Victoria herself, begrudgingly turning on his sabotaging male chorus with clenched teeth - “You bitches!”, Preston’s performance as the old campaigner is ripe with endearing recollections of the elegant bon vivant – a sort of gay Maurice Chevalier who knows all the tricks and is decidedly unafraid to use every last one in his great stab at immortality.
Ultra-sophistication is the order of the day. Director, Edwards is cribbing from a long line of ersatz European escapisms a la Ernest Lubitsch, herein ever so delicately folded into a mélange of sly innuendoes a la Billy Wilder: quite the cinematic soufflé. And let us not overlook production designer, Rodger Maus’ glittery and transparently theatrical sets, a veritable potpourri of très gay Bohemian chic, circa 1934. Plot wise: Andrews is Victoria Grant – a failed chanteuse auditioning for Labisse (Peter Arne) the proprietor of Chez Lui – an artsy Parisian nightclub. From the corner of the café, Carroll ‘Toddy’ Todd quietly admires. Alas, he has no say in the matter and Labisse shows zero interest in advancing the girl’s career. She is classically trained. But he needs a torch singer with sex appeal. Hungry and desperate, Victoria is cornered by her wily middle-age hotel manager (Michael Robbins) who would consider working off the rent in her boudoir. Too bad Victoria is a woman of principles…well, sort of. After rejecting his advances and being cast into the street, she decides to perpetrate a fraud; treating herself to a fabulous meal – or rather, ‘meals’ inside a fashionable restaurant, quite aware she cannot pay for any of it, and thus, resigned to go to jail afterward. In the meantime, Toddy has just been given the old heave-ho by his lover, Richard. Let us be fair, though honest, when assessing Richard’s motives in latching onto Toddy. It was never grand amour.
Traversing the streets alone and forlorn, Toddy spies Victoria indulging in her feast. The two comfort one another in their sorrow – each confessing they are penniless and slightly depressed. Victoria explains her plan; to release a cockroach held captive in her purse into her salad, thereby declaring the restaurant unsanitary and refusing to pay for the meal. It might have worked, except the head waiter (Graham Stark) is no stranger to this careworn moocher’s trick. And, the trick itself is spoiled when the cockroach, having prematurely escaped Victoria’s bag, winds up in the salad of a nearby patron, who wastes no time becoming hysterical at its discovery. Her panicky cries incite a riot in the restaurant. In the ensuing chaos, Toddy and Victoria manage their bungled escape, Toddy taking Victoria back to his apartment to commiserate. Since Victoria’s eviction has left her without an immediate change of wardrobe, Toddy offers her the run of his closet, encouraging her to try on some of Richard’s clothes. When Richard arrives to collect his things, he discovers Victoria hiding in the closet wearing in his trousers and shirt. Believing he will harm Toddy, Victoria attacks Richard, punching him in the eye and literally kicking him out of the apartment down a flight of stairs into a waiting car of his fair-weather friends. Richly amused by Victoria’s uncanny masculine predisposition, moreover tantalized by the fact Richard has fallen for it too, Toddy proposes an ‘angle’ to salvage Victoria’s career; why not pretend to be Europe’s greatest female impersonator? It seems too fantastic to work…at first. But what has Victoria to lose? Answer: absolutely nothing. And so, a new twist on the old Pygmalion transformation begins to take shape under Toddy’s expert tutelage. Victoria is given a new name, ‘Count Victor’ and pitched with aplomb by Toddy to nightclub impresario, Andre Cassell (John Rhys-Davies).
Cassell implicitly accepts Victoria as the gay Polish Count Victor Grazinski, Toddy assuming a dual role as the Count’s agent/boyfriend. After a few weeks’ rehearsals, Cassell lines up an impressive opening night. All the glitterati attend; among them, King Marchand, an enterprising American gangster whose chain of upscale speakeasies are the envy of Chicago, thanks to backing from the mob. King’s appendage du jour is the rapacious, Norma Cassidy (Lesley Ann Warren), a dim-witted floozy King has managed to elevate to queen of the burlesque back home. King is also flanked by his devoted bodyguard, Squash Bernstein. Victoria’s sexual orientation is kept a mystery until the end of her opening number, ‘Le Jazz Hot’, whereupon she strips off her elaborately beaded headdress to reveal a mannish crop of reddish hair underneath. The crowd is completely fooled and elated. However, King, who felt an immediate sexual attraction when he had correctly assumed Victoria to be a woman, is now wildly befuddled to outright wounded he could so easily be fooled.
From this moment forward the ‘love affair’ to blossom between Victor and King will increasingly suffer more rascally roadblocks. Victoria must not reveal who she really is, lest her cover be blown and she and Toddy both face going to prison for fraud. On the other hand, Victoria is attracted to King. Unable to put these variables together, Norma is incensed when King endeavors to unravel the truth, quietly assuming King has begun to harbor legitimately gay tendencies toward Count Victor. The thing is – King is not yet entirely convinced Victoria is a woman. Thus, his early sexual frustration boils over – culminating in a failed launch to reassert his manhood by consummating his dwindling romance with Norma. Unable to perform in bed, King sends Norma packing to America while he fastidiously commits himself to discovering Victor’s true identity. Sneaking into Victoria and Toddy’s suite, King observes her disrobing to take a bath. Satisfied there is nothing doubtful about his own sexual proclivities, King decided to keep Victoria’s secret for the time being, inviting her, Toddy and Cassell to Chez Lui. Labisse coaxes Victoria and Toddy into an impromptu performance of ‘You and Me’. In the audience are Richard and his friends. Toddy uses the number to goad Richard and make him jealous. At the end of the song, a brawl ensues and Labisse is forced to summon the police. Squash and Toddy are arrested. But King’s quick thinking ensures both he and Victoria escape the deluge. This is exactly what he has been waiting for; a moment alone to profess his love. Pretending he does not care about Victoria’s gender – when, in fact he already knows the truth – King seduces her. Newly released from jail, Squash catches the couple in bed. While King tries to explain the particulars to Squash, he receives the shocker of his life when Squash explains he too is gay.
Still reeling from the damage inflicted by the nightclub brawl, Labisse hires private investigator, Charles Bovin (Herb ‘Sherloque’ Tanney) to unearth the truth about Count Victor. Labisse is already quite certain there is something suspiciously familiar about the Count. In the meantime, the strain of pretending to be involved with a female impersonator eventually gets the better of King. He breaks off their relationship for his own vanity’s sake. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Norma spreads the rumor King is pinch-hitting for the other side. Naturally, this revelation does not sit well with King’s Mafia contact, Sal Andretti (Norman Chancer), who promptly flies to France, ordering King to divest himself of their partnership. Squash intercedes, explaining to Victoria, King will be publicly humiliated and financially wiped out if the deal goes through. Having already decided she would rather be with King than remain the toast of Paris, Victoria interrupts their rendezvous and reveals herself to all as a woman. Norma is outraged and ultimately the one who is humiliated and carted back to America. Alas, later that evening Cassell informs Toddy and Victoria, Labisse has filed a formal complaint against ‘Victor’ for perpetrating a fraud. Last minute quick thinking narrowly prevents everyone’s incarceration. Toddy pretends to be Victor, inviting the police inspector (Geoffrey Beevers) into Victor’s dressing room where he illustrates – unequivocally – he is a man. As the nightclub’s Master of Ceremony’s cues up the performance, it is Toddy who appears on stage in Victoria’s place, badly mangling her signature number, ‘The Shady Lady from Seville’. Amused by this debacle and quite aware of the bait and switch, the gay male chorus deliberately sabotages the act; causing Toddy to repeatedly trip and fall. The audience, many never having seen the act before, finds this bumbling campiness enchanting. At the end of his performance, Toddy announces his retirement from the stage. From their seats in the nightclub, King, Cassell and Victoria – at last, allowed to appear as she is – rise to their feet in unanimous applause.
Victor/Victoria is a delicious charade; director, Blake Edwards taking the magical romantic chemistry so eloquently evoked in such classic outings as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Pink Panther (1963) to their lithe extreme of champagne cocktail effervescence. In a decade buffeted by cynicism and crass sex comedies, Victor/Victoria harks back to another vintage in regal elegance. It’s still an ‘80’s ‘sex comedy’ per say, and undoubtedly one of the first to frankly treat homosexuality and homosexuals with respect, not merely as subtext, backdrop or figures of fun. And Edwards – apart from parlaying the premise of the 1933 German movie into a financially successful remake/reboot/update for the then beleaguered MGM/UA, has also managed a minor artistic coup; making it a musical at a time when musicals were sincerely dreaded. In hindsight, one might ask how such an enterprise could fail with Julie Andrews and Robert Preston at the helm. Yet, this is a last hurrah for both these talents – tragically so for Andrews, whose supposedly routine throat surgeries have since deprived us of her miraculous vocal gifts. The Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse score has its moments; particularly ‘Le Jazz Hot’ – a sizzler with Andrews seemingly effortlessly popping out ascending and descending octaves. Andrews also acquits herself of the sad-eyed and oddly dreamy, ‘Crazy World’; a luscious ballad. She and Robert Preston are the epitome of mirth, locked at the elbow as they warble, ‘You and Me’, while Preston gives us the very Cole Porter-esque ‘Gay Paree’ with all the debonair grace of a classy showman.
Robert Preston had not appeared in a big and splashy Hollywood musical since 1974’s disastrous and costly, Mame. Certainly, he had not known success in the genre after his Oscar-winning turn in 1962, reprising his stage role as everyone’s favorite con, Prof. Harold Hill in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. Herein, Preston is having an indubitably ‘good time’; his caricature never mean-spirited or over the top. His is a genuine, if very ‘hot’ Toddy indeed; a twinkle of petty larceny caught in his eye, supremely satisfying as he gesticulates with arms spread wide; a vivacious ‘old queen’. And Preston and Andrews have that illusive, infectious and curiously bromantic spark of onscreen chemistry. Whether they’re embracing the implied subtleties of ‘gay Paree’ or simply exchanging loaded barbs from Edward’s brilliantly nuanced screenplay, together they crackle with airy wit and smart sophistication; a pair of hams sufficiently cured to carry the premise off without a hitch. Less successful is Leslie Ann Warren’s grating gun moll. At times, she seems to be channeling Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain (1952), albeit, with far less charm than silliness. Her one solo number, ‘Chicago, Illinois’ is a garish display of sex appeal turned rancid and antagonistic; the sly stripping down of Norma to her unmentionables becoming an intolerable striptease that neither teases nor titillates, but rather makes one sincerely wish she would simply get dressed and get off the stage. Yes, it is meant to be ‘camp’ and it is. But there is decidedly a difference between good ‘camp’ and bad. Perhaps, the number’s biggest flaw is its transparent hetero-arousing counterpoint to all the homoerotic badinage going on everywhere else. Victor/Victoria could have easily done with this moment. There is no subterfuge to it. In hindsight, the song adds very little – if anything – to the movie, except run time; a genuine shame too, because when Warren reels in her culture-clashing homage to Harlow and Monroe she occasionally becomes a devilishly obtuse and smashing sexpot. Ultimately, it’s the heavy-handed nature of her performance that adds clunk to the clamor in her taps and submarines its success.
Warner Archive has announced Victor/Victoria is coming to Blu-ray. Frankly, we cannot wait and even more frankly – it’s about time! Mercifully, the DVD is rather spectacular so one can only anticipate what a treasure we are in store for when the hi-def Blu-ray hits the streets. Colors herein are warm, rich and vibrant. A few very brief scenes appear softly focused, but overall the image is solid and sharp without appearing digitally harsh. There’s no untoward edge enhancement either. Contrast levels are bang on deep and solid. When the Blu-ray arrives, we’ll expect to see more natural film grain. The DVD looks rather artificially smooth; and of course, lots more fine detail in clothes, fabric, skin, etc. et al. The mastered 5.1 Dolby Digital thunders during the musical sequences and exhibits minor ambiance in its dialogue. Again, when the Blu-ray arrives the Mancini/Bricusse score is sure to tickle and tantalize as never before. Get ready – it’s coming. Herein, we get an audio commentary from Edwards and Andrews that is being carried over to the Blu-ray too. Alas, it’s fairly dull and rambling and gets very old very fast! Bottom line: recommended! But we just cannot wait for the Blu-ray. Soon, folks. Very soon!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)