THE DISGUISE SURPRISE COMEDY OF THE YEAR!
Tootsie may be the more famous of the two great 1982 gender-bending comedies, but Victor/Victoria deserves recognition as well. Director Blake Edwards’s finest film since the first two Pink Panther efforts offers great entertainment as well as a few thought-provoking ingredients, even if the director reportedly “chickened out” and made a change in the story that was supposed to comfort the severely heterosexual part of his audience. It was 1982, but the world was not yet quite ready to see James Garner fall in love with a boyish drag queen.
A soprano trying to find work
Paris, 1934. Times are tough for Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews), a soprano trying to find work. She’s spotted by Caroll “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston), a gay artist who’s just been fired from the club where he’s been performing. Toddy has heard Victoria sing and knows that she has real talent; after a visit to a restaurant where a brawl breaks out, they end up in Toddy’s apartment. The morning after, he realizes that he could turn Victoria into a drag show artist – a woman pretending to be a man imitating a woman. She could be sensational, Toddy reckons, and he finds support from an agent who lands her a job at a nightclub as a performer. Victoria is presented as a Polish count who’s not only the latest drag sensation but also Toddy’s new lover.
“Victor” is a smash hit, but the situation turns complicated when an American businessman (Garner) with ties to the mob in Chicago becomes fascinated with the performer – and can’t quite believe that this is supposed to be a guy in disguise.
Happily throws in slapstick
The movie is a remake of the German film Viktor und Viktoria (1933) (which was also remade in Britain as First a Girl (1935)) and is an example of a kind of picture that could hardly have been made later in the Third Reich. The story is a playful take on love beyond gender. Edwards may have copped out by letting the businessman know early on in the film that “Victor” is actually a Victoria, but the scene where the two are discussing just how their relationship is supposed to look to the rest of the world is still interesting. Who’s prepared to give up what? One’s reputation? One’s right to work? In the end, the solution is conventional but only cold-hearted ideologues will mind.
Above all, this is a splendidly entertaining romp that has great dialogue and very amusing sequences; the Pink Panther director is happy to throw in a lot of slapstick, but still knows when to restrain himself (somewhat)… and besides, he’s always been good at staging that sort of thing. Victor/Victoria also has engaging musical numbers courtesy of Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse who wrote the songs, as well as choreographer Paddy Stone. This is essentially a terrific gift to Andrews from her husband Edwards as Victoria is a perfect role for her, giving her ample opportunity to put both her talent for comedy and singing on display. The film also helped complicate her Mary Poppins persona, much like S.O.B. had done the previous year.
Garner is also right for his part, and Preston is simply wonderful as the jaded old queen who knows how to spot ways out of jams. Lesley Anne Warren is fun as a moll… but the part has been done many times before.
So, Victor/Victoria may not be the bravest of Hollywood films dealing with homosexuality at a time when the real world was learning the meaning of the acronym AIDS and needed positive portrayals of gay men and women. But it didn’t do any harm either – and cineastes can take pleasure in the nostalgic period design and pure showmanship on display.
Victor/Victoria 1982-U.S. 133 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Blake Edwards, Tony Adams. Written and directed by Blake Edwards. Music: Henry Mancini. Songs: Henry Mancini, Leslie Bricusse. Cast: Julie Andrews (Victoria Grant), James Garner (King Marchand), Robert Preston (Caroll “Toddy” Todd), Lesley Anne Warren, Alex Karras, John Rhys-Davies.
Trivia: Later turned into a Broadway musical (which was also filmed for TV in 1995, with Andrews in the lead).
Oscar: Best Original Song Score/Adaptation Score. Golden Globe: Best Actress (Andrews).
Last word: “It was a very difficult, multifaceted role. I mean, I’d sometimes be playing a woman trying to pretend to be a man, then sometimes play a man with a woman’s feelings and sometimes just be straight on. There were so many things to work out. As someone who likes to be in control, I felt wobbly. There was something else, too: When you get older, you kind of get on to yourself. You know the tricks you play to get by, and you like them less and less if you care about your work. I was trying hard to get away from them and was sometimes falling back, and so I wasn’t as pleased as I’d like to have been with my performance. Not that Blake didn’t help me enormously and bring out something good; he did. But looking back on it now, I wish I’d had more time, done fewer tricks and said lines differently. As Blake told me, though, it’s done, and let’s put it to bed now.” (Andrews, Playboy)