Synopsis: A man impersonating a woman on stage? Piece of cake. But a woman whose livelihood depends on pretending to be a man who pretends to be a woman? Now you’ve got problems! You’ve also got laughs when Julie Andrews plays Victor and Victoria in this clever delight from filmmaker Blake Edwards boasting a marvelous Academy Award winning score by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse.
Robert Preston plays a cabaret perfomer who devises the gender-bender stage act. Farcically complicating matters are James Garner as a mobster suspecting Victor is a Victoria and Lesley Ann Warren as a short-fused floozy. Of this movie’s seven Oscar nominations, three went to Golden Globe Winner Andrews (Actress), National Board Review Award Winner Preston (Supporting Actor) and Warren (Supporting Actress).
Victor Victoria 8.5
eyelights: Julie Andrews. Robert Preston. Graham Stark. the film’s extremely gay-friendly attitude. its mature discussions about relationships, gender roles and sexual orientation.
eyesores: James Garner. Leslie Ann Warren.
“Your problem, Mr. Marchand, is that you’re preoccupied with stereotypes. I think it’s as simple as you’re one kind of man, I’m another.”
‘Victor Victoria’ is a Blake Edwards romantic comedy musical based on the 1933 German film “Viktor und Viktoria’. Set in Paris, 1934, it’s about a down-and-out soprano who is convinced by her gay friend to secretly perform in cabarets as a female impersonator. Cutting her hair short and taping her bosom, she parades as a man all the while performing as a man performing as a woman.
She becomes a sensation.
Pretending to be her friend’s lover, for appearances, things get complicated when she catches the eye of a Chicago businessman who works for the mob. Even though she is supposed to be a man, he is utterly fascinated with her: his senses tell him that she is not a man, creating internal conflicts and putting him at odds with his moll and his business partners – who don’t tolerate homosexuality.
‘Victor Victoria’ was a smash hit in 1982, raking in 30 million dollars at the domestic box office, and garnering a number of award nominations. It would be Edwards’ last big hit of his career and one of the roles for which Julie Andrews would be recognized the most, besides Marry Poppins and Maria von Trapp. In fact, she would later reprise it on Broadway, winning a Tony Award in the process.
Although I had long known of its existence, ‘Victor Victoria’ wasn’t even remotely on my radar; I wasn’t compelled by its title or artwork, and had largely dismissed Julie Andrews. That is, until I saw ‘Star!‘ and was bowled over by just how versatile she could be. Utterly impressed, I then sought out a few of her other films, the first of which was this one. I loved it immediately and eventually bought a copy of it on DVD.
The first thing I like about it that it’s quite funny. Edwards was really on top of his game with this one – in a way that would become uncommon in the years to come. He peppered his screenplay with witticisms, but he also added some elements that were reminiscent of his Pink Panther films – not the slapsticky stuff, but the situational stuff, like the inept private investigator or the scene that had everyone going in and out of Victoria’s room.
The second thing that I really like is that the musical numbers are contained to the stage; this is a film about performers, and it’s only when they’re performing that the musical numbers take place – which is perfectly sound contextually. Furthermore, the picture shows self-restraint: the first half an hour sets the stage and limits the numbers to one or two. And finally, the numbers are actually pretty good – if you like cabaret.
The third thing that I love about this picture are its frank and very mature discussions about relationship models, gender roles and sexual orientation. Edwards had long shown an openness in his films and he expresses it beautifully here, questioning the notion that relationships have to fit a certain mould, that men have to a certain way, as do women, and, finally that someone’s sexual attraction should even be relevant.
He does this in so many ways, and through many characters. This is the crux of the film, really: for all the comedic elements, the romantic entanglements and the entertaining musical diversions, this is a motion picture with deeper concerns. This is about acceptance, irrespective of sexual or gender identity, about people being able to just be themselves without prejudice, without fear of oppression.
For a comedy, especially one from the early ’80s, this is quite ambitious. In fact, it was such a touchy subject matter at the time that even Blake Edwards balked at making King Marchand (James Garner) fall in love with Victoria (Julie Andrews) without first knowing that she is in fact a woman – telling her “I don’t care if you are a man”. Instead, he decided to add an extra scene that reveals her identity to him.
Edwards was probably right; it likely wouldn’t have played well to the masses at the time. Other films that were released at that time, and which tackled similar issues, such as ‘Making Love’, ‘Cruising’ and ‘Partners’ were either wildly controversial or massive flops. The one exception is ‘Tootsie’, but that was played for laughs more than anything else, so I’m not sure that it’s even in the same league as ‘Victor Victoria’.
Still, by introducing Garner’s confusion into the picture and making him wholly fascinated with “Victor”, and not understanding exactly why, the picture brought into question sexual attraction and posits the question: what does it matter who we’re attracted to? That alone is an incredibly powerful message and the film conveys it exceptionally well, as King at no point second-guesses himself – he’s only in doubt of Victor’s identity.
There’s this terrific moment when Victoria (Julie Andrews) and King (James Garner) discuss the future of their relationship in bed. He assumed that she should stop her drag show and become a traditional girlfriend, but she tells him that her gig is her livelihood and that she enjoys being a man because it opens doors to her otherwise closed. They also discuss the image they’d have if they kept it up, something that concerns him.
There’s also this amusing musical number at Chez Lui (I love the name) which involves four men made up to look like both genders. Some are in drag, with a mask of a man’s face on the back of their, whereas some are made up like men but have a mask of a woman on the back of their head. They perform their number by switching back and forth between their looks, expressing the duality in all of us. It’s a bit abstract, but I enjoyed it.
There are tons of superb moments and exchanges between the characters in ‘Victor Victoria’, but it would have been all for naught if the cast had been unable to bring it. And, for the most part, they sure did.
- Julie Andrews is absolutely superb as Victoria. And as Victor. She admits to having found the part challenging because it forced her, as an actress, to break out of the habits she’d fallen back on over the years, but she is absolutely stellar her. She’s very good as Victoria, but it’s as Victor that she stands out the most: there are moments where just a look or a nod of the head said so much.
- Robert Preston is terrific as Toddy, Victoria’s new friend, with whom she shacks up, and who makes a star out of her. He doesn’t play up the character’s homosexuality too much, and adds maturity and wisdom to the part. Peter Sellers was originally supposed to play Toddy, but he passed away before filming. I didn’t know this until now. Wow… I got goosebumps just thinking about it. He would have been terrific. But, having said that, Robert Preston was perfect for the part, adding a machismo to his character that Sellers never could have.
- James Garner brought intelligence and confidence to King Marchand, but there’s something about his presence that I don’t like; he just doesn’t have the charisma that I would have thought ideal for the part. Burt Reynolds might have been good if he’d played it straight (Silly person: you know what I mean…). But Garner feels like second best to me, somehow, even though he was apparently Edwards’ first choice.
- Leslie Ann Warren was a mixed bag for me. She plays her part to a T, but I don’t like the part. You see, Norma, is the clichéd floozy that is always portrayed as a mobster’s moll, and I really find the type grating. Warren is good at playing sexy but corny, but every time she was on screen I tended to wince – she was the most cartoonish character of the whole lot, in a film that deserved more subtlety.
- Alex Karras is lovely as Marchand’s bodguard. He’s mostly quiet, but he’s dignified and multilayered. Karras gives him the right mixture of strength and sensitivity.
- John Rhys-Davies brought the perfect amount of enthusiasm to the part of the Victor’s agent. While he had very few lines, his presence was plenty.
- Graham Stark was absolutely delightful to see in the role of a waiter who keeps losing his job because of Victoria and Toddy. He’s a secondary character and is merely there for laughs, but Stark has it just right: the man is no fool and he’s merely a victim of circumstance – not incompetence. Stark is a regular in Edwards films, and I was delighted to see him here.
- Sherloque Tanney did a credible job of playing the private detective who has been hired by a competing club owner to uncover Victor’s identity. The only reason I mention him is because his part reminded me very much of Inspector Clouseau – except not imbecilic. The whole time he was on screen I kept wondering what it would have been like to have Sellers in the part. But I suppose that this would have been typecasting, and a distraction. Still, it showed that Edwards was part of the genius of ‘The Pink Panther’ series – it wasn’t all Sellers’ doing.
Honestly, I think that ‘Victor Victoria’ has been growing on me since I first saw it; the more I see it, the more I respect the film’s finesse and the skill with which all of its elements were put together. It features three equally brilliant acts and it never ceases to entertain from start to finish. I’m a huge fan of it at this point, and ever more so now that its musings are even more apparent to me.
‘Victor Victoria’ was clearly far ahead of its time, and its peers. In a career that spanned many decades and spawned countless critical and commercial hits, I’d say that this is perhaps Edwards’ greatest masterpiece (and this coming from a MASSIVE ‘Pink Panther’ fan, I must add). There are more than just two sides to ‘Victor Victoria’, and somehow Edwards got them all just right.
‘Victor Victoria’ is a boundary-pushing film that is well worth seeing. Many, many times.
Post scriptum: for the record, I’d probably rate it even higher if I liked musicals. But, um, I still don’t.
Date of viewing: May 1, 2014