FILM MARATHON: Movie Musicals #11: Victor Victoria [1982]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG | Runtime: 132 minutes | Release Date: March 19th, 1982 (USA)
Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Director(s): Blake Edwards
Writer(s): Blake Edwards / Hans Hoemburg (concept) / Reinhold Schünzel (film Viktor and Viktoria)

“I’d sleep with you for a meatball”

You’re down on your luck, famished, and unable to get a job despite having a voice like no other. What do you do? Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is asking herself that very question when we see her auditioning for Chez Lui—a dump populated by gangsters and hotheads that’s closed almost ever other night due to brawls. This soprano can shatter glass with a high B-flat at whim but her empty stomach barely allows her to walk home. And then, of course, once she’s there she has to contend with a sleazy landlord yelling through spaghetti-stained teeth. Only when her own screams at the cockroach in her bed shake her awake from the fatigue do the cobwebs dissolve. At least she can use the bug to scam a free meal, right?

And this is Blake EdwardsVictor Victoria. Based on a 1933 German film—Viktor und Viktoria—the man behind the popular Pink Panther series brings us a world of song, dance, and homosexuals. Led by Andrews’ struggling singer in Paris circa 1934, the comedy is much more than just the cross-dressing farce it pretends to be. Real issues such as gays being treated like second class citizens and the power of big men being able to finally express who they are inside come and go throughout, making the central ruse a springboard for social change. If you’ve got ex-All American football stars coming out of the closet, tough nightclub owning gangsters risking their reputation to continue the façade of a fake gay relationship, and a city clamoring for transvestite entertainers more than a woman who can belt her heart out, the jokes will work even greater because they aren’t the only thing of substance at play.

The idea to turn this woman into a man—pretending to be a woman—results from a serendipitous rainstorm. You see, in the midst of Victoria conning her French waiter out of two full meals and a bottle of wine, Carole “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston) just happens to pass by. An entertainer himself, this gay fellow has just been recently fired from the same club she auditioned. Her voice had stuck to his memory and thus he stopped by to say hello. Victoria offers to let him in on her covert cockroach game; one we know can only end badly. Chaos breaks out as customers stand on tables while food and punches are thrown about. We watch it all from a static point across the street, Victoria and Toddy escaping towards us as the powder keg explodes behind them. The two strip off their wet clothes and hope to not catch pneumonia while hiding out in his hotel room, only the wears of an absentee boyfriend in the closet available for her to wear.

This is where epiphany strikes. Toddy sees his new chum in a suit and works out a game of his own to make a fortune. He will pull the strings within his theatrical sphere and spread a lie that the most famous Polish cross-dresser has come to Paris. No one will suspect the double-cross of Victoria since they’ll all be too enamored by the first level of deception, too busy wrapping their heads around the fact this woman is a man. Only the biggest club owner in Chicago, King Marchand (James Garner), will be able to fathom the second layer and even then simply because he found him/her attractive. There was no way a man’s man like him could make such a slip in masculinity, so his curiosity gets away and leads him into entering his own literal closet to find out the truth.

The game goes on with ‘Victor’ becoming an overnight sensation performing “The Shady Dame from Seville”, her reveal of closely cropped hair beneath her feminine wig exposing the surface secret and deflecting from the other. Her theatre promoter Andre Cassell (John Rhys-Davies) begins to field requests for shows abroad, the money flows in to afford a suite at a five-star hotel, and the act of public fraud cultivated by Victoria and Toddy seems to be without fail. If not for those meddling Americans, everything may have remained that way. King can’t help himself from wanting to discover the truth, though. His bodyguard ‘Squash’ Bernstein (Alex Karras) remains to find his own psychological emancipation in response to mistaken interpretation and his girlfriend Norma (Lesley Ann Warren) is sent home in a huff, dead-set on revenge. She tells King’s partner Sal how she was tossed aside for another man, setting into motion a series of events that will risk the charade tumbling down.

The music is grand, the costumes impeccable, and the performances top-notch with a perfect mix of authenticity and camp. Its ability to consistently remain funny is its real success. From the opening scene of Preston chiding his boy-toy’s whoring to Andrews’ mesmerization watching a fat man eat an éclair to Warren’s scene-stealing flapper’s grating voice piercing the air, there is little time for laughter to be absent. There are hilarious pratfalls from Graham Stark’s waiter and his dumbfounded confusion to counter Sherloque Tanney’s unnecessary Inspector Jacques Clouseau impression; physical comedy galore including Warren’s rage attack at Garner, blocked by Karras; and the subtlety of wordplay delivered with timed perfection on behalf of all. Scenes of comical genius like the single take of Warren yelling angrily down the platform as she storms onto a train, the camera panning back the other way so her silent screams behind glass down the length of the locomotive are shown as well, stick to my memory so I can relive the unfiltered glee.

Because this is what Victor Victoria has in spades: great humor to facilitate the political message at its core. The strange courtship of Garner and Andrews is what makes the film a romance, but the comedy makes it a treat for cinema in general. It may be fun watching people fall over each other as the wool is pulled over their eyes, but the real resonate moments are what make it a contemporary classic. Somehow Edwards is able to ride the stigma of homosexuality for laughs and education, showing us the troubles of sexual identity while we’re on rolling on the floor in stitches. Andrews and Preston are a magnificent team through witty banter and Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics set to Henry Mancini’s score. I could watch these two sing “You and Me” as though sharing one mind over and over again, the scene encapsulating their relationship in dance. But it is Preston who caps it off with a number that surely holds its fair share of genuine laughs onscreen. That’s how funny it all is—the actors couldn’t contain their own unbridled delight.

[1] Julie Andrews
[2] Victor, Victoria – Robert Preston, James Garner, Julie Andrews
[3] Victor, Victoria – Robert Preston, Julie Andrews

2 Thoughts to “FILM MARATHON: Movie Musicals #11: Victor Victoria [1982]”

  1. edith

    a great review of a great movie! 🙂

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