By Alan Hurst
There’s a little too much reality these days and you can get overwhelmed with the barrage of information, dire predictions, and lack of social interaction. This is a new experience for all of us and we’re all going to develop different ways of coping. Mine, not surprising, is retreating to the joys of old movies. I’ve been on a bit of Julie Andrews kick since reading the second installment of her autobiography (“Home Again”) last fall, so Victor/Victoria was ripe for a revisit.
Victor/Victoria contains one of my favourite Julie Andrews performances and, outside of Tootsie (1982), the film is probably the best comedy of the eighties. The film represents the peak of the second phase of Andrews’ Hollywood career. After some big screen failures in the early seventies, she retreated from films to the concert stage, television and to raising her kids. She was lured back with a role in husband Blake Edwards’ 10 (1979), delivering a smart performance in a very funny film. She followed that with an OK remake of Little Miss Marker (1980) with Walter Matthau and then Edwards’ S.O.B. (1981), an incisive and funny comedy that skewered the Hollywood of that era. Victor/Victoria followed – a gift from writer-director Edwards that gave his wife one of the best roles of her career.
Edwards based his screenplay on the 1933 German film Viktor und Viktoria. Andrews plays Victoria Grant, a down on her luck singer in 1934 Paris. Out of work and out of money after her theatre troupe folds, she meets Toddy (Robert Preston) who is a nightclub performer and equally adrift. After Victoria has a run-in with Toddy’s mercenary boyfriend, he gets the great idea of having Victoria become Victor, a Polish born count who is a female impersonator. With Toddy at the helm, Victor/Victoria becomes a sensation. He/she also attracts the attention of a Chicago mobster (James Garner) who is travelling in Paris with his girlfriend (Lesley Ann Warren) and bodyguard (Alex Karras). The stage is then set for a smartly farcical roundelay of male/female and straight/gay attraction that was actually quite ground-breaking at the time.
Edwards screenplay makes the valid and timeworn point that you should never judge a book by its cover. Garner is initially attracted to Andrews when she’s Victoria on stage, but when she reveals herself to be Victor, he’s stunned. How could he be attracted to a man? And, of course, Victoria is attracted to James Garner because he’s, we’ll, he’s James Garner in his prime. Lesley Ann Warren’s Norma is initially jealous of Garner’s reaction to Victoria, but thrilled when he is revealed to be Victor. She also doesn’t really get the whole gay thing, boasting that she could turn both Toddy and Victor straight. And Garner’s very straight, very tough bodyguard is soon revealed to have a thing for Toddy. Not expected, but very funny.
One of the many pleasures of Victor/Victoria is that director Edwards takes his time to tell the story. The laughs are many and frequent, but he also knows how a leisurely set up can build to a huge payoff. And he knows that when a visual gag works, it can also work again. A poor detective who has been hired to prove Victor is actually a woman meets with painful but very funny obstacles at every step.
While watching Victor/Victoria again you are struck by just how beautiful the film is. Things are kicked off with an elegantly designed credit sequence that captures both the era and the good time that we’re about to have. The movie wasn’t filmed on location, so all the nightclub scenes, the hotel and the streets of Paris were built on soundstages in England and they’re stunning in their art deco detail, as well as lovingly photographed by Dick Bush. The film has a very warm look with lots of pinks, golds, and reds. And Patricia Norris’ costumes are perfect.
Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse provided a jazzy and romantic score and, while it may not have been truly representative of 1934, it was one of the top musical scores of the decade with a couple of excellent songs for Andrews.
When the film was released it was a major hit and got excellent reviews, with most of the praise going to the principal cast. Andrews received virtual love letters from reviewers and deservedly so. As Victor/Victoria she’s able to combine her skills as a vocalist with her cool, sexy, comedic side. As a woman pretending to be a man so she/he can pretend to be a woman to get a job, Andrews is a delight. Her official debut in a Parisian night club as that gender bending triangle all hinges on whether Andrews can make her audience believe it. And she does. She pitches her vocals lower to sound both husky and mysterious, her wide and heavily made up face is just androgynous enough, and she’s wearing a perfect drag costume. But it’s the performance that matters and this number (“Le Jazz Hot”) puts this near perfect comedy into high gear – it’s sexy, rousing, jazzy, and builds to a terrific climax where Andrews can show off her still perfect voice. She also nails the subtle difference between the two character’s she’s playing and she’s never had a better showcase for her skills as a comedienne.
Reviewers also took specific notice of Robert Preston and Lesley Ann Warren. Toddy provided Preston with his best film role since The Music Man (1962) and he’s charmingly warm and flamboyant as the aging performer, always ready with sage advice and a barbed quip. Warren is a scream as the stereotypical dumb, brassy blonde. Her Norma pays homage to Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight (1933) and Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), but it isn’t a rip-off. Her approach, the voice and demeanor are all her own and she’s responsible for some of the film’s funniest moments.
James Garner’s has the most thankless role of the four leads. He’s the straight man (no pun intended) for all the craziness circling around him but he’s still terrific – handsome, masculine, charming and quietly funny.
The film received seven Oscar nominations including Best Actress (Andrews), Best Supporting Actor (Preston), Best Supporting Actress (Warren), Best Adapted Screenplay (Edwards), Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction. It’s sole win for was Best Score. I think Edwards’ screenplay, Preston’s performance, the sets and the costumes should have been winners, and the film should have been in the race for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Song with “Le Jazz Hot”. Since 1982 was also the year of Meryl Streep’s triumph in Sophie’s Choice, there was no way Julie Andrews was going to win Best Actress, but she did get that year’s Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy.
This is easily Edwards’ best film.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.