wed 01/02/2023

Swan Song review - the fabulous Udo Kier as a small-town hairdresser on his last legs | reviews, news & interviews

Swan Song review - the fabulous Udo Kier as a small-town hairdresser on his last legs

Swan Song review - the fabulous Udo Kier as a small-town hairdresser on his last legs

Todd Stephens's charming, nostalgic feature isn't quite the vehicle its lead deserves

Fearlessly stylish: Udo Kier as Mr PatMagnolia Pictures

The piercing-eyed German actor Udo Kier is best known for his supporting roles in many high-profile films, including those of Lars von Trier, Gus Van Sant and Fassbinder. In Swan Song, he carries off his first starring role magnificently as wry ex-drag queen and Ohio hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger, though the film itself is rather meandering and has mawkish, saccharine moments.

Director Todd Stephens (Another Gay Movie; Gypsy 83) based Mr Pat on a real character from his home town of Sandusky, Ohio. The film is a nostalgic journey, looking back at the days before gay dads became a norm (“I wouldn’t know how to be gay any more,” says Pat as he watches a happy family playing ball). But he reprises his former flamboyantly camp glory when asked to do the funeral hair and make-up for a deceased Republican society hostess and former client, Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Grey, in a cameo role, with Michael Urie as Dustin, her gay nephew).

Looking remarkably spry for a man who’s had several strokes, Pat is languishing in a nursing home, spending his days chain-smoking thin, brown Mores cigarettes, folding paper napkins obsessively, occasionally doing an incapacitated fellow patient's hair and dreaming heart-brokenly of his lover David, who died of AIDS and left no will. Judy Garland’s The Man That Got Away and Shirley Horn’s Here’s to Life play sadly in the background.

He’s bitter about his former clients, including Rita, deserting him for the salon across the road, run by Dee Dee (an understated, impressive Jennifer Coolidge, recently seen in The White Lotus, pictured below, with Kier), leaving him with a second mortgage he couldn’t pay. He’s now more or less destitute. “How can someone so flawless possibly be on social security?” he asks a flummoxed attendant in a corner store when buying a pack of Mores (“Folks don’t ask for these nowadays”). But he hasn’t lost his charisma: even his “hellos” are dripping with style, never forced, always natural.Swan SongIt takes him a while to come to terms with Rita’s final request, even though it does come with a $25,000 pay cheque once probate is cleared. He breaks out of the nursing home remarkably easily and sets out, hitchhiking some of the way, for Sandusky’s downtown – not that there looks to be much left of it – wearing un-fabulous grey sweat pants and white Velcro-fastened shoes. He's on a mission to beg, buy or steal the beauty products he needs for the job, with particular adherence to a brand called Vivanté, now even more outdated than Mores and replaced by green, clean technology – “after you lost your shop”, as Dee Dee, when they finally meet, brutally reminds him.

Along the way, to a soundtrack of Dusty Springfield’s When I Was Young, he meets a group of Black ladies in a salon that used to be his beauty supply shop – the products he needs “don’t stick to nappy hair,” they tell him – but they take pity on him and give him a pink straw hat, which prompts a bout of vogue-ing that goes down well.

Not only has the store disappeared, his former house, he discovers, has been torn down, leaving a footprint in the scrubby grass. Mourning David ever more keenly, he meets the neighbours, a nice couple, with the wife tearing up and asking him to come visit again as he sashays off – an unreal, sentimental encounter. This protracted odyssey is rather tedious and needs a sharper edit, though Kier rises above it.

Still, once he finds a magnificent peppermint green trouser suit in a thrift store run by one of his former clients, who remembers him as the Liberace of Sandusky, the real Mr Pat is back, complete with an enormous ring on every finger. When he emerges on stage at a club with an exploding-bulb candelabra as a head-dress, dancing to Robyn’s Dancing on My Own, everyone is captivated. And when he and Vivanté work their final magic on Rita in her casket, the result, you have to concede, is worthy of a genius. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t quite live up to Kier's performance.

Udo Kier carries off his first starring role with magnificent dry wit


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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