Sunday, October 21, 2012

Worth Watching: Victor Victoria (1982)

Title: Victor Victoria
Director: Blake Edwards
Language: English
Rating: PG

It's 1934, and the scene is Paris. Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is an out-of-work soprano who can hit fearsomely high notes. She meets Toddy (Robert Preston), a self-described "old queen" and out-of-work cabaret singer. He has an idea to help her break into the Parisian nightclub scene: she'll pass herself off as a female impersonator named Victor. Everyone will think she's a man who's really good at looking and singing like a woman. Other than Toddy, no one will know that she's a real woman.

Julie Andrews and Robert Preston in Victor Victoria

Given her talent, I don't know why Victoria couldn't get a singing job as a woman. Maybe it's not enough to have talent - people want their performers to have a gimmick. When she launches her career as a female impersonator, Victoria also starts to sing more boldly and expand on her repertoire, which makes her appealing to a wider audience. Pretending to be a man frees her up a little and gives her more range of movement, both on stage and around town.

However, because Victoria is a woman, the filmmakers always make sure she's with a man. Her options in this film are either to stay with Toddy – her gay mentor and, to the unknowing public, her lover – or to be with King Marchand (James Garner), a mob-connected businessman who experiences a crisis of sexual identity when he becomes attracted to Victoria in her male guise. There's no third option: striking out on her own, and as a female singer.

What really pushes Victoria to want to be a woman openly again is her love for King. She needs to have a man around as a legitimate excuse to be a woman. And this is a major reason the movie is conventional in spite of all the gender-bending. Had she never fallen in love with anyone, would Victoria have kept up the charade of being a man for the rest of her life? Would she never have wanted to be a woman only for her own sake?

Julie Andrews and James Garner eating dinner in Victor Victoria

In any case, Julie Andrews never looks manly, but part of what makes the movie interesting is how it gets you to think about what 'manliness' and 'womanliness' mean and how much of it amounts to roles that people can flexibly step into and out of.

Julie Andrews in her Le Jazz Hot costume in Victor Victoria

Andrews is the main reason to watch Victor Victoria, especially her performances in four of the musical numbers. Le Jazz Hot has her in a mesmerizing dark blue outfit that makes her look like a blue flame from a distance; she struts around and snaps her fingers Fosse-style, her voice electric. The Shady Dame from Seville has the feel of light opera with fun choreography, and she gets to do some vocal acrobatics that span octaves. Crazy World is quietly beautiful. Andrews sings it standing in one spot, with the camera slowly revolving around her in a 360 degree shot, starting and ending with her wistful tender face. Finally there's her adorable duet with Preston, You and Me, that's cut short by a brawl among nightclub patrons.

The brawls and scenes of mass mayhem drag out the movie. I didn't see the point in them - they weren't done well: just a lot of noise, people screaming, a few people landing punches. Another unnecessary addition to the movie is King's girlfriend, Norma (Lesley Ann Warren), an over-the-top caricature of a "low class blonde" who calls her boyfriend "pookie" and lounges around in white satin eating bon-bons (sort of like Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight, only Harlow was funny and acted the part with slyness and wit). I don't know why Norma is in the movie. She's shrill, two-dimensional, and out of place among the other characters. Given that she's one of only two female characters in Victor Victoria, it's a shame that Warren and the filmmakers wasted the opportunity to make her really funny and also more interesting.

An uneven story, some characters who seem to be visiting from other movies, and some complex issues handled complacently are the weaknesses of Victor Victoria (and of another Blake Edwards movie I didn't finish watching - Breakfast at Tiffany's - which I know is loved by many people but wound up on the list of movies that disappointed me - found in the movies tab at the top of the page). Julie Andrews (who is married to Blake Edwards) makes this movie worth watching, and on the whole it's got enough humor, good dialogue, and wonderful songs for me to recommend it.

Julie Andrews singing the Shady Dame from Seville in Victor Victoria

*All images link back to their sources (Flixster Community and Rotten Tomatoes).