Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures releases the film in theaters on Friday, August 6, with a VOD release to follow.
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Udo Kier in drag, outfitted in an electrically engineered faux-candelabra atop his head, lip-syncing to Robyn’s all-time anthem for the lonely “Dancing on My Own.” The German actor has played everyone from Count Dracula in Paul Morrissey’s “Blood of Dracula,” to Jack the Ripper and Dr. Jekyll for Walerian Borowczyk, to Adolf Hitler (at least three times), and has served as the muse for Lars von Trier many times over. But Kier gets the role of his lifetime as a fabulously snarky, acerbic, long-retired hairdresser in Todd Stephens’ “Swan Song,” a dark comedy that totters to and fro the campy and the melancholic with wincing laughs and real pain.
The 76-year-old Kier, who was born in Germany near the end of World War II and therefore knows a thing or two, has been primarily typecast into bit character roles throughout his career, most recently as a raging cuckold who gouges the eyes of his wife’s lover in the bleak and brutal Holocaust drama “The Painted Bird.” But he brings to each of his movies an enthusiasm even in spite of the dour material, always game to play a debased decadent on the sidelines. Which is not the case for “Swan Song,” a joyous vehicle for Kier, who finally gets to play the leading man.
He’s Pat Pitsenbarger, a long-ago beautician now housed in a sad, green-walled nursing home in Ohio, withering away his days sneaking cigarettes when the nurses aren’t looking, and ruminating over his past life. Once a gay icon of his community, Pat is now tethered to a life in hospice where the day’s greatest hope might be fruit cocktail on the menu to break up the monotony. Though resigned to an eternity of staring down the barrel while in captivity, otherwise occasionally sneaking smokes to other infirm residents, Pat gets a shot in the heart when a lawyer named Mr. Shanrock (Tom Bloom) shows up with a proposition: One of Pat’s former clients, Ms. Rita Parker Sloan, has passed, and made in her will her dying last wish for Pat to style her hair for an open-casket last hurrah.
But Pat, with more pride to his name than the few cents afforded by Social Security in his bank account, declines the $25,000 offer with a swift vindictiveness suggestive of some bitter hatchet hardly buried between him and Rita. “Mr. Shanrock,” Pat says before shooing the suit out the door, “Bury her with bad hair.” This is just the start of many bitchy ripostes to be flung by Pat, with dead-eyed, cigarette-wielding detachment, throughout “Swan Song,” and it’s marvelous to watch Kier sink so comfortably into playing a wicked old queen. You can’t see the contours of acting anywhere, as if Kier just showed up and read his lines, each plopping down with a deadpan brilliance.
Stephens’ script doesn’t quite know how to get from the “A” of Pat refusing to leave the nursing home to the “B” of OK, it’s time to get out, but Pat nonetheless has a change of tune and makes for his escape. Accidentally leaving his last carton of cigarettes behind in a fugitive flurry, Pat hitchhikes a ride out of dodge, but makes the mistake of telling his chauffeur that he once had a lover, and that lover was a man, and that man died of AIDS. He is promptly dropped off at a church. But he’s at least made it to Sandusky, Ohio, where Rita’s funeral is set to take place, and where many of his old haunts and flames, and dashed dreams, still linger. What follows is a kind of tour through the halls of a dying soul, from his ex-lover David’s gravesite, where Pat is also to be interred, to the shopfront of his former hairdressing assistant Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge, underused by still reliably tart-tongued), who many years ago stole his top clients to start her own salon. “You dropped the ball, and I was there to catch it,” Dee Dee says, unsympathetic to their acrimonious past.
With a dwindling life ahead, Pat decides he’s up for honoring Rita’s final wishes after all, and his bucket-list journey in the lead-up to her funeral confront him with some ghosts of the past, and some fresh finds of the present. He discovers a special kinship in Rita’s comfortably out-of-the-closet grandson Dustin (played by Michael Urie, best known for playing Vanessa Williams’ gay bestie and assistant Marc St. James in “Ugly Betty”), now handling his late grandmother’s estate. Pat also riots in reliving his heydays at the local gay watering hole, guzzling whiskey at the drag bar where he once headlined before it all fell apart, and eventually bringing down the house one more time.
From Pat smoking in a wheelchair in the middle of traffic as the bravado of Shirley Bassey belts on the soundtrack, to his swanning around town adorned by a boutonnière and a pink top hat, there are enough iconic Udo Kier moments for several movies here. In fact, the actor’s performance outshines some of the shakier beats in the script from writer-director Stephens (the scribe behind the 1998 coming-out cult favorite “Edge of Seventeen”), which collapses into the sort of melodrama inevitable for a movie about forging the path to redemption at the end of your tether.
But Kier elevates the familiar beats, clearly having the time of his life sashaying through a playlist boasting everyone from Melissa Manchester to Dusty Springfield and Beyonce. As saccharine as a come-to-Jesus moment might be between Pat and his now-dead former client Rita suddenly alive in Pat’s fantasy, it’s laced with a cheeky, queer-tastic wink, and not just because it’s Linda Evans of “Dynasty” fame playing Rita. Kier has always been a keen collaborator who, whether playing a Nazi or a vampire or a butler in the wings of a production larger than him, never fails to deliver. “Swan Song” isn’t just a reminder of why he’s always been so fabulous — this is his show.
“Swan Song” premiered in the Narrative Spotlight section at SXSW 2021.
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