Blake Edwards creates an audacious comedy/musical that defies conventions and finds a perfect balance between slapstick and sophisticated humor

Victor/Victoria (film)

Victor/Victoria (1982)

Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Blake Ed­wards, based on the 1933 script of Vik­tor und Vik­to­ria, by Rein­hold Schünzel. Star­ring Julie An­drews, James Gar­ner, Robert Pre­ston, Les­ley Ann War­ren, Alex Kar­ras, John Rhys-Davies, Gra­ham Stark, Pe­ter Arne, Mal­colm Jamieson, Sher­loque Tan­ney, Michael Rob­bins, Maria Charles, Glen Mur­phy and Ge­of­frey Beevers.

It is quite safe to say that any­one who loves come­dies and mu­si­cals will find plen­ty to en­joy in the de­li­cious­ly flam­boy­ant Victor/Victoria of 1982. Di­rect­ed by Blake Ed­wards, the film is a great ex­am­ple of how to com­bine ex­cep­tion­al per­for­mances and an im­pec­ca­ble screen­play that re­lies on a first-rate di­a­logue. To make things more de­light­ful, Ed­wards even man­ages to find a spe­cial bal­ance be­tween the phys­i­cal hu­mor that char­ac­ter­ized his Pink Pan­ther movies (he ac­tu­al­ly planned to star Pe­ter Sell­ers in it, but Sell­ers passed away in 1980) and a more so­phis­ti­cat­ed, high­brow hu­mor — with lines such as “Speak­ing of over­worked jaws, why don’t you treat yours to a sab­bat­i­cal and fetch me a wine list?” It’s just irresistible.

Adapt­ed by Ed­wards from a very fun­ny Ger­man film made in 1933 called Vik­tor und Vik­to­ria (though quite dif­fer­ent in many as­pects and con­sid­er­ably su­pe­ri­or), Victor/Victoria shifts the orig­i­nal set­ting from Berlin to the snowy win­ter of Paris in 1934 and fol­lows Vic­to­ria Grant (Julie An­drews), an as­pir­ing col­oratu­ra so­pra­no strug­gling to find any job that will put food in her starv­ing mouth and pay her over­due rent. In one of those chance en­coun­ters, she meets Tod­dy (Robert Pre­ston), a flam­boy­ant gay per­former at Chez Lui who comes up with an odd plan for a suc­cess­ful show: to pass her off as a fe­male im­per­son­ator; that is, to make her pre­tend to be a man pre­tend­ing to be a woman. But that gets even more com­pli­cat­ed when she falls in love with a night­club own­er from Chica­go who turns out to be your stereo­typ­i­cal ma­cho male.

With such an in­trigu­ing premise, Ed­wards cre­ates sev­er­al mem­o­rable mo­ments — some of which were not even present in the orig­i­nal movie, like a cock­roach scheme se­quence that can be quite amus­ing with lines such as “Last week we had some Rosé, but we are us­ing it in the sal­ad.” Of so many great set pieces, I per­son­al­ly love a hys­ter­i­cal scene with two in­trud­ers in a ho­tel room (try­ing to get in and out) and a bizarre mo­ment in­volv­ing… an equi­lib­rist. These phys­i­cal gags are clear­ly rem­i­nis­cent of the type of hu­mor that made Ed­wards’ Pink Pan­ther movies so fun­ny, in­clud­ing a re­cur­ring high-pitched voice shat­ter­ing a glass and a hi­lar­i­ous joke in­volv­ing a bro­ken stool — yet, on the oth­er hand, I do find that light­ning strik­ing someone’s um­brel­la is per­haps a bit too slap­stick (and un­nec­es­sary) for this film.

One of the plea­sures of watch­ing Victor/Victoria, how­ev­er, is see­ing how Ed­wards is will­ing to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties of his premise. While the orig­i­nal film avoid­ed any ac­tu­al dis­cus­sion about sex­u­al­i­ty, Ed­wards is franker and doesn’t re­frain from open­ly speak­ing about gen­der, dis­crim­i­na­tion and stereo­types. At one mo­ment, for in­stance, Vic­to­ria says to King Marc­hand (James Gar­ner), the man she fan­cies (and who is so pre­oc­cu­pied with stereo­types), that she is sim­ply an­oth­er kind of man — one that doesn’t have to prove it, to her­self or any­one. That makes it fun to ob­serve how a man like him can­not un­der­stand be­ing into a guy or hav­ing erec­tion prob­lems with a woman in bed (oh, mas­culin­i­ty, this frag­ile lit­tle thing). And what can be more re­veal­ing than see­ing a ma­cho man get­ting into a fight just to feel “man” again?

It is true, like Ed­wards once ad­mit­ted in an in­ter­view, that he “chick­ened out” by in­clud­ing the scene in which King Marc­hand dis­cov­ers that Vic­to­ria is a woman. Grant­ed, this mo­ment is there in the orig­i­nal film, but it would have been a lot more au­da­cious to let him fall in love with her with­out know­ing the truth. This elim­i­nates some of the im­pact of the line “I don’t care if you are a man,” but I’m still glad it is there. At least, Ed­wards com­pen­sates for that with a fab­u­lous di­rec­tion, us­ing re­flec­tions on mir­rors (like in the be­gin­ning) and mak­ing Vic­to­ria dis­ap­pear from the screen right be­fore we re­al­ize she faint­ed af­ter eat­ing some­one else’s food with her starv­ing eyes. Like­wise, I can only ad­mire the el­e­gance of a scene tran­si­tion (an au­r­al match cut) cre­at­ed by some­one blow­ing their nose and the sound of a horn.

But none of this would re­al­ly mat­ter if it weren’t for the film’s ex­cep­tion­al cast and mu­sic. Julie An­drews may not look that con­vinc­ing as a man (much like Re­nate Müller in the orig­i­nal movie, who at least had the ad­van­tage of be­ing shot in black and white), but she sells it with in­cred­i­ble con­vic­tion. James Gar­ner, on the oth­er hand, is per­fect as the con­fused ma­cho man, while Alex Kar­ras of­fers a touch­ing lay­er to the gay body­guard Bern­stein. And if Les­ley Ann War­ren makes us laugh out loud with a char­ac­ter clear­ly in­spired by Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe (there is even a mo­ment when her dress is lift­ed by the wind), Robert Pre­ston seems to be hav­ing a hell lot of fun as Tod­dy, ut­ter­ing price­less lines such as “Oh, God… there’s noth­ing more in­con­ve­nient than an old queen with a head cold” and steal­ing the show with a sen­sa­tion­al fi­nal sequence.

Nom­i­nat­ed for sev­en Acad­e­my Awards and win­ner of only one (for best mu­sic), Victor/Victoria is a mod­ern clas­sic that im­press­es with a hand­ful of won­der­ful songs and great chore­og­ra­phy (like in the de­light­ful jazz num­ber). In 1995, it was adapt­ed into a Broad­way mu­si­cal. Those out there in­ter­est­ed in watch­ing an in­tel­li­gent com­e­dy for adults, don’t look any fur­ther. Here is a per­fect ex­am­ple of au­dac­i­ty made in the 1980s.


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