Friday, 31 July 2009

A glorious celebration of gay life

Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards UK/US 1982)

On the way out to Paris at the beginning of this month, I whiled away the train journey watching a film on my iPod. On the last two occasions we've travelled to that city, I've been quietly humming a song from it to myself as the taxi took us from the railway station to the hotel.

The film in question was Victor/Victoria, and it struck me that I’ve now owned more copies of it than any other film.

First there was the video. Then that was upgraded to DVD and now I’ve added this digital copy.

It was 1982 when Blake Edwards’s picture – based the film on Reinhold Schüzel 1933 German picture, Viktor und Viktoria – was released. I first saw it on a rented video – and fell instantly in love with it. My mother bought me a copy – although when she saw it, she sniggered, but commented that it was “very naughty”. My father couldn’t watch more than the opening 20 minutes or so and left the room.

So what on Earth was the fuss?

A quick précis for any of you who haven’t seen it.

Victoria Grant is a singer with the Bath Light Opera Company, touring in Paris in the early 1930s. Stranded in the city and broke after the company collapses, she hasn’t eaten for days.

Desperately trying to put a cockroach from her dismal hotel room into a salad at a restaurant, in order not to pay for her much-needed meal, she runs into Carole ‘Toddy’ Todd, who had heard her earlier in the day, auditioning at a nightclub.

After eating their fill and escaping into the pouring rain, they return to Toddy’s flat, since Victoria can’t go back to her hotel unless she has some money for the overdue rent.

But a series of circumstances convince the gay Toddy – a nightclub entertainer himself – of a daring scheme: to pass Victoria off as Count Victor Grezinski, his gay Polish lover, who is a top-notch female impersonator.

Within six weeks, Victor is a smash hit. But then a new problem occurs, with the arrival of King Marchand, a Chicago gangster and nightclub owner, and his brassy moll Norma Cassady. Marchand is interested in booking Victor to play his own club, but he’s also shocked to find that he’s ‘strangely’ attracted to the gay performer.

Marchand’s bodyguard Squash feels safe enough to come out, Norma hits the roof and things get really complicated.

1981. It was the start of the HIV/Aids pandemic. In the UK, James Anderton, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester – known as ‘God’s Copper’ – had declared that homosexuality should be illegal and said that homosexuals and those with AIDS were "swirling in a cesspit of their own making.”

Nurses were terrified that even touching someone with HIV/Aids would infect them (hence the importance of Princess Diana being seen to touch an Aids patient).

In 1999, a paper published by American Behavioural Scientist, AIDS Stigma and Sexual Prejudice by Gregory M Herek and John P Captianio, both of the University of California, showed that, while people of all sexualities could contract the virus, the perception was of it as a ‘gay disease.’ Blame was always firmly levied at the door of one group.

The Aids epidemic is said to have begun in June 1981 – a boon to homophobes everywhere.

And then a year later Edwards’s film emerged, challenging ideas of sexuality, gender and morality.

What better time than to hear Toddy’s comment to Victoria: “Shame is an unhappy emotion invented by pietists in order to exploit the human race.”

But the film is never po-faced. It’s a celebration, and possibly the first really joyous mainstream screen representation of gay life. Absolutely unapologetic, as the following quotes illustrate.

Norma: I think the right woman could reform you.
Toddy: You know, I think that the right woman could reform you too.
Norma: Me? Give up men? Forget it!
Toddy: You took the words right out of my mouth.

And it’s humane as well as hilariously funny, while it treats the musical format in a different way from many other film musicals; the songs by Leslie Bricusee (lyrics) and Henry Mancini (music) sitting in a remarkably naturalistic way, as songs that are being performed in performance settings (a little like Chicago).

The cast is uniformally excellent, from Lesley Anne Warren as Norma Cassady, Graham Stark as a put-upon waiter and Alex Karras as Squash.

But the leading trio all turned in absolute gems of performances. James Garner was a great King Marchand and Julie Andrews a wonderful Victoria. But for me at least, the real star has always been the late, great Robert Preston as Toddy.

Preston, who was himself straight, took on the role and brought it to wonderful life. He was thrilled, after the film’s release, when he received huge amounts of mail from gay viewers who thanked him for his portrayal. It’s difficult to know how his nomination for a best supporting actor Oscar at the following year’s Academy Awards wasn’t turned into the statuette itself (The award went to Lou Gossett Jnr for An Officer and a Gentleman). Perhaps rewarding such an openly – and celebratory – gay role would have been a step too far at that time.

But when we think that the next big Hollywood gay movie was Aids epic Philadelphia, the difference is clear. One celebratory, one seeing gays as victims.

In the introduction to his 2002 book, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives From Wilde to Almodovar, Colm Tóibín discusses the fascination of some gay men for the tragic, the victim. From the point of view of the more liberal elements of society in the dark days of the 1980s, it was also tempting to see gay men as victims.

Victor/Victoria refused to bow down to such a limiting idea and it remains, 17 years on, a rousing, ribald, glorious hymn to life and love and sex.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the Colm Toibin reference, Syb. I love his books.