Review: Swan Song

Udo Kier’s indisputable status as a living screen legend is not based on his skills as an actor, his charisma, or his looks, but rather on his ubiquity. Since he first started acting in the late 60s in Europe (born in Germany, but active everywhere in almost any language) he’s appeared in hundreds of films and TV series, usually in smaller, stranger roles that were nevertheless vital to the story or general mood. Though I’m sure I’d seen him before, he made his first big impression on me as the baby from hell in Lars von Trier’s experimental Danish horror-comedy series Kingdom, a role that required his head to appear on the top of a prosthetic infant’s body as he wailed horrifically. 

Though Todd Stephens’s Swan Song is full of trite observations, his casting of Kier as retired hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger—a real person—is inspired. For once, Kier gets to be the lead, and he makes the most of his idiosyncratic character, not so much by exaggerating every gay stereotype at his disposal, but by infusing those stereotypes with his own unique penchant for the kind of weirdness he’s cultivated over a half-century career. He doesn’t adapt himself to the part, but bends the part to his distinctively indefatigable will.

Pat is wasting away dramatically in a nursing home, spending his last days hoarding napkins, clandestinely smoking More cigarettes, and dreaming of his days as a drag stylist/performer in a gay bar on the outskirts of the Republican stronghold of Sandusky, Ohio, where he was also the hairdresser to the town’s richest wives; that is, until a former protege, Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge), set up shop and stole all his clients. Most of this happened in the distant past, when a flamboyant type like Mr. Pat, as he was known, could live fairly openly among conservative Christians as “the town eccentric” thanks to the economic protection of the community’s matriarchy, but after his lover, David (Eric Eisenbery), dies of AIDS, he loses the house they shared and with it most of his straight friends and patrons. He sees his time in a cinder-block facility as a fitting cap to a fabulous life that ended in disappointment. And then fate, in the form of a lawyer, shows up in his room with an offer. His main socialite customer back in the day, Rita (Linda Evans), has died, but in her will she requested that Pat do her makeup and hair for the funeral. At first, he refuses out of grudging resentment for her betrayal of him, but soon he sees the opportunity as an excuse to bust out of his confinement, which is more mental than physical.

What follows is an entertaining if overly sentimentalized odyssey through small-city America as seen by its marginalized residents, in this case LGBTQ folks who, unlike in Pat’s day, are now more or less accepted —his old gay bar’s drag night is now a tourist attraction, though one that’s going out of business—which gives the movie an extra layer of melancholy. At one point, Pat, dressed in a pastel green leisure suit he picked up at a Goodwill store, tells an old friend that he “wouldn’t even know how to be gay any more.” As a journey of the soul, Pat’s stroll down memory lane is often bitingly funny, but Kier knows exactly how to play the somber notes against the cutting quips, even if there are a few too many scenes where he shares the screen with players who don’t seem to get him as an actor. That’s the thing about Udo Kier. He’s so intense, that it may take years of exposure to comprehend his true genius. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

Swan Song home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Swan Song Film LLC

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