During a key scene in Blake Edwards’ 1982 film Victor/Victoria,, Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) discovers her clothes have been warped by the rain. Her newfound best friend, Toddy (Robert Preston), lends her his boyfriend’s clothes: “You look better in Richard’s clothes than he does. Of course, he looks better out of them,” he admits. At that moment, he hatches a plan to present Victoria as Count Victor Grazinski, a Polish nobleman who performs onstage as a woman—and happens to be Toddy’s new boyfriend.
When one thinks of Julie Andrews, it’s usually as a musically gifted, good-natured individual who stands with great posture: her career-defining performances as the prim, titular character in Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapp, the ex-nun who could “throw a whirling dervish out of whirls,” in The Sound of Music have largely shaped the views of many a moviegoer. Compared to the enormous popularity of these roles, Victor/Victoria seems like a massive departure from Disney and the surrounding hills of Salzburg. Set in Paris in 1934, Andrews stars as both Victor and Victoria delivering a commanding, gender-bending performance: one that required a certain femininity mixed with a softer male side.
Based on the 1933 German musical-comedy film, Viktor und Viktoria (directed by Reinhold Schünzel), the English remake version follows Victoria as a woman impersonating a man, pretending to be a woman. When Toddy catches her audition for a singing role at the nightclub where he works, he immediately sees her star quality—despite her subsequent rejection. Later that night, Toddy and Victoria bump into each other at a restaurant where destitute Victoria plans to plant a cockroach in her salad bowl to avoid paying the bill. Fast forward to Victoria in Toddy’s boyfriend’s clothes, and after a cinematic minute, Victor becomes the toast of Paris.
Of course, things get complicated when a Chicago gangster, King Marchand (James Garner) watches Victoria onstage as Victor. King falls in love with “Victor” at first sight, thinking he’s a woman, but he witnesses the big gender reveal during her bow. This sets off a chain of comic events including a huge fight with his ultra-jealous girlfriend, Norma (the unforgettable Lesley Ann Warren).
Undoubtedly Norma, Toddy, King Marchand and even his beefy bodyguard, Squash, (Alex Karas) all make a superb supporting cast. Yet Andrews beams on and offstage as Victor—with “Victoria” fading away from the foreground. Andrews’ marquee singing channelled through Victor elevates Henry Mancini’s catchy compositions, which the characters perform only onstage as cabaret (with some lyrics connected to the narrative). It’s Andrews’ mix of masculine and feminine elements that imbue raw energy into Victor’s theatrical performances: “Le Jazz Hot” especially embodies the upbeat, lightheartedness of the film’s mood while simultaneously being showbiz sexy. “So come on in and play me/le jazz hot maybe/cause I love my jazz…HOT,” Victor sings amongst percussive snaps.
Andrews’ physical appearance as Victor also cuts across as a convincing gender fluid man with feminine accents: the retro suiting, the defined cheekbones with just the right touch of makeup, and slicked-back hair all have unisex appeal. This role—and the entire film—makes a strong statement for gender as a social construct with a bit of a wink. For all the homophobic comments Norma drops in the dialogue, Toddy—who comes close to stealing the show at times—counters them with quick-witted comebacks and laughs thereafter. Following Victor’s premiere, Norma says to Toddy: “You know… I think the right woman could reform you.” Toddy replies with, “You know I think the right woman could reform you, too.”
“Me? Give up men? Forget it,” she answers back. Toddy doesn’t miss a beat: “You took the words right out of my mouth.” The “straight” characters balk at questioning their sexual identity while their queer counterparts are having the most fun: they are well aware of who they are and comfortable in their skin. Case in point: Toddy and Squash remain calm amongst the unfolding chaos. And arguably, Victoria becomes more confident the more gender fluid she becomes in performing her persona of Victor.
Andrews ultimately plays Victor and Victoria with an underlying message of universal love and self acceptance. Edwards’ script and Andrews’ delivery of these words hit it directly on the nail. During one of their initial conversations, Victor professes, “Your problem, Mr. Marchand, is that you’re preoccupied with stereotypes. I think it’s as simple as you’re one kind of man, I’m another.” When King then asks, “And what kind are you?” Victor answers definitively: “One that doesn’t have to prove it. To myself or anyone.”
Published 16 Mar 2022
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