Thursday, March 6, 2014

Not With The Eyes But With The Mind

The lyrical melody of the song “Crazy World” plays over the opening credits of VICTOR/VICTORIA and like so many other pieces of music for films directed by Blake Edwards it was composed by Henry Mancini. It’s a surprisingly gentle melody to open such a big and boisterous musical comedy and while the viewer may not know the title of the song that goes with the music just yet it manages to announce a certain affection for its main characters right from the start so we almost like them even before they’ve appeared. They’re caught up in all this insanity just like we are and seen through the eyes of Blake Edwards it would probably be best to relax along with them to simply let the inevitable madness happen since, after all, it’s only natural in such a crazy world.
Released in March 1982, VICTOR/VICTORIA is the great triumph of the latter stretch of Blake Edwards’ career, a film which feels like nothing less than a culmination of the writer-director’s ambitions and thematic preoccupations. Overflowing with style, it’s a Lubitsch-inspired pastry of wit and music brought together in a way that only Edwards seemed to know how to do when he was at his best, framed through his Panavision eye while always ready with the next pratfall as someone crashes to the ground. It serves as a tribute to the type of comedy he clearly loves while also a chance to put onscreen some of the most successful musical numbers he ever pulled off. Considering how much I’ve written about Blake Edwards in the past even I’m a little surprised that I haven’t written about this film until now considering its ongoing popularity (looks like from his last fifteen years of directing only THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN still remains for this blog). Of course, many others have sung its praises through the years so you don’t exactly need me to repeat what’s already been said about it but I also suppose somewhere deep down my Blake Edwards fantasy world has more to do with the Bel Air-Malibu Southern California anarchic malaise of the likes of “10” or S.O.B. rather than the fantasy Paris of the 30s depicted here but in revisiting it now I’m reminded how the accomplishment that is VICTOR/VICTORIA really does represent one of his finest achievements. It’s a tremendously entertaining film featuring some of the most well-executed gags of his entire filmography, excellent music and an undeniable air of sophistication to it all. The film does fall short in a few ways that have always bugged me a little considering how good so much of the film really is, small issues that make me feel like it doesn’t entirely have the courage of its own convictions all the way to the end and my overall fondness for Blake Edwards means that I feel a little bad bringing them up at all. They’re ultimately minor points, I suppose, and for the most part this really is the Blake Edwards film where just about everything comes together. With an extremely strong screenplay his direction displays total confidence and it’s a truly lovely production made even better by several actors doing some of the best work of their career.
In 1934 Paris, impoverished soprano Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is about at the end of her rope, penniless and jobless, about to be thrown out of her shabby hotel room when fortune smiles in the form of her meeting nightclub performer Carroll Todd, better known as Toddy (Robert Preston), who is in need of money as well due to losing his own job. Knowing how good Victoria’s voice really is and fully aware that no one is looking for such a singer, soon enough circumstances give Toddy an idea: have Victoria masquerade as a man who masquerades as a woman in a nightclub act, in effect being a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman and they’ll have a female impersonator act like no other. Victor/Victoria’s undeniable talent turns the show into an immediate smash but on opening night the visiting King Marchand (James Garner), a nightclub owner from Chicago with mob ties immediately becomes at once fascinated and flummoxed by him/her and is determined to figure out exactly what the truth really is.
Confusion regarding sexual identity is a running theme in Blake Edwards’ films from a key plot point in 1967’s GUNN to men dressed as women baffling Inspector Clouseau in several PINK PANTHER films all the way through to the 1991 comedy SWITCH starring Ellen Barkin as a male chauvinist turned into a gorgeous blonde. While it’s easy to imagine that the worldwide success of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at the time helped to get VICTOR/VICTORIA green lit, the film (based on the 1934 German film VIKTOR AND VIKTORIA written by Reinhold Schunzel—Edwards wrote the screenplay for his version by himself) feels like the director’s own ultimate examination of sexual identity and just about every shot, every line of dialogue, seems to address the thesis somehow. One musical number in particular speaks to this, a line of four dancers at the Chez Louise nightclub, all appearing as men on one side and women on the other with every other dancer the ‘real’ male or female version. The music changes tempo continually through the routine, fast to slow, manic to serene, in a way that makes it an encapsulation of the very film it’s a part of, complimenting the farce in just the right way. Coming immediately off of S.O.B., which even now plays as one of Edwards’ most bitter films (in all the best ways, of course), VICTOR/VICTORIA is one of his most completely endearing, displaying a true love for the characters who are involved in their own version of this nightclub dance routine. Even with the continual appearances of physical humor that are fully expected from this director (“That stool is broken.” “It is?”) it has a true lyricism not often found in his films, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S aside.
Impeccably plotted, luxuriously paced, VICTOR/VICTORIA is the sort of movie where a half-hour seems to go by in the blink of an eye, where even minor characters feel fully fleshed out on our first glimpse of them, where a sequence feels almost like an entire movie within itself but still is a key part of the overall design. A visit to a restaurant which serves as the centerpiece of the film’s first half-hour where Andrews’ Victoria plots to get a free meal out of the place and she first meets Preston’s Toddy lays out all the elements perfectly, each line in place, the continual hangdog glares by the great Graham Stark as the hapless waiter adding to it all. Incidentally, from the first moment he walks in from the kitchen this role is Stark’s immortality—a few bits from the PINK PANTHER films may be more famous, particularly “That is not my dog” in STRIKES AGAIN, but this film is the pinnacle for him and he’s a perfect complement to everything around him. Every beat of the sequence flows beautifully from every time he emerges from the kitchen with another plate of food with the Mancini score in the background even down to a shared laugh Victoria and Toddy have at one of the waiter’s retorts which quickly gets across that they’re becoming instant friends. And it builds up to the wide shot looking into a window from outside into the madness that has just erupted from a certain cockroach which feels like an absolutely perfect capper to it all. That view is an encapsulation of the world Edwards is depicting, the shot of the restaurant spanning the full 2.35 frame with a few incredulous extras passing by playing the role of the audience—Edwards films are filled with incredulous extras unaware of the chaos they suddenly find themselves in the orbit of—as Victoria and Toddy make a run for it. Once when I saw Edwards speak many years ago this scene came up in relation to the subject of improvisation in his films and he used this shot as an example of something that he couldn’t simply come up with on the spur of the moment, that it had to be planned well in advance. For all the freedom that he famously gave his actors this gives an indication of how much the director always had his eye on the pure construction of the piece, knowing exactly how long certain scenes needed to be and what would be just the right beat to go out on. He didn’t always get the timing right but on occasions like this few have ever been able to do it better.
I suppose it should be mentioned, as many have before, that Julie Andrews isn’t particularly convincing as a man or, as it should be said, someone who is meant to be convincing as a man. (Or, for that matter, whether the term ‘gay’ in this regard was part of any sort of nomenclature in 1934, in Paris or elsewhere.) It could also be argued whether this really matters in the slightest particularly considering how good the actors are in responding to this, not to mention that it’s all set in this stylized fantasy Paris of the 30s anyway. Plus this is, after all, Blake Edwards indulging in the chance to provide his wife with a full-blown musical to star in, providing the actress with one of the very best roles of her career. Over a decade before this he had directed her in DARLING LILI, another lavish musical which while maybe not the washout that its reputation has indicated, was enough of a flop that the go-for-broke nature of the musical numbers here gives the impression that he somehow wanted to make up for what happened with that film and direct his wife in a memorable musical once and for all. The “Le Jazz Hot” number introducing Victor/Victoria to the world feels like a career highlight for all involved—it’s a dynamite piece of work in every regard, really—but it also succeeds as a metaphor for the film itself which involves characters finding their own ‘new kind of music’ for their lives. When Victoria corrects Peter Arne’s nightclub owner Labisse as to the type of singer she is he first responds with a “Whatever you are…” before dismissing her and VICTOR/VICTORIA is ultimately about whatever a person is in the end, finding out what sort of person you really are, finding out that the people closest to you aren’t at all what you thought in the first place and how much any of that really matters.
So much of it goes together just right, down to every beat, so even what would normally be the purely shoe leather scene of introducing powerful agent Andre Cassell (John Rhys-Davies) is played in the most delightful way complete with yet another elaborate physical gag. Edwards’ knack for staging his scenes in long takes, cutting only when necessary, has just about never been better than here, particularly during scenes with Lesley Ann Warren’s moll Norma yammering on nonstop, something that wouldn’t have anywhere near the same effect if broken up. Filmed in England entirely on soundstages at Pinewood Studios the look of the film with cinematography by Dick Bush and sumptuous production design by Roger Maus is fully in the spirit of the famous Ernst Lubitsch quote, “I’ve been to Paris, France and Paris, Paramount. Paris, Paramount is better.” Even the way characters seem to breeze from Paris to Chicago and back seems like something that could only happen in a 30s movie set mostly in a world of fancy gowns & tuxedos and several times we get the welcome reminder that Blake Edwards never met an elegant nightclub that he didn’t want to destroy by having a fight break out in it.
It actually says something about how well-assembled the construction in Edwards’ screenplay is that the way pieces are moved around to allow for certain things doesn’t cause it to fall apart even if the maneuvering does result in a few problems. The lengthy sequence involving Garner’s King Marchand sneaking into Victoria and Toddy’s suite attempting to learn the truth about her is impeccably laid out shot for shot but considering what he definitively gets a look at it makes his later declaration to her, “I don’t care if you are a man” before moving in for the kiss mean absolutely nothing (It’s not all that gallant an action either—would Melvyn Douglas sneak into Garbo’s bathroom?) and the story doesn’t have as much punch as a result. The sequence could have been designed to somehow have Marchand fail to learn the truth and, really, a moment where James Garner—Jim Rockford, Bret Maverick, the Scrounger in THE GREAT ESCAPE, among many other examples—declares his love for what he genuinely believes to be a man in a major studio release in 1982 would have been truly transgressive if it had happened (“I still don’t care,” he tells her when she fesses up and that response doesn’t matter either). In Garner’s autobiography “The Garner Files” he says it originally was this way and Blake Edwards ultimately chickened out, admitting as much. Maybe it’s a minor point but it does feel like an unfortunate case of maneuvering around an issue and makes the film fall short of its own principles even if the occasional line of dialogue (“Kill him, but musn’t kiss him,” Toddy comments on what apparently are acceptable gangster activities) still has some resonance even in 2014.
One other issue, and I’m hardly the first person to bring this up, would be the final musical number (I’ll avoid spoilers but it involves an alternate version of “Shady Dame From Seville” by a different character), one which really isn’t necessary and seems designed to end things in the broadest way possible more than anything—the days of Ernst Lubitsch ending this sort of thing in the most graceful way possibly were long since gone, I suppose. Plotwise the way the chess pieces are arranged is fine (although one final exchange between Andrews and Garner would have been nice) but it’s hard not to wish that everything could be resolved in a much more succinct, elegant fashion. As things play out it just causes much of the plot stuff to simply fizzle away. The film does close out the story of Victoria Grant by a quick shot of Andrews silently mouthing along the words to the song in question as a way of saying goodbye to Victor. It’s a nice touch—awfully economical, too—and while there’s one last spectacular pratfall near the very end that I would never want to lose the close isn’t quite up to the rest of the film, congratulating itself before we’ve had a chance to do that for ourselves. Are the characters laughing? Are the actors breaking character? Have we suddenly moved into Hal Needham territory?
That shot of Andrews mouthing the words at the point of ‘the rest of the tale’s not a pretty one’ seems more interesting than the film seems to notice, as if it’s a wistful sign of regret from Victoria that this rollercoaster is coming to an end and things are returning to normalcy, even if she is better off than when she started. In some ways the climax of the film has already happened close to a half-hour earlier—the one-take performance of “Crazy World” which comes as Victoria and King decide to become a couple seems to sum up everything about the film and the lead character’s feelings about it all while also harkening back to Edwards’ gorgeous and even more ambitious opening shot of the box office disaster DARLING LILI. Thing is, there’s still another thirty or so minutes (and, yeah, in this 133 minute film you do start to feel that running time after a while) of plot and other issues to deal with at this point including how living a lie, any kind of lie, is no fun at all. I wish those strands could have been dealt with in a more graceful way but as was memorably stated in a certain classic comedy about cross-dressing made in 1959 (not to mention a few characters in other Blake Edwards films here and there), nobody’s perfect.
I vaguely recall that when I saw the film in a theater long ago it seemed like on the big screen if you sort of squinted that Julie Andrews almost, kind of, if you really wanted to go along with it, might almost conceivably resemble a very effeminate male. And that’s really giving the whole thing the benefit of the doubt but, like I said, it really doesn’t matter. Andrews is wonderful, selling the comedy beautifully—I love how she almost loses her balance after belting out that first high note—as well as every single musical number and with her performance gaining in resonance as the film goes on it really is one of the best characterizations of her career. She’s also paired up beautifully with her two main costars and as a matter of fact, it feels a little bit like Edwards has created this wonderful part for his wife while splitting the surrogates for himself into two, the loyal friend that is Toddy and the crafty but still somewhat mature King Marchand. James Garner, opposite his old THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY costar Andrews, is effortless in his charm and comic timing, about as good here as he ever was onscreen. The scene where the two of them attempt to reasonably discuss their differences is particularly good with these two characters in a larger than life world trying to face this farce in a simply human way and both actors play off each other in a way that feels completely natural. Robert Preston, no matter which of his costars he’s playing off, takes every single line that he has and makes it sing beyond all belief allowing him to basically walk off with the movie. “If Mr. Preston doesn’t get an Oscar for this film, he never will,” said Vincent Canby in The New York Times and, sadly, he was right but seeing him express such joy in getting to play this role and say this dialogue remains alive.
Lesley Ann Warren is also fantastic as moll Norma Cassidy, taking the basics of the Jean Harlow stereotype to the nth degree and imbuing it with a complete life of her own particularly in her own show-stopping musical number but also in a memorably laid out scene involving a train car. The entire cast is ideal including Alex Karras, John Rhys-Davies, Peter Arne and of course Graham Stark (can’t mention him too many times—lest we forget, the sight of Graham Stark shouting, “COCKROACH!” is one of the reasons that movies exist). Edwards regular Herb Tanney makes his usual cameo, playing the Clouseau-like private investigator hired to uncover the truth about Victor, this time billed as “Sherloque Tanney”.
In its combination of wit and style, laughs and music, character and subtext, VICTOR/VICTORIA (available on DVD from the Warner Archive) features Blake Edwards as writer and director at his very best. Upon release it was one of the most acclaimed films of his career and the seven Oscar nominations included one for his screenplay, the only one he ever received in his career. Julie Andrews was also nominated as were Robert Preston and Lesley Ann Warren but in the end the only Oscar it won went to Henry Mancini and lyricist Leslie Bricusse for the song score. One of the other films that year of course was Sydney Pollack’s TOOTSIE, a very different cross-dressing farce made by a director not exactly known for comedy but in some ways on both a thematic and dramatic level it does stick the landing that VICTOR/VICTORIA doesn’t quite nail. Again, I suppose this is a minor issue considering how much joy VICTOR/VICTORIA continues to provide to this day. In his beyond ecstatic rave in the New York Times Vincent Canby stated that the film is “so good, so exhilarating, that the only depressing thing about it is the suspicion that Mr. Edwards is going to have a terrible time trying to top it.” His immediate followups were both TRAIL and CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, so, well, yeah, and nothing else over the following decade approached the level of acclaim that this film received (this also included directing a stage version of VICTOR/VICTORIA on Broadway starring Andrews which opened in 1995) although I am on record already as liking a few of them, maybe more than the rest of the world does. So while the likes of S.O.B. might be the sort of Blake Edwards-infused whiskey that I prefer downing on more occasions than not and while everything in VICTOR/VICTORIA isn’t as good as its best moments it has still aged absolutely beautifully which stands as a testament to the talents of its director, talents which maybe still aren’t as appreciated as they should be. But I suppose that’s the way it sometimes is in such a crazy world.

No comments: