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In a screen-acting career spanning countless cult films and trash classics over more than half a century, Udo Kier has created no shortage of memorably campy moments. But he hits new highs in Swan Song, lip-syncing to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” while a chandelier short-circuits on his head, or cruising along the streets of a sleepy Ohio town in an electric wheelchair dressed in a mint-green pantsuit and burgundy fedora, ignoring the honking of car horns behind him as he savors an extra-long More cigarette. But what’s most notable about Todd Stephens’ heartfelt salute to a real-life local legend is that the campiness of its outrageous plot becomes secondary to the soulful poignancy.
This SXSW premiere offers a wonderful role for the eternally outré Kier, one that he bites into with typical insouciance but also with the bruised dignity of a man living with a loss from which he will never heal. He plays Pat Pitsenbarger, at one time the most fabulous hairdresser in writer-director Stephens’ hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, and a celebrated drag performer under the stage name “Mister Pat” at local gay bar The Universal Fruit and Nut Company.
One character describes Pat as “the Liberace of Sandusky,” to which he replies in a flirtatious deadpan, “Was I that butch?” This is a man who, even after a debilitating stroke and what seems like many years in a stultifying nursing home, doesn’t tone down his swish for anyone. But he’s also a melancholy observer of how times have changed. He was out and proud long before it was safe in an environment that’s not exactly what anyone at first glance would call queer-friendly.
The Fruit and Nut was a place to feel at home among “our people,” as Pat says. With much of LGBTQ life migrating to hook-up apps or to domesticity, the small-town gay bar has largely gone the way of the flamboyant gay men who defiantly led the pride parade before there actually was one. In that respect, Stephens’ film doubles as a love letter to a vanishing queer subculture. “I wouldn’t even know how to be gay anymore,” Pat confesses to a fellow veteran of the pink trenches.
A cute prologue shows Kier sashaying out from behind a velvet curtain under disco lights in a tacky white fur, his fingers dripping with bling: “Good evening, I am Mr. Pat and I’m back.” But Pat’s humdrum reality is far less glam. While the voices of Judy Garland, Maria Callas and Shirley Horn sing in his head, the nursing home where he has lived since a stroke is a sterile place entirely without joy. He spends his days folding cocktail napkins to kill time, or sneaking cigarettes from his secret stash of Mores, often sharing one with a nonverbal fellow patient (Annie Kitral) confined to a wheelchair. In one tender scene, he puts her wild mane of hair up in an elegant ‘do, bringing pleasure and a brief reprieve to both of them from the drab indignity of old age.
When Walter Shamrock (Tom Bloom), a lawyer representing the recently deceased Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), comes to inform him of a $25,000 provision in her will for Mr. Pat to do her hair and makeup for her funeral, he seems unwilling to let go of the rancor between them. “Bury her with bad hair,” he snarls of his well-heeled former client, a bastion of local conservative society. But the lure of fresh air, freedom and perhaps a chance to settle an old score proves too strong to resist.
The minute Mr. Pat steps outside the facility, DP Jackson Warner Lewis establishes the sense of place, with red barns, green fields and blue skies painting a pretty rural Midwestern picture that seems unchanged by time. Pat slips on the one remaining bejeweled pinky ring he saved among his meager possessions and looks instantly more alive, his sassy attitude evident in an exchange with a mouth-breathing convenience store clerk.
His long walks across town, occasionally holding a hitchhiking sign that reads “Free Beauty Tips,” provide visual punctuation that recalls the 1987 indie hit Bagdad Café. These sequences instill a gentle rhythm between each colorful encounter, effectively accompanied by wistful songs from Mr. Pat’s heyday, like Dusty Springfield singing “Yesterday When I Was Young,” the Shirley Bassey survivor anthem “This is My Life,” or Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” Let it not be said that Stephens doesn’t know his protagonist or his audience.
From Pat’s conversations, some of which have a semi-improvised feel, we learn of the financial difficulties that cost him his home and his business after losing his partner David (producer Eric Eisenbrey, seen in memory flashes) to AIDS. A wrenching visit to the churchyard cemetery where David is buried shows that Pat’s wounds are still raw, a mood echoed in Chris Stephens’ pensive score.
His return to the downtown area also stirs up the bad blood caused by his former assistant Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge), a vision in animal prints and over-processed hair extensions, setting up shop across the street from him. But the deeper conflict is the hurt inflicted by Rita, who revealed the stark difference between being a loyal customer and a friend at a time when he needed her most. “She was a demanding Republican nightmare,” Pat says. “I adored her.”
After the unsubtle queer parody Another Gay Movie and its sequel, subtitled Gays Gone Wild, neither of which made much of an impact, Stephens returns here to something closer in spirit to his script for the 1998 autobiographical coming-out rom-com Edge of Seventeen, directed by David Moreton. The hometown setting and obvious affection for the man who inspired the story bring out genuine feeling that helps maintains a nice tonal equilibrium between the arch hauteur of Mr. Pat and the sadness and vulnerability of his failing health and hazy attachment to the past. This allows Kier to explore shadings not often touched in his performances.
The secondary casting also helps, with actors who look believably Middle-American lending verisimilitude to Pat’s interactions with the locals. This applies whether it’s a salon full of Black women, a young couple who built on the block where his house was demolished, or a kind driver who gives him a lift and listens with silent compassion to his history.
Perhaps the loveliest scene is a thrift-store makeover during which the owner, Sue (Stephanie McVay), produces a special outfit she’s been saving and Pat surprises her by remembering every detail of her one visit to his salon. There’s no condescension in the script’s treatment either of the locals or of the man who probably spent much of his life in Sandusky shrugging off derision.
Stephens also extends a bridge between the gay life of decades past and present. Pat never passes a “tearoom” without shouting out to see if his former bosom buddy “Eunice” (Ira Hawkins) is inside, as if it’s the most natural expectation in the world that this man of a similar age should still be cruising public men’s rooms for sex. While vacillating on whether or not to honor Rita’s dying request, Pat hangs out at the Fruit and Nut, which is also on its last legs. The young bartender, Gabriel (Thom Hilton), is oblivious to much of the place’s history, while drag artist Miss Velma (Justin Lonesome) is just a walking cry for help on a bad hair day. The way Pat’s esprit de corps touches them is, well, quite touching.
The film has a pleasing rough-edged quality, a lack of polish in some corny dramatic scenes and awkward encounters that at times lean almost into a John Waters vibe. But there’s a sincerity here underneath the frothy caper of a renegade stylist shoplifting hair products all over town and finding his own unique way to have the last word. The name cast members — Coolidge, Evans and Michael Urie as Rita’s grandson — make amusing impressions in small roles. But this is Pat’s show. Swan Song is about a man reflecting with both introspection and irreverence on who will remember him and how. The real Pitsenbarger died in 2012. Stephens has made a gift to him, a sequined curtain for his final bow.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Production company: Luna Pictures
Cast: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Michael Urie, Ira Hawkins, Stephanie McVay, Thom Hilton, Justin Lonesome, Tom Bloom, Shanessa Sweeney, Jonah Blechman, Annie Kitral, Bryant Carroll, Shelby Garrett, Catherine Albers, Eric Eisenbrey, Roshon Thomas, Dave Sorboro, Ray Perrin, Tim Murray
Director-screenwriter: Todd Stephens
Producers: Todd Stephens, Eric Eisenbrey, Stephen Israel, Rhet Topham, Tom Kaltenecker
Executive producers: Rhet Topham, Meghan Hogrefe, Jay Fraley, Richard Hogrefe, Drew Sklar
Director of photography: Jackson Warner Lewis
Production designer: Kassandra DeAngelis
Costume designers: Shawna-Nova Foley, Kitty Boots
Music: Chris Stephens
Editors: Spencer Schilly, Santiago Figueira W.
Sound designer: Arjun G. Sheth
Casting: Eve Battaglia, Lina Todd
Sales: XYZ Films
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