It's "Mary Poppins in drag"

by Mark Bernstein

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 11-12
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

Early in VICTOR/VICTORIA, the recently (and widely) hailed "sophisticated" comedy, Robert Preston, playing the part of a gay nightclub entertainer in 1930s Paris, puts his stuffed sinuses to bed with the languishing line, "There's nothing more inconvenient than an old queen with a head cold." The audience cracks up.

As Toddy, Preston is the operative character in the movie's plot. He takes in Victoria (Julie Andrews), an unemployed singer, convincing her that he can make her a star by passing her off as a male female impersonator. This he does, much to the distress of a visiting nightclub operator (James Garner), who is attracted to the singer until she reveals herself as a him, at which point he recoils in panic.

The laugh mentioned above comes on the word "queen." It's the laugh that second-rate black comics got ten years ago with lines like, "No man, not 'bad,' bad." Or that second-rate white comics got ten years before that by lacing their language with drug references. It's a "knowing" laugh, one that says, "Oh, we know what that means. We're not square. We're cool."

But as usual there's more here than meets the ear. In short, VICTOR/ VICTORIA may be the single most meretricious major U.S. comedy ever to receive such totally unmerited praise.

First, the minor problems.

The acting. Julie Andrews can't, never could, and she wanders through the movie projecting not so much an intriguing androgyny as the continuing impression of being "Mary Poppins" in drag. Her sexuality isn't ambivalent, it's nondescript. James Garner, on the other hand, is one of those actors (Dick van Dyke, Alan Alda) who have developed an engaging television persona (Maverick/ Rockford/ Polaroid), only to have it fall apart when transferred to the big screen. For all his shoulders, he simply isn't big enough for moviemaking.

The plot. Garner, of course, redeems himself. After establishing through the adolescent expedient of sneaking into Victoria's bathroom to watch her undress (yes, folks, it's as sophisticated as all that) that Victoria is indeed a she, he decides to woo him/her anyway. What a liberal guy. Well, almost. He does tell Victoria it bothers him to be seen dating a "man." She responds that she has to dress as a man in order to work. Crap. Why doesn't it occur to either of them that as Garner's character is the biggest nightclub owner in Chicago, she can have all the work she wants anytime they have the common sense to leave Paris?

Besides, Victoria says, dressing as a man gives her a freedom she's never before known. Crap II. That freedom consists of having to pitch her voice down in every conversation that takes place out of her bedroom and of having to hide from half the waiters in Paris (who saw her before she converted). The couple's real problem — i.e., that he likes boxing while she prefers opera (or, alternately, that they're both morons), is never addressed. It simply gets dropped in the happy ending.

The language. I doubt that 1930s Parisian homosexuals referred to themselves or their world as "gay," as in "Gay Paree," get it? (Indeed, that joke seems to be the only reason for the Paris setting of the film, which projects an atmosphere vaguely reminiscent of Scranton). Nor is authenticity aided when the gangster bodyguard speaks of his "anxiety attacks" or when Jim and Julie make intense lovers' small talk about what they can "relate to," exchanging pious liberalisms on the subject of sex roles that sound like the most mendacious maunderings of a Psychology Today writer's meandering mind.

If the movie did not go beyond this, it could be written off as simply another cranked-out Hollywood comedy, Blake Edwards variety. The formula is, "Co-star two people so well known that it doesn't matter they can't act, or that the script is ludicrous or that the director can't direct. Rake in the bucks. Repeat as necessary."

The reason it can't be written off — and the reason, face it, folks, that it was instead hailed — is that it "deals" with homosexuality. It is here that the film's deep dishonesty lies.

Every film attempts to establish a dynamic with its audience, asks us to perceive characters and situations in certain ways, even if it's no more than to cheer for the good guys and boo the bad guys. When a film fails to do this, we say, with some disappointment, "I didn't get into it."

The dynamic of VICTOR/VICTORIA revolves around several deeply ingrained attitudes toward sexuality: briefly, the cultural messages that tell men to divorce themselves from any aspect of their psyche/ self/ character that might be termed "feminine" and tell women to divorce themselves from aspects that might be considered "masculine." Overachievers that they are, men generally do a better job of this psychic castration. Indeed, one can make a case that the dominant value in the sexual consciousness of U.S. males is the fear of being perceived by other men as having homosexual tendencies.

But rather than taking a liberated attitude toward homosexuality, the film's dynamic invites us to project our homophobia onto the characters, laugh at them, evade our fears, and then congratulate ourselves for our broadmindedness.

For example, the Garner character takes “Victor” dancing at a club where all the other couples are male. He is discomforted, and we find it hilarious — how can he be so “uncool”? It's a ridiculing kind of laughter, directed at the kind of “man's man” who may even have made us feel less than adequate. So in one moment, we get revenge, evasion, and self-congratulation.

There was a time when, if a filmmaker was “liberal” and needed a plot device that could spout wisdom at appropriate intervals, the character created may have been an old black man, unlettered, arthritic, but "wise in the ways of the world." Well, fashions change, even if forms don't, and this season's officially designated cute minority in Hollywood is homosexuals.

This is worse than patronizing. Because, fifty years ago, what old black men or homosexual entertainers could have told us about was survival, retaining in severely circumscribed circumstances a certain trace of dignity. Survival may be prerequisite to wisdom but is hardly its substitute. By giving such characters "wisdom," however, we evade our own social guilt. It's like:

"Sure, guys, we dumped all over you, but don't you see, you got wisdom in consequence. Frankly, I think you ought to thank us. I mean, where in hell would Jesus be today if there hadn't been somebody around to nail him up? You're not going to thank us? Well picky, picky, picky."

Homophobia is a cultural value strongly fringed with violence, and Blake Edwards is clever enough to give that violence some vicarious outlet. Twice Julie Andrews punches out the character who, as Toddy's original homosexual lover, is established as the "bad guy" homosexual, our crimping stereotype. The audience cheers. Late in the film, Victoria decides to reveal herself as a woman to Garner's former moll (a character drawn with utter contempt for women). She drags the latter into a bedroom and starts aggressively to undress. The latter fears, not unnaturally given the way the scene is played, hat she's about to be raped. The audience cracks up. In short, he's a "bad guy" homosexual — punch him out, watch him cower! She's a dumb stereotypic blond — rape her.

VICTOR/VICTORIA is a truly nasty-minded movie, dealing entirely with cardboard cutout characters: the Wise Minority Group Member (Toddy), the Plot Device (Victoria), the Hung-Up Stud, the Closet Queen Bodyguard, and the Dumb Overripe Blond.

The only character with a trace of dignity is Toddy, who comes across as a trouper. That dignity is destroyed in the film's final scene, where he manfully fills in for Victoria in the drag act. What we see is this big, hairy, fat man, stumbling around the stage trying to look female, only he can't, he's laughing so hard (at what?). And the nightclub audience, even though it's the kind of performance that would turn embarrassing once the initial shock value wore off (why is this man doing this to himself?), they're practically in tears they think it's so funny. And Jim and Julie, well, they're seated down front, sharing the amusement, looking so heterosexually triumphant that I half expected them to organize a cookout right in the middle of the nightclub, then maybe duck out to a PTA meeting.

The liberal line on GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER? was that, well, maybe it wasn't a very good movie, but it was still a major breakthrough. It "dealt" with racism, and now we would see blacks in serious film roles. To which the only possible response is: name one. Name one major U.S. movie of the past five years that featured a black actor or actress in a serious role. Well, hey, fella, what do you want? After a while we just got bored with them, you know.

Yes, I do. Which is to say that mainstream U.S. comedies simply don't "deal" — they instead find brave new worlds to exploit and previously ignored ideas to trivialize. The line on VICTOR/VICTORIA is that it's a needed step toward liberation. Sorry, sports fan, I'm not buying. What's needed is not this truly malicious piece of celluloid. What's needed — now, always and ever — is occasional honesty, unfeigned tenderness, and all but amazing grace.