Swan Song is a gay movie set in a post-gay world, a lament for the loss of the sense of community that the transition from “in” to “out” has brought with it, but also a celebration of “how far we’ve come”. Somehow, successfully, magically, it keeps these two elements in play.
How gay? There’s Judy Garland on the soundtrack, and Dusty Springfield, and Shirley Bassey. There’s Jennifer Coolidge in the cast and… get this… Linda Evans (of Dynasty fame). And what a role for Udo Kier, on screen for all of it, as an aged gay (gay, not queer) man of the old school – flamboyant, arch, bitchy, a former hair-and-beauty salon owner now living in a care home, where he’s once again living under the heavy manners he’s spent his entire life bucking against.
In a plot that’s road movie meets the one last job, he’s re-inserted back into wider society after an old rich client (Evans) dies and he’s called on to do the hair and make-up for her last appearance, in an open casket at her own funeral. Off he sets, on foot, in a long walk from one side of town to the other.
It’s all set in Sandusky, Ohio, and is based on the life of a real person, Pat Pitsenbarger, a larger than life local queen who died in 2012, though how much of what happens to Kier’s Pat happened to the real Pat isn’t clear. Probably most of it, since really this is just a series of encounters between gay-as-a-window Pat and the largely straight residents of Sandusky. Who are, for the most part, a decent, tolerant bunch who are on the whole bemused by this apparition – for the second half of the film Kier is dressed in a mint-green trouser suit and wears a purple fedora. Think Quentin Crisp with the colours turned up.
This is the last of writer/director Todd Stephens’s Ohio Trilogy. I’ve not seen the other two, Edge of Seventeen and Gypsy 83, but have seen his Another Gay Sequel (sequel, unsurprisingly, to Another Gay Movie), which was flamingly, sibilantly, screamingly gay in much the same way as Swan Song is. Here, Kier is swishingly camp in a “fuck you, I don’t care” way (both the performer and the character he’s playing) and is frequently very, very funny.
The jokes tend to come in the front half of the movie, with the mood shifting to thoughtful and poignant as Pat engages more and more with the post-gay world and takes a tally of the state of the gay nation – on the one hand gay dads playing with their kids, who’d have thought such a thing possible? On the other the local gay bar, which is about to close down, because who needs a gay scene when you “can hold hands in Applebees,” as someone puts it. But not before Pat has set the stage alight for a final performance… in drag, what else?
“Gay bars are so 90s,” says Eunice (Ira Hawkins), a fellow old campaigner, as he and Pat discuss where they are versus where they’ve been, and the people who’ve been lost along the way. It’s a strangely unnecessary and heavy handed exchange, because everything Pat and Eunice discuss verbally has already been visually handled by the film. Put it down to flamboyant over-emphasis if you like.
Oddly, Coolidge, a natural at playing emotional monstrosities, from Stifler’s mom in American Pie to Tanya McQuoid in The White Lotus, is slightly off her game here, perhaps unsettled by Kier’s multivalent performance. Are we laughing at Pat? Yes, sometimes. But often we’re laughing (or sighing) with him, and Kier slides between the two with real skill. In a long career that’s included gigs with Warhol, Fassbinder and Dario Argento, he’s often been the support act (a villain, usually) and seems to be enjoying being top banana for a change. He’s fantastically entertaining as a man whose flamboyance is as much armour as adornment.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021