film: Edwards – Victor/Victoria (1982)

victorI generally don’t like movies whose central theme is sexuality; they always somehow fall short. My parents wouldn’t let me see Rocky Horror when I was young, but when they went out of town I watched it and had the same reaction I do now: sleepiness. Perhaps I’ll just never understand what it is to have repressed something for so long and then finally have an outlet for which to expose and celebrate that hidden facet in the extreme…but that sounds suspiciously close to how it is when I go to dance parties…it’s all I want to do, it’s highly encouraged, and I just can’t do it. I think it’s an immature film and seems to me it, if anything, discusses the overconfident pursuit of a thing that makes one uncomfortable, for god knows what reason, although that’s the theme of most college parties.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch does a better job, in my opinion, because it leaves open more questions, which makes it more real. Is Hedwig gay? Well, we’re not sure. But he’s neither a man nor a woman, and although forced into the role of a woman by surgery, it’s ultimately his choice once his husband runs off. But there’s something profoundly unsexual about him also, besides the fact that he doesn’t have any genitals. A man who wants to be a woman, but is neither, who thus forces us to begin wondering what the hell we are anyway, because he’s also in love, and he discusses Plato’s myth of men and women once being single creatures bound together.

So, then we have Victor/Victoria, which treats the subject with humor and music, just as the other two films do, but despite being sillier to the point that it plays with completely Hollywood conventions, it’s also deals with the subject in perhaps the most mature fashion, and perhaps it’s also the most insightful. There are three or four absurdly slapstick restaurant/barroom fights, pianos always get destroyed, everyone always gets involved, wigs fall off, bottles get smashed, there’s never any real danger of anyone dying: that’s the sort of film this is. But it’s also a film about a heterosexual woman pretending to be a gay man pretending to be a woman. And when she falls in love with a straight man, King Marchand, he has to pretend to be gay. He’s the picture of manliness, she’s always Julie Andrews, and we all know it, we have to just pretend that everyone in the film believes her to be a man. We have aptly named Norma, the Marilyn Monroe knockoff who comprises every stereotype, the fake blond hair, the New York accent and boo-boo-pie-doo dancing and fake orgasms and cruelty in revenge from biting half the chocolates to maybe getting her ex, King Marchand, shot. There’s Toddy, who performs the stereotypical middle-aged homosexual very well, his ex, who is only gay in private, and otherwise very classy and snotty, and Mr. Bernstein, who has been in the closet until midway through the film, when we find that when he suddenly turns gay…well, nothing changes except that he has a boyfriend. It may be that the film is more concerned with discussing confidence than sexuality after all.

King Marchand is extremely confident in his heterosexuality, to the point that when he’s attracted to another man, he’s convinced the man is actually a woman when nobody else believes it. He’s correct. And perhaps my favorite lines in the film occur when they finally kiss:

“I don’t care if you are a man.”
(they kiss)
“I’m not a man.”
“I still don’t care.”
(they kiss)

The thing he cannot deal with is pretending to be gay. Yes, he has a problem with people believing him to be gay, but this is where things become confusing, because he tries to make the relationship work, he pretends to be gay. In the only review I could find of the film (Ed Sikov. Film Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1) the author suggests that after leaving the gay dance hall and sending Victoria home, he goes to a working-class bar to instigate a fight, the most un-gay thing he can think of doing. But that’s not how I saw it. He goes to the bar and orders milk and then picks a fight when he’s made fun of. But this is why I disagree: he goes in and orders milk in order to be as unmanly as possible, which is also stereotypically considered gay. So in what the critic sees as a blatant rejection of feigned homosexuality, I see as an attempt to wholeheartedly embrace the lifestyle, which includes getting the shit pummeled out of you in a bar, and somehow ends with everybody in the bar drunkenly singing ‘Sweet Adeline’ as friends. This, in my opinion, is a reaffirmation of what Mr. Bernstein proves to us: that it’s possible to be both ‘normal’ and gay. And it’s only afterwards that King Marchand is confronted by the mob for being gay, and withstands their pressure nonchalantly. I think it’s also noteworthy that the only person who makes any sort of groan of ecstasy is King Marchand.

On the other hand we have Norma, who might be considered the female version of King Marchand. The difference is that her confidence in her sexuality is precisely what holds her back and forces her into the most pathetic stereotypes of women, completely in the hands of men, but relishing the influence she has over them because of her sexual charms. In all this, it’s Victoria who is the hero/heroine, because she’s confident enough in her sexuality that sexuality isn’t even a concern when confronted with a proposition to pretend to be a man forever. She does whatever seems like a good idea, and when it no longer seems like the best idea, she stops doing it. She is the only character for whom there are no rules from outside herself, stereotypes mean nothing to her, and it’s her personal strengths that always carry the day.

Finally, I think it worth noting something Julie Andrews’ characters do in both this film and Mary Poppins: upon hitting the last triumphal note of a song, her face beaming with confidence and a reserved joy, she immediately follows it up with an expression of such emptiness and depression that it’s a bit horrifying. Why does she do this? It never seems to fit the character. It may be that it’s the world of music that’s most real to her as these characters, the world of perfection and beauty, and that the moment the song ends, the other reality must return, and she’s no longer who and where she wants to be. In this film, perhaps we get a closer glimpse of this when we see her in hysterics at the opera.

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