Blake Edwards died yesterday at the age of 88. He left an impressive legacy of comedic films, but my favorite will always be one of his last great hits. Victor/Victoria (1982) is one of the last movie musicals made by MGM, a film studio that had become known as the “Dream Factory” for cranking out hundreds of musicals from the late 1920s to the early 1980s. Created by writer-director Blake Edwards, composer Henry Mancini and lyricist Leslie Bricusse, Victor/Victoria is a musical remake of a 1933 German film by the same name (but with slightly different spelling).
The story revolves around unemployed opera singer Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) who collapses from starvation during the middle of an audition. Gay cabaret performer Toddy (Robert Preston) rescues her and gives her a place to stay. Toddy decides Victoria needs a gimmick to succeed, so he suggests she become a male impersonator. Even better, Victoria should become a male impersonator pretending to be a female impersonator. S/he soon becomes the toast of gay Paree and the source of uncomfortable fascination for macho Chicago gangster King Marchand (James Garner).
This witty, energetic film is one of the best and most memorable efforts in the accomplished career of Blake Edwards, who directed Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), created the Pink Panther series and wrote such films as The Great Race (1965), The Party (1968), 10 (1979) and S.O.B. (1981). Edwards’ fusion of screwball comedy and musical revue are potentially incompatible, but his sprawling, meticulously constructed script is as thoughtful as it is hilarious. The performances by the three leads are terrific, as are those by Alex Karras as Squash Bernstein, King’s perceptive bodyguard, and Lesley Ann Warren as King’s foul-mouthed, oversexed mistress, Norma Cassady.
Released in 1982, the film was a modest success that was overshadowed by the year’s biggest hits, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Poltergeist, Gandhi and An Officer and A Gentleman. Praised by critics but dismissed by many as merely a trifle, a reassessment of Victor/Victor shows that it has only gotten better over time. Not only does the film demonstrate an expert craftsmanship of the movie musical genre, to which Hollywood was about to turn its back, it is also one of the first films (and remains one of the only films from a major Hollywood studio) to address sexual tolerance. With wonderful bitchiness from Preston and Warren, transgender splendor, frank sexual discourse and show tunes, Blake Edwards' Victor/Victoria remains a classy delight.
- by Jonathan Lewis