After the tempered (though pleasurable) fantasy of Pat Pitsenberger’s (Udo Kier) final performance, to an empty throng on a spacious stage, is cut short, the retired hairdresser is sent back to his banal existence in a retirement home, the ordinariness of his life soundtracked by Judy Garland. For a film that lets its score (by Chris Stephens) and needledrops do a lot of heavy lifting, Swan Song’s use of Garland is one of its more apt and precise moments: Director Todd Stephens frames Kier in the reflection of an old, square and black TV screen, his image slightly distorted by the curvature of the glass. The audience applauds, and it’s nice to imagine it all being for Pat, who we don’t know well. And it’s not exactly inaccurate that it is: It’s “The Man That Got Away” from Judy at Carnegie Hall, her landmark performance captured in April 1961, towards the end of her career and at the precipice of when Judy would be a delineator between gay subculture’s past, present and future.
Thus, it is appropriate that Swan Song is concerned with memory and history. When offered the opportunity to style the body of a longtime client—Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), with whom he had a falling out many years ago—for her funeral, Pat ambivalently launches himself on a journey to contemplate his place in people’s lives and others’ in his. He marches down the sun-beaten Ohio road in grey sweats, a long, thin, brown cigarette between his lips, and—on the way to transform another person and jolt them with life once more—transforms himself.
The Judy track is interesting for another reason: Far past being a marker of gay cliché or indicator of time, there is, certainly, the complicated relationship between Judy and her gay fans, the politics of which scholars like Richard Dyer and Manuel Betancourt have elaborated upon. It undoubtedly articulates an interesting dynamic between gay men and straight (cis) women, an unending blurring of subject and object where power vacillates such that it’s hard to discern who is grasping and using it when. In the 1954 A Star is Born, from which “The Man That Got Away” is taken, Norman (James Mason) makes a reference to Esther (Garland) about singing for “yourself and the boys in the band” (a line that inspired Mart Crowley’s 1968 play), imploring the sparkling performer to find authenticity and power in private moments.
On the one hand, there’s a gender reversal one can read here: Rita left Pat as a client, going to Pat’s former assistant Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge) instead, the wound of which never healed. On the other, and lurking beneath the film’s shabby saccharine moments, is a realization—after sifting through memories of what was, like the stores and the house that was demolished—of a gay best friend searching for autonomy and agency. Pat, whose impressive work as a stylist we only get glimpses of until the end, spends much of the film conceiving himself in relation to other people, be it former friends or clients. But now, down the road and confronted with someone who functioned both as an icon of the area (Rita, we’re told, was the star socialite of Sandusky) and as a “friend,” Pat must consider his life on his own terms, and how much artistry (and, really, service) for others is a primary component of that.
And yet, I’m not sure the film clarifies this or articulates it with much lucidity. While Kier purrs his lines in an appealing way, there’s a wavering quality to his performance that conflicts with the broader tone of the film. Coolidge, who spars with a frequently drinking Kier, lets her voice crackle and drag in a sharp complement, peeling back a more specific darkness, absurdity and sadness in the film. While Swan Song tends to melodramatize certain moments without a camp or outré edge—a conversation with a former client, with a friend, with someone’s grandson—Coolidge calculates a certitude about how to express both her wounded and fraught relationship with Pat and a perspective about the material at large.
It feels like class is only ever whispered when it is, especially in the film’s final moments, such a crucial key to understanding the film: A hairdresser whose relationship with their client is necessarily murky, an emotional labor that’s complicated by sincere personal investment and a context of social marginality that itself, as aforementioned, has an intricate history with regard to power. But, while we see Pat handle money in various ways, the film tends to redirect attention to its more easily sentimentalized moments, make its longing for the past too broad and, despite the MacGuffin-like role the mysterious haircare product Vivante plays, doesn’t quite crystallize what exactly its characters feel nostalgia for. It’s difficult, admittedly, when so many of those things have disappeared, and perhaps that is part of the point. But the past is mostly kept locked inside, as Pat is learning to externalize his place in his world.
Concerning itself with death and history, Swan Song asks for an assured hand, but gets an ambitious assistant’s—one whose scrutiny and interest in the assortment of ideas within the work dithers, but whose ideas are nonetheless present if left only simmering. There’s a glimmer of maturity not totally obfuscated by some of the film’s inelegance, as Pat considers how much about gayness and queerness has changed in the micro and macro on his journey into the past. You can almost sense Kier’s history as a screen legend unfurling along with him, a meta-meditation on his own career, Wild Strawberries-style (strawberry is a fruit, wink wink). It’s also just a pleasure to see Kier gussied up like Quentin Crisp. If only Swan Song felt the freedom to be as expressive, heightened and scorched in its unleashing of history as Judy did when singing her own back in 1961.
Director: Todd Stephens
Writers: Todd Stephens
Stars: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Michael Urie
Release Date: August 6, 2021
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.