“As you can tell…I have a legitimate voice.”
“Yes. Well, you see, I am looking for something a little more illegitimate.”
For almost a decade from 1974 to 1983, director Blake Edwards devoted himself to a series of five Pink Panther sequels, but as an interlude around 1980, he wrote and directed three films that starred his wife, Julie Andrews. 10 was released in 1979, followed two years later by S.O.B.. Then in 1982, the best of the three — Victor/Victoria — appeared. It was a musical when such films were considered unprofitable, yet it proved to be very successful both critically and at the box office. It received seven Academy Award and five Golden Globe nominations, but the only wins were an Oscar for the music by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse and a best actress Golden Globe for Julie Andrews. Warner Brothers have now brought out this original MGM release on DVD.
Victoria Grant is a struggling soprano who fails to get a job singing at a local Paris bistro. Carroll Todd (Toddy), a gay entertainer who is the bistro’s current headliner, loses his job after an altercation with his ex-lover causes the bistro to be closed up by the police for a week. After Toddy runs into Victoria at a restaurant where she is trying to get a free meal by dropping a live cockroach into her salad, the two cook up a scheme to have Victoria pretend to be Polish Count Victor Grezhinski, supposedly a famed female impersonator. The act proves to be a smashing success and all looks rosy until American bar owner King Marchand comes to Paris and begins to suspect Victor for what he really is.
Victor/Victoria is a musical comedy that invokes the decadence of Berlin under the Weimar Republic of 1920s Germany, despite the fact that the story is set in Paris and stars an English actress and two American actors. Of course, that’s not terribly surprising given that it was inspired by a 1933 German film, Viktor und Viktoria directed by Reinhold Schunzel (who was also, interestingly, responsible for the original German film upon which Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot was based). What was so characteristic of the night club life of that time and place — transvestitism, bisexuality, and general sexual innuendo — is all alluded to in Victor/Victoria, although in a somewhat sanitized manner characteristic of British and American productions compared to what their European counterparts might look like. What is not alluded to but instead given prominence is the gay nature of Toddy’s character. Even for 1982, the lack of ambiguity is unusual, and welcome as a result. Of course, that aspect of the plot is crucial to generating the acceptance of Victoria as a man by the Paris elite. That she is able to gain that acceptance from them, yet cannot convince the visiting American King Marchand, is a clear reflection of the difference in the two societies’ general acceptance of non-heterosexual lifestyles at that time.
Although one might like to put forth Victor/Victoria as a film intent on
making a point about the unimportance of taking issue over sexual preferences and corresponding lifestyles, to see that as the film’s key intent would be overstating its significance. This, after all, is a vehicle for Julie Andrews conceived by her husband Blake Edwards, also the film’s director. As such, it is full of opportunities for her to sing and dance and look good in a whole host of costumes, both male and female. Julie Andrews had already had her share of success in the 1960s and early 1970s in such films as The Sound Of Music, Mary Poppins, the underappreciated Star!, and Darling Lili, but by the late 1970s, things had dropped off somewhat. So Victor/Victoria came along at the right time and put her back on top. The film is full of marvelous musical and comic entertainment that look and sound spectacular capitalizing on Andrews’s talent for such material. But she’s not the only one who’s a major contributor. Robert Preston wasn’t acclaimed as the title character of The Music Man for nothing. Despite the spotlight on Andrews, there’s enough here for Preston to shine very brightly — and shine he does, making one remember what a truly excellent actor he was. Even without either, however, there are musical delights to be found. A number involving four male dancers wearing the faces of women on the back of their heads is a real hit.
The comic entertainment mainly arises from aspects of the plot that directly involve James Garner’s character King Marchand, his girlfriend Norma, and his bodyguard played by Alex Karras. This is a comedy of reaction involving a degree of slapstick. In this respect, it’s perfectly suited to Garner, who has tended to specialize in the humour of reaction, and he plays his part superbly. From Alex Karras, we have fewer expectations, yet he too is a plus in the film. As Norma, Lesley Ann Warren is well cast. She plays the dumb blonde character in an almost over-the-top fashion, but that’s very true to the character’s nature.
Director Blake Edwards has an extensive history in film beginning with acting in the early 1940s, graduating to writing for film and television (he created the Peter Gunn series). By the mid-1950s, he was directing feature films leading to a directing career spanning almost 40 years, including such well-known titles as Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses, The Great Race, and Return of the Pink Panther. Victor/Victoria came at the apex of Edwards’s career, perhaps accounting for the fact that he was allowed to make the film by MGM at a time when musicals were considered dead. As both writer and director, not to mention acting in the small part of a private investigator, Edwards had pretty well complete control over the look and feel of the film. After initial plans to film on location in Paris were scrapped in favour of filming on sets constructed in England, that control could be even more fully exercised. This, along with a good working relationship with cinematographer Dick Bush, accounts for the film’s beautifully warm colours and lighting. Just about every sequence in the film offers a perfect example of this. One that particularly sticks in my mind is Julie Andrews’s first appearance on stage in her “Victoria” persona — the lighting in the cabaret is a subdued but simply gorgeous combination of pink, mauve, and salmon, yet when the camera zeroes on Andrews or Garner in the audience, the bold colours of their costuming and the naturalness of the fleshtones just jump out at you in contrast.
Warners have given us a stunning-looking 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of Victor/Victoria. In the spirit of the film, the colours are simply luscious, darling — bright, rich, true — you name it. The image is always sharp and clear and is characterized by deep velvety blacks for the most part. There is no edge enhancement and aside from a couple of brief scratches, there are virtually no print imperfections to be found. Very high marks to WB on this effort.
The original soundtrack is not included, but has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. Contrary to many such efforts, the difference is certainly noticeable with some fine directional effects and obvious if limited use of the surrounds. The audio has a deep, rich character to it that really draws the listener into the film, with the musical numbers and some rainstorm sounds being particularly effective in that regard. A French mono track is included as are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese.
The main supplement on the disc is an audio commentary by the husband and wife team of star Julie Andrews and director Blake Edwards. The commentary communicates great warmth between the two participants and is certainly engaging even if it’s less informative than it might be. There’s a fair degree of simply describing what we can see for ourselves, with less insight into the whys and wherefores that the best commentaries offer. Andrews is by far the greater contributor to the commentary. Still, even with its deficiencies, it’s a pleasant experience to sit through. (And besides, any commentary that includes a reference to the great Warner Brothers stock company of the 1930s and 1940s is worthwhile, in my book.)
Warners also gives us some very abbreviated film credits for the main players and the director, a list of awards, and the theatrical trailer.
Victor/Victoria is a top-notch piece of film entertainment. The movie is a continuously pleasing extravaganza of music and comedy that looks and sounds great. It’s well acted, featuring three very pleasing performers in Julie Andrews, Robert Preston and James Garner. WB’s DVD release shows off all the film’s top aspects in their very best light. Highly recommended.