This article is being written as part of the James Garner Blogathon, hosted by Realweegiemidget. Thanks for letting me take part!
In March 1982, a quirky little film, Victor/Victoria, directed by famed Pink Panther creator Blake Edwards, appeared in theaters and did respectable business. It featured a stellar cast including Julie Andrews (Edwards’s wife), Robert Preston, Lesley Ann Warren, and the inimitable James Garner. The picture was a huge critical success and got 7 Academy Award nominations, including three performance nominations for Andrews, Warren and Preston (though Garner was sadly overlooked). The film eventually became a hit musical on Broadway and has endured as the highlight of Julie Andrews’s late career. Yet, more than just a fun musical romp, Victor/Victoria has a surprising history behind it, and a lot to say about masculinity, gender roles, sexual preference and identity, and it reflected our modern ideas about them somewhat ahead of its time.
Victor/Victoria takes place entirely in Paris in the year 1934. Victoria Grant (Andrews) is a classically trained singer, but due to the ravages of the Depression she can’t make a living and is reduced to living in a fleabag hotel and propositioning the manager to avoid being evicted. In a desperate move she hooks up with gay nightclub singer Toddy (Preston) in a harebrained scheme to smuggle a cockroach into a five-star restaurant to try to get a free meal. Victoria and Toddy become fast friends, and after a run-in with Toddy’s moochy boyfriend Richard (Malcom Jamieson), Toddy gets the idea to pass Victoria off as a man to do a fraudulent female “impersonation” act. Victoria, now calling herself Count Victor Grezinski, is a smash hit, and comes to the attention of American nightclub owner and sometime gangster King Marchand (Garner), with whom she falls in love…even though the rest of the world thinks she’s a man. Hilarity, and a lot of great musical numbers, ensue.
The trailer for Victor/Victoria (sadly it’s not HD, despite the labeling of this video) showcases both the story and some of the great music of the film.
Victor/Victoria’s hook is a preposterous gender-bending gag, “a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman,” which is repeated verbatim several times in the film. In this sense the picture plays like past cinematic romps involving men (or women) cross-dressing, like the 1959 Billy Wilder classic Some Like It Hot, where the question, “Is he a he or a she?” is invariably the punch line and focus of the plot. Yet Victor/Victoria subtly and deftly goes beyond this paradigm without appearing like it does. Some Like It Hot presented the gag of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag, but never questioned their sexuality. Victor/Victoria involves two strong supporting characters (Preston and former football player Alex Karrass) who are gay, and the appearance of the major romantic Andrews-Garner pairing as a gay relationship, all very sympathetic portrayals. Granted, Some Like It Hot was made during the Hays Code era, and Victor/Victoria was a contemporary of films like The Evil Dead and Blade Runner, so times had changed. Yet the film’s DNA is surprisingly retro, stretching back to Weimar-era Germany, a society more open to alternative sexualities than any other in the world at that time.
Blake Edwards took as his source material an obscure film made in 1933, Viktor und Viktoria, directed by Reinhold Schünzel. The whole film is available on YouTube; I haven’t watched all of it but from what I have seen Edwards remained surprisingly faithful to it. Julie Andrews’s appearance in the 1982 film is quite similar to that of Renate Müller in the 1933 version. Viktor und Viktoria is fluff, a German version of the “screwball comedy” genre popular in the U.S. It premiered in December 1933, eleven months after the Nazis came to power, and thus couldn’t push the envelope too far beyond the boundary of what the new rulers found acceptable–and one of Hitler’s major early initiatives was to erase the sexual permissiveness of the Weimar state as completely as possible. But the seeds of a closer and more contemplative look at sexuality and gender dynamics were undoubtedly there. It took a world war, the defeat of Nazism, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the rise of the LGBT rights movement in the 1970s for these seeds to be planted in fertile soil; in that sense 1982 was the perfect historical moment for Victor/Victoria to come along.
Here’s the entire 1933 German film Viktor und Viktoria. Unless you speak German you will need to click the CC box for English captions. The 1982 remake matches its visual style in many ways.
Although Victor/Victoria is usually regarded as Andrews’s show, James Garner’s contribution to the picture is absolutely crucial, and I think it’s why the film works as a whole. In the 1960s and especially 1970s Garner was a fixture of smoldering masculinity in American movies and TV. He was the lucky and charming conniver in the hit Western TV series Maverick, and then a hard-brawling private eye on The Rockford Files, which I recall my parents watched religiously in the ’70s (when we weren’t glued to miniseries). People also forget that he was quite a heartthrob, emerging as a sex object especially after his turn in The Great Escape (1963), and in fact he worked with Julie Andrews before in 1964’s The Americanization of Emily. It was his easy and generally non-threatening masculinity that made Garner such a star. Contrast him with other 1960s male stars, like his Great Escape co-star Steve McQueen, whose masculine image was much more brash and aggressive: McQueen raced motorcycles and sports cars and had a gun in his hand more often than not. Garner looked great in a cowboy hat or punching bad guys on Rockford, but he seemed more easygoing than McQueen.
In Victor/Victoria, King Marchand is spoken of as a tough Chicago gangster. He has a bodyguard (Karrass), a shrill blonde trophy girlfriend (Warren) many years his junior, he boxes, he drinks hard, and, in the estimation of Victoria, he is a man who can “never under any circumstances find another man attractive.” So imagine what for me is the film’s central scene, and the most brilliant dialogue exchange in the picture, where Marchand, who found “Victoria” attractive onstage and was shocked when “he” revealed he was supposedly an impersonator, meets Victor Grezinski backstage. It’s in the clip below, but the best exchange is this:
Victoria: “Your problem, Mr. Marchand, is that you’re preoccupied with stereotypes. I think it’s as simple as, you’re one kind of man, I’m another.”
Marchand: “What kind are you?”
Victoria: “The kind that doesn’t have to prove it. To myself, or anyone.”
This is my favorite scene from Victor/Victoria, and a proud showcase of the acting talents of James Garner and Julie Andrews when paired together. They previously were paired as romantic leads in The Americanization of Emily.
No one but an actor associated closely with a strong image of masculinity could pull off this scene, but Garner does it with aplomb. And he doesn’t seem threatened, or threatening; after all, it’s James Garner we’re talking about! Victor/Victoria came at the portion of his career just before he began to slip into affectionate-grandpa sort of roles: Murphy’s Romance (1985) garnered (no pun intended) his only Oscar nomination for a quiet romantic role, and his later cowboy turns would be more grandfatherly than heroic. For an actor who ostensibly spent his career “proving [he was] a man,” Garner’s role in Victor/Victoria stands out as a bold and unexpected direction into which acceptable masculinity could veer.
Victor/Victoria is a great film by any means, one of the few musicals I really enjoy. It sizzles from start to finish with inventiveness, fun, and the wonderful chemistry of its cast who seem to relish working together. Few films of its era were quite as perfect, or as quietly groundbreaking.
Thanks to Reelweegiemidget for hosting the blogathon!