At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

VICTOR/VICTORIA (Warner Archives)

By • Aug 9th, 2016 •

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BluRay review by Roy Frumkes

It begins with a panning shot across a wall, passing a picture of Marlene Dietrich, and anyone familiar with film history knows about the famed bi-sexual star who dressed in men’s clothes and served as a defiant role model to women in the 30s and beyond, achieving extraordinary success in Hollywood while doing so. This telling prop informs us that the film plans to take no prisoners in its treatment of sexual politics.

1:45 – James Garner and Julie Andrews, in bed, define the terms of their union: keep no secrets, hold no grudges, don’t plan past tomorrow, take things one day at a time. Although neither of them refers to this exchange on the commentary track, it is in fact the arrangement Edwards and Andrews made betwixt themselves when they married. There’s a lot in the film that’s personal, and that’s a definite part of its charm, and its enduring power.

Famed cinematographer Oswald Morris (MOBY DICK, LOLITA, REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, OLIVER!, THE DARK CRYSTAL) told me that the camera and art departments have to work in unison. In TAMING OF THE SHREW, for instance, the art department gave him a swatch of the gown Elizabeth Taylor was going to wear in the big wedding scene, and Morris had a gel made for the lights that matched the color of the swatch, which he said made the gown appear to glow. There is that unison of purpose here as well. Cinematography (Dick Bush) and Art Direction (Rodger Maus, Tim Hutchinson, William Craig Smith, Patricia Norris) are passionate bedfellows. It’s truly wondrous to behold.

Within that universe – created entirely in studio, by the way – Julie Andrews is a lovely centerpiece, and her make-up artist did a remarkable job re-creating her as an extension of the mise-en-scene. James Garner doesn’t come into the mix for 40 minutes, a clever strategy, at which late point he feels very much the outsider. The first act and parts of the second and third are held together performance-wise by Robert Preston as a cabaret performer and unapologetic queen. His delivery is so three-dimensional and dignified, his casual banter about homosexuality so comfortable, it makes you feel for a moment that the whole LGBT issue was resolved several decades ago.

Originally it was to have been Peter Sellers essaying Preston’s part, but he croaked, and thank god they didn’t go for Jack Lemmon, who was a fine actor, but would not have humanized the character as profoundly as Preston did. His is the best performance in the film, followed by Julie’s nuanced anchor role, followed by Lesley Ann Warren’s over-the-top scene-stealer, a character she created entirely herself. Lovely as the film is, it is also quite long and needs her caricatured high-decibel thesping for periodic energy boosts (she also gets the best line in the film. It’s in act three and you’ll know it when you hear it.)

Only the music disappoints, and I’m a big Henry Mancini fan. I got the HATARI BluRay just for his wide range of musical moods. But there are no outstanders here; no Peter Gunn theme in the general score, no ‘Moon River’ that you leave the theater singing (which he provided for Edwards’ BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S). In fact the underscore is more effective than the musical numbers are, and at times it hurts. Preston’s “Gay Paree” song lays an egg – the melody is too familiar, and the words are belabored and less than clever. Which is too bad because he had us in the palm of his hand, and this slows him down a bit. James Garner, on first seeing Andrews perform at a nightclub, is supposed to be knocked out by her performance as well as by her looks, but he’s forced to communicate this without helpful motivation from the song (but kudos to the costume department – Julie’s headdress is exquisite.) The song is good but unremarkable, which is the best that can be said of most of the numbers, though a brief dance routine with the participants wearing second faces on the backs of their heads is a laudable metaphor regarding the closet culture of the time. And a brief pas de deux with Andrews and Preston cavorting across the stage is delightful just because it’s them. Also, the film closes on a repeat number from earlier, this time performed comically by Preston (and in one long take, according to the commentary). It’s an endearing slapstick closer, with Preston clearly out of breath. A fascinating demonstration of what a good director can achieve/get away with in a multiple-camera single-take.

“Crazy World,” a solo performed late in the film (1:46) is a good song, with the camera circling Andrews in tight close-up. It was written by Mancini specifically for her four-octave soprano range, and she expresses her pride about it during the commentary. Apparently lyricist Bricusse was asked by Andrews and Edwards to give the song another pass, and in doing so it got better. Pity he didn’t try again on the others.

It should be mentioned that Andrews personally chose the first little song – hardly a full-fledged number – “Cherry Ripe” – because it was a familiar folk standard she took to when she was growing up. (Horror aficionados will remember it from NIGHT OF THE DEMON being played on a turn-table during the séance sequence.)

And just so you’re aware – VICTOR VICTORIA went up for several academy awards, and the only one it copped was for Mancini’s score, so what the hell do I know?

Considering the film’s liberal atmosphere in which Julie Andrews plays a woman posing as a man pretending to be a woman as part of a high class gay nightclub act, it might at first blush seem anachronistic that Garner’s character, a wealthy gangster, is so repulsed by her supposed sexual identity, and moreover that his rival gang members see his fraternizing with a transvestite to be grounds to take over his business and possibly rub him out. But it was only a few years ago that almost an entire season of THE SOPRANOS concerned a mob guy who is outed and therefore has to be killed. That’s still apparently a no-no in the mafia’s macho code-book.

Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews entertain us with a conversational commentary track, recorded in 2002 for the DVD release. Edwards sounds very much like George Romero, to the point where I couldn’t shake the similarity. He keeps talking about having made a ‘statement’ with the film, seemingly about to step proudly out of the closet, while she keeps gently pushing him back in. I checked around, and it seems to be popular knowledge now that they had a ‘lavender’ marriage. This provides just one more personal layer that adds depth to the experience of watching the film. Another is Warner Archives’ beautiful and flawless mastering.

This valid, enjoyable treatment of homosexuality was written in 1933 by Reinhold Schunzel, the same person who penned the original SOME LIKE IT HOT. Both originally ended on a similar note, though Edwards’ screenplay for VICTOR VICTORIA altered the narrative so that Garner’s character is aware that Victoria is a woman by the time he says “I don’t care if you are a man.” Everyone remembers Joe E. Brown’s final line in SLIH, which still brings the house down in my History of Comedy classes at The School of Visual Arts. Wilder didn’t make a similar change in his film.

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