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Writer/director Todd Stephens creates one of the most heartfelt cinematic tributes to the elder gay community in his exceptional film Swan Song. Based on the life of Stephens’ iconic friend Pat Pitsenbarger who helped the young director come to terms with his sexuality. Employing the immense talents of veteran actor Udo Kier to embody the unapologetically fabulous Mr Pat is a masterstroke of casting and shows that even after a career spanning decades, genres and some three-hundred films, Kier has not lost the ability to captivate and beguile an audience.
Pat, a former hairdresser spends his days in a nursing home after suffering a stroke. He’s still nimble and remarkably cheeky although his life has become bland and suffused with bittersweet memories of his heyday with his lover David (Eric Eisenbrey). Pat spends his time smoking “women’s’ cigarettes” and folding napkins to resemble hair foils. He also gently attends to another resident as he styles her hair and tries to give her the dignity his life is lacking.
Pat’s time at the nursing home is upended when a lawyer comes to inform him that a former client, Rita Parker Sloan, has passed away and has requested that Pat be her stylist for her funeral. At first Pat refuses saying let the bitch go into the ground with bad hair. There is bad blood between the former stylist and client and even the promise of $25,000 doesn’t at first sway Pat. However he makes the decision to go back to Sandusky, Ohio for one last job.
At this juncture Swan Song becomes a comedic road trip with Pat basically walking all the way to Sandusky. In many ways the film is at its strongest during Pat’s journey where he stops off to visit the grave of his lover David in one of the most tender and melancholy scenes that is likely to be witnessed. David died of AIDS and due to not having a will and the law of the time excluding homosexual lovers from inheriting each other’s estate, all that Pat has left of the man he loves is a headstone inscribed with both their names. Kier’s veracity in conveying Pat’s long held grief is almost overwhelming. So too when Pat visits the now razed home where he and David once lived. Nothing is left of his lover but his love. Such is the case for many who were lost in the AIDs pandemic – Stephens taps into a universality of experience for survivors.
Pat continues on his way to Sandusky, a place where he once reigned supreme as the preeminent stylist and drag performer of the era. Without more than a few dollars and a social security cheque to his name he is tasked with tracking down the essential hairdressing tools. Foremost on his list is a bottle of Vivante (a styling product) that has long since gone out of fashion. Like the cigarettes Pat smokes the bottle of Vivante is a metaphor for a lost era. Nowhere stocks it bar the one place he doesn’t want to go which is the salon of his former protégé Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge) who not only opened a competing salon to his across the street but also took his most important client, Rita.
The showdown between Dee Dee and Pat is filled with bitterness but also a certain comic aspect. Dee Dee is thriving but aware that she will never have the skill of her former mentor. Pat refuses to be anything but bold and relentlessly himself with Dee Dee and as they battle it out in front of her gay assistant there is a sense that Pat is beginning to fully re-emerge as himself.
A trip to a thrift store where he meets a former client cements Pat’s rehabilitation into fabulousness. A mint green pantsuit teamed with a cravat and wonderful hat, transforms the man into the legend and he seems once again ready to meet the world – but what world is he meeting? In the local gay bar he once frequented as a younger man he sees the world has changed irrevocably for his generation. A young bartender pours him drinks and half listens to his tales of the past but he’s too busy looking at his phone to really notice the pioneer in front of him. The bar is closing with one last drag night happening on that evening. A community is reaching its end, but the legendary Pat will not go out with a bang as he appears on stage once again as the inimitable Mr Pat, replete with a chandelier headpiece as he dances to contemporary music by gay icon Robyn. The scene is wonderful and provides Kier with moments of glory and joy. It reminds the viewer how important gay spaces are and how community is built around them. The subtle gentrification of the “scene” is presented as a true loss to the gay community both young and old.
Pat’s journey takes him to a series of beats where he searches for his old friend Eunice (Ira Hawkins). In a manner he finds him and the two watch a gay couple with children play in the park. Eunice points out that those men should be grateful for the generations who came before as without them they wouldn’t have the rights they now enjoy. In truth Eunice isn’t there, he is one of the waking dreams that Pat experiences on his journey, but the hallucination holds a truth that is incontrovertible, Pat and Eunice’s generation were trailblazers who lit the torch for the queer community to carry.
Eventually, and not without reservation, Pat finally makes it to Rita’s home where her out grandson is taking care of the arrangements. In an imagined showdown between Rita and Pat, Pat berates Rita for not coming to David’s funeral. Rita, a conservative Republican admits that she couldn’t be a part of Pat’s life because of the way David died. Stephens ruminates on the nature of forgiveness with this scene. Pat spits “I know I was your servant” but what he means to say is “I believed us to be friends.” The betrayal has cut Pat deep and Kier manages to carry the emotion of the scene with a stunning alacrity.
Swan Song is a bittersweet drama that highlights the importance of remembering the past and the fearlessness of the gay community as they fought battles. It is also a film about absolution, grace, fearlessness, and authenticity. Swan Song is beautiful and bold and asks the audience to remember what makes each one of us who we are and to hold on to that, no matter the cost.
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