Writer-director Todd Stephens returns to his hometown, and the setting of his 1998 gay coming of age movie Edge of Seventeen—Sandusky, Ohio—for his latest feature Swan Song, which received its world premiere at SXSW Online today.
Screen legend Udo Kier stars as Pat Pitsenbarger, a retired gay hairdresser living a monotonous existence in a hospital-like nursing home outside of town, surviving on social security cheques, and spending his days sitting in his room alone folding napkins. Following a stroke, he’s been advised to keep his head elevated and not to smoke, neither of which he adheres to, much to the disapproval of his spirited care worker Shaundell (a hilarious Roshon Thomas), who clocks him immediately slouching after she’s rearranged his cushion; “I see you bitch”, she playfully admonishes him.
Essentially waiting to die, Pat’s daily life is interrupted when he receives an unexpected visit from a lawyer (Tom Bloom) with the news that a wealthy former hairdressing client, and friend of over three decades, Rita Parker-Sloane (Dynasty star Linda Evans) has passed away, with one of her final requests being that Pat do her hair and makeup before the funeral home viewing in Sandusky, with a generous five figure fee to tempt him. Initially reluctant, given how his relationship with Rita ended, a woman he’ll later refer to as “a demanding Republican monster” with “good taste in shoes”, he dismisses the lawyer saying, “Bury her with bad hair!” The visit stirs up the past though, and Pat starts to reflect on his former life and his partner David, whom we later learn died of complications due to AIDS back in the 90s.
In one of the film’s most touching, elegantly simple moments we see Pat style a fellow resident’s hair, showing her real tenderness, and revealing that his hands haven’t lost any of their magic.
As Pat decides to accept the job, he makes his way into town on foot, a journey across rural Ohio that’s beautifully photographed by cinematographer Jackson Warner Lewis. It’s a poignant trip that put me in mind stylistically Lynch’s Straight Story and thematically of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, with the film largely set over one day as Pat encounters ghosts from his past.
Whenever he’s outside a public mens restroom Pat knocks the door and calls out for his friend Eunice (Ira Hawkins) in case he’s cottaging in there, and as he revisits locations in town that were once significant to him, he heads to the old gay bar, the Fruit and Nut, where he used to perform as Mister Pat. The twinky, cellphone-absorbed, barman (Thom Hilton), who knows nothing of the place’s past, informs Pat of its imminent closure, with the new owners having decided to turn it into a straight gastro pub. Short on cash, Pat goes on a light-fingered shopping trip to stock up on old school beauty supplies to style Rita in her final repose.
Meanwhile, thanks to Kitty Boots and Shawna-Nova Foley’s costume design, Pat looks pretty dapper himself once he ditches his grey tracksuit with matching fanny pack, and adorable pink straw hat, for a traffic-stopping green flared paint-suit thanks to a fabulous secondhand store makeover courtesy of Sue (a wonderful Stephanie McVay, who also appeared in Stephens’ Edge of Seventeen and Gypsy 83), who affectionately describes Pat as having been “the Liberace of Sandusky”, to which he replies “was I that butch?!”
Aided by some great casting choices by Eve Battaglia and Lina Todd, Stephens is evidently a skilled director of actors, with fine performances across the board in even the most minor roles. There’s particularly impressive work by Jennifer Coolidge showing her versatility as Pat’s former apprentice turned business rival, small-town glamour-puss Dee Dee Dale, who is gorgeously understated, bringing nuance and a sense of rich history to her relationship with Pat, and it’s great to see Kier and Coolidge go toe to toe in a scene together, with Dee Dee’s fabulously camp receptionist Tristan (Jonah Blechman) dialing up the funny with his facial expressions. There’s a delicate, affecting turn from Michael Urie as Rita’s gay grandson Dustin, while Justin Lonesome makes a lasting impression as Fruit and Nut’s resident drag queen Miss Velma.
It’s all too rare that we get to see older queer central characters and Udo Kier is a revelation as Pat, fully-embodying the role, imbuing him with a mischievous charm and a poignant soulfulness, while giving a deliciously dry edge to the delivery of the script’s humour. A standout performance in a distinguished career spanning over five decades.
Just as the film contrasts the old gay world with the new, so does the soundtrack featuring hits by Robyn, RuPaul, and Amerie, and the queer standards of yesteryear from Garland, Bassey, and Springfield; complemented by an evocative score by composer Chris Stephens.
Stephens’ screenplay is witty and well-observed, and feels personal and authentic, touching on themes of aging as a queer person, looking back on one’s life as the end draws near, the impact we can have on people without knowing it, just by living our lives, and how queer life has changed over the past few decades for better and worse; with bars and clubs closing, the rise of hookup app culture, and the advent of same sex marriages and gay couples having children becoming commonplace. “I wouldn’t even know how to be gay anymore” Pat muses. There’s still some hints of homophobia around the town today, but mild compared with the fear stoked by mainstream’s society’s reaction to AIDS, the echoes of which reverberate throughout the film.
Aching with nostalgia, paired with a fierce carpe diem spirit, Swan Song is a funny, heartwarming, and bittersweet comedy and an instant queer classic.
By James Kleinmann
Swan Song received its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021 and will be released theatrically by Magnolia Pictures.