As Robert Preston cuts her hair, Julie Andrews tries to clarify the charade that they are going to perpetuate: “A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman?” Preston gleefully responds, “It’s so preposterous, no one would ever believe it!” This is the simplified foundation of Blake Edwards’s Victor/Victoria (1982), a comedy about a starving soprano in 1930s Paris who finds success portraying a gay man who performs as a female impersonator. The film sparks important dialogues in regards to queerness, sexuality, and agency, discussions that are strengthened by the centrality of the film’s friendship between Preston’s Carroll “Toddy” Todd and Andrews’s Victoria Grant.
Victoria is a singer who can’t find a job anywhere. Her latest failed audition gets the attention of Toddy, a gay man who soon gets fired from his job as a nightclub entertainer. After a night of sipping brandy and bonding over their bad luck in life and love, the twosome fall for each other — in the platonic sense, of course. While lamenting their lack of income, Toddy hits upon the idea of creating Count Victor Grazinski, a homosexual Polish count who is also “Europe’s greatest female impersonator.” Although the transformation of Victoria into Victor initially comes by accident, Victoria’s decision to play Victor gives her the escape from poverty that she needs and allows her to be a star.
Complications ensue, though, when Chicago nightclub owner King Marchand (a superb James Garner) sees her act. He can’t believe that “Victor” is a man, especially a man that he finds attractive. Smug and arrogant, King is far from the man Victoria deserves. As herself and as her alter ego, she challenges his homophobic ideals at every turn. King’s whole world is shifted when they meet. His gangster lifestyle, complete with a ditzy girlfriend (Lesley Ann Warren) and gun-toting bodyguard (Alex Karras), no longer seems to make sense. “Victor” presents a different kind of masculinity, one that isn’t built on the stereotypical macho nonsense that King thinks is vital to its definition. However, although he is forced to confront his narrow-minded values, it is difficult to say whether King is truly changed by film’s end. His growth as a character is made somewhat ambiguous, thanks in part to a final scene that leaves you unsure of where Victoria, King, and Toddy are headed.
While the evolution of King is wobbly at best, the most stable feature of Victor/Victoria is the love and support that Toddy and Victoria have for one another. Within the first 24 hours of knowing each other, Toddy has paid off her lecherous landlord and she has nursed his head cold (after all, there is “nothing more inconvenient than an old queen with a head cold,” he says). Toddy is the one who pushes Victoria and helps her navigate show business. Whereas King questions her career and finds homosexuality and gender fluidity uncomfortably confusing, Toddy and Victoria handle the issues of the film with humor and acceptance.
It helps that they are played by such terrific talents as Preston and Andrews. If you only know Andrews as her family-friendly characters, like Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapp, this film may come as a shock to you. But in the best way possible. Similar to Doris Day, Andrews has been given a trite, squeaky-clean persona that doesn’t fully represent her. As Victoria, she is remarkably sensual and boldly funny. She executes the part perfectly, especially during such dazzling musical numbers as “Le Jazz Hot” and “The Shady Dame from Seville.”
Incredibly, despite my deep love for Andrews, the person who I think walks away with Victor/Victoria is Robert Preston. In the wrong hands, it would be easy for Toddy to become your stock gay best friend, an archetype whose wicked sense of humor and flamboyant charm are his only defining features. Preston, however, fleshes him out, revealing his quiet vulnerability, weary bitterness, and deliciously seductive presence. With a mischievous sparkle in his eyes and endlessly witty dialogue on his lips, Toddy is one of my favorite cinematic characters, full-stop. (He also became the only role that earned Preston an Oscar nomination.) This film was my introduction to the actor and I’ve been in love with him ever since. For fans of The Music Man, he will always be the ultimate Harold Hill, but to me, he’ll forever be Toddy.
Although the development of a romance between King and Victoria takes precedence, it’s the bond between Victoria and Toddy that permeates Victor/Victoria. Their relationship is the healthiest, most loving one in the entire film. There are no obstacles to overcome, no arguments to be had, no feelings to mature — they adore one another the instant they meet and nothing could separate them. Sure, at times their tastes in men are questionable, but when it comes to friends, Victoria and Toddy couldn’t have made a better choice.
Victor/Victoria will conclude this semester’s City Lights Film Series on April 20 at the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive Screening Room. This screening is free, but reservations are required and can be made here.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.