“Victor / Victoria”: 25 Gay Years Later

In the already somewhat ridiculous world of musical comedies (love them though we may, they are undeniably curious creatures), Blake Edwards’ 1982 romantic musical farce Victor/Victoria is beyond fascinating — and not simply for the reasons that one might expect. Sure, the central story of a down-and-out singer who, with the help of a gay Pygmalion, achieves stardom as a female impersonator in 1930s Paris is bizarre enough as it is. But that’s only the beginning of what makes Victor/Victoria such a remarkable, history-making film.

In the grand scheme of American cinema, the film has survived as one of the most unabashedly gay-positive movies ever made by a major studio (MGM, in this case). Exactly 25 years later, no other films match its balance of mainstream marketability and unflaggingly pro-gay positioning. When something even remotely as sympathetic as Victor/Victoria makes its way onto big screens (Brokeback Mountain, for example), it’s fraught with controversy, something that Victor managed to avoid. All the more reason to revisit the film — and the circumstances from which it so fabulously emerged — on the anniversary of its release.

After making a string of sequels in his smash Pink Panther franchise, director Blake Edwards took a few years to collaborate with his wife Julie Andrews. The films they made together were 10 (starring Dudley Moore), S.O.B. (in which Andrews famously bared her breasts) and finally — and most famously — Victor/Victoria.

Based on a 1933 German film, Victor/Victoria details the rise and fall of Europe’s most celebrated drag performer, who happens to be a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Count Victor Grezhinski is actually struggling singer Victoria Grant who, under the guidance of cabaret performer and promoter Carroll "Toddy" Todd (Robert Preston), trades in her womanhood for a shot at stardom. But when Victoria falls for nightclub owner King Marchand (James Garner), who already has his hands full with his ditzy girlfriend Norma (Lesley Ann Warren) and bodyguard (Alex Karras), she must decide whether to keep up the act or follow her heart.

It’s a complicated plot, for sure. But while the film’s Chinese-box concept and opulent execution are dazzling, its most impressive attribute is its overwhelmingly positive attitudes about homosexuality.

The film’s unapologetic opening shots are of Toddy and another man in bed, establishing immediately that the film is not going to pussyfoot around its gay content. It seems that Toddy is unlucky in love and that the younger fellow is just a gold-digging cad, and from the beginning moments it’s clear that this plucky yet somewhat sad, older gay man will be our guide through the rest of the film.

Actor Robert Preston, although a song-and-dance man, is a broad-shouldered, baritone-voiced one; he’s an odd choice to play such a flamboyant role, and that’s partly why it works so well. Toddy is one of the most out loud, out-and-proud characters ever seen in a major studio film, and he manages to be so without falling prey to many of the stereotypes about gay men that litter the cinema. It’s no small feat, especially considering that the film was made in an era when gay visibility in movies was just beginning to find its footing.

Toddy’s sexuality is discussed openly and frankly when he meets Julie Andrews’ Victoria (after a hilarious restaurant scene involving an uncooperative cockroach). When she asks him how long he’s known that he is gay, he counters, "How long have you known you were a soprano?" The two bond instantly and soon enough hatch the plot to reinvent Victoria as Victor.

Since the story takes place in the bustling world of Paris night life (which feels a bit more like 1930s Berlin, likely due to the source material), there are plenty of gay characters milling about, from drag queens to butch lesbians to chorus boys to bitchy photographers. While some of them are a bit theatrical, this is about the cabaret, after all. Throughout the film, every possible opportunity is taken to present contrasting images of gay people and gay life.

Most notable is the fact that after mistakenly believing that his boss, King Marchand, is gay (due to his burgeoning affair with Victoria, whom everyone else still thinks is a man), bodyguard "Squash" Bernstein (played by former pro football player Karras) comes out of the closet and soon becomes involved with Toddy. When King asks him about his sexuality, which surprises him, Bernstein notes that his tough-guy image was a way to stop people from asking questions, and then points out that the current French boxing champ is also gay.

Even King himself goes through a journey of sexual identity of sorts. Since outwardly it appears as though he is dating a man (only he and Toddy know the truth about Victor), he goes through a masculine crisis wherein he is forced to re-evaluate his views on what makes a man a man. After some missteps, which include getting the tar beat out of him at a bar, King comes to realize that love is more important than what others might think about you. Victoria eventually meets King halfway, but his journey of understanding is impressively followed through to completion.

This makes for quite a revolutionary message and one that was enormously well-received when the film was released in 1982. The movie was nominated for several Oscars (including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress) and walked away with the awards for Best Song and Score — and won the French Cesar for Best Foreign Film. (Considering that it was an American film about Paris, this is pretty amazing.) The film likewise scored a number of Golden Globe nominations and a win for Andrews.

Critical reception to the film was quite positive. In his review upon the film’s release, Roger Ebert focused on the film’s good nature, noting:

"The three most difficult roles belong to Preston, Garner, and Karras, who must walk a tightrope of uncertain sexual identity without even appearing to condescend to their material. They never do. Because they all seem to be people first and genders second, they see the humor in their bewildering situation as quickly as anyone, and their cheerful ability to rise to a series of implausible occasions makes Victor/Victoria not only a funny movie, but, unexpectedly, a warm and friendly one."

It’s quite a forward-thinking assessment of what some people might consider a throwaway musical comedy. Other reviews hailed the film as Edwards’ best work: Cosmopolitan called it "a 10"; The New Republic called it "the best American film farce since Some Like it Hot"; New York Times critic Vincent Canby called it Edwards’ "cockeyed, crowning achievement." Much was made of the fact that the actors — Preston , in particular — managed to embody their characters with vitality without condescending to them or tipping into camp.

AfterElton.com had the great pleasure of speaking with the lovely and talented Lesley Ann Warren about the film, which had an enormous impact on her career and cemented her as a favorite for many gay audience members. (Be sure to check out our companion piece for a full interview with Ms. Warren on her colorful career.)

When asked whether the cast was aware during filming of just how revolutionary the film was in terms of gay visibility, she responded, "I don’t think so — certainly not to my knowledge. You know, when you’re in the middle of creating something, you’re not that outside of it. In a way, it’s a very introspective process. I had no idea, for instance, that that role would have such an impact for me in the business — no idea. And I’m sure that’s how we all felt about the movie and its sociological or political exploration into gender identification and all that."

When asked how she felt the pro-gay and pro-tolerance messages of the film got there in the first place, she’s confident that the credit all goes to director Blake Edwards. "Blake at that time had complete artistic control," Warren said. "He really answered to no one. I certainly wasn’t privy to the creative conversations that he would have at the studio level, but I’m certain that his imprint and his decision-making was paramount."

The film was a huge boon for Warren’s career, and cemented her in the minds of many gay fans as a favorite. But when she first saw her gaga performance as histrionic chorus girl Norma, Warren thought her career was doomed. "I cried for about four hours when I saw it the first time," she recalled.

"I thought, ’This is the end of my career — this is the absolute end of my career.’ I thought it was just, you know, so big and so broad — and I was so wrong. And it wasn’t until I started seeing it at these huge screenings when people would be falling over themselves with laughter at my character and I thought, ’OK — I [am] completely wrong here.’ But then I’m generally wrong about my perceptions about myself, I must say!"

The role earned Warren Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and reinvigorated her career, which had been launched when she played the lead role in the beloved made-for-television movie Cinderella. But it also was a role that made gay audiences sit up and take notice of the actress, and it has likely impacted the rest of her career in that sense as well. In recent years, Warren has been invited to make appearances on Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives and other gay-produced projects.

When asked why she feels that gay audiences have responded to her as an actor, she replied: "Certainly the performance in Victor/Victoria because it is so wildly feminine — crazily so, this sort of larger-than-life persona in the area of female power. That’s definitely one aspect. But I think, because I’ve heard from so many gay men about Cinderella, that it’s also about this deep vulnerability, this brokenness, this kind of shattered quality that I carried for so long — I think it’s relatable on a very deep level. And I think that’s part of it, too."

Victor/Victoria made a huge impact on the careers of its cast and crew, as well as the audience who flocked to it, much of which was likely made up of gay viewers deeply affected by the film’s messages of understanding and hope. Warren believes the film’s message was so successfully conveyed because it was seamlessly integrated into the brilliant comedy that drove the film.

"The humor could also be simply enjoyed — if you chose to not think about what you were actually seeing, you could just enjoy the cockroach in the restaurant, you know?" she pointed out. "Just the brilliant slapstick stuff that was done so phenomenally. There’s so much to enjoy on so many levels — it was a discerning audience member that could choose to take in what it was really dealing with, head-on."

The year 1982 was actually a big one for Hollywood films about homosexuals and society’s perceptions about "gay lifestyles," but while Making Love (released in the same month), Personal Best (which explored lesbian love in the world of athletics) and Partners (a rather dense comedy featuring a gay sidekick) all raised the subject, only Victor/Victoria was able to wow critics and audiences alike and achieve box-office success. The film grossed $28 million theatrically (no small shakes for a musical in 1982) and has since made over $11 million on video. It recently was given a widescreen DVD transfer that allows new audiences to enjoy the film as it was originally intended.

Movie musicals have enjoyed a bit of a resurgence of late, but Victor/Victoria stands as one of the highlights of the genre, both in terms of gay representation and sheer brilliance in execution. Whether you saw the film in theaters back in 1982 or you’ve never heard of it before reading this, you owe it to yourself to spend some time with Victor, Toddy, Norma, Bernstein and King Marchand. Learning a lesson or two about understanding and the unpredictability of love is seldom so much jazzy fun.

In the already somewhat ridiculous world of musical comedies (love them though we may, they are undeniably curious creatures), Blake Edwards’ 1982 romantic musical farce Victor/Victoria is beyond fascinating — and not simply for the reasons that one might expect. Sure, the central story of a down-and-out singer who, with the help of a gay Pygmalion, achieves stardom as a female impersonator in 1930s Paris is bizarre enough as it is. But that’s only the beginning of what makes Victor/Victoria such a remarkable, history-making film.

In the grand scheme of American cinema, the film has survived as one of the most unabashedly gay-positive movies ever made by a major studio (MGM, in this case). Exactly 25 years later, no other films match its balance of mainstream marketability and unflaggingly pro-gay positioning. When something even remotely as sympathetic as Victor/Victoria makes its way onto big screens (Brokeback Mountain, for example), it’s fraught with controversy, something that Victor managed to avoid. All the more reason to revisit the film — and the circumstances from which it so fabulously emerged — on the anniversary of its release.

After making a string of sequels in his smash Pink Panther franchise, director Blake Edwards took a few years to collaborate with his wife Julie Andrews. The films they made together were 10 (starring Dudley Moore), S.O.B. (in which Andrews famously bared her breasts) and finally — and most famously — Victor/Victoria.

Based on a 1933 German film, Victor/Victoria details the rise and fall of Europe’s most celebrated drag performer, who happens to be a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Count Victor Grezhinski is actually struggling singer Victoria Grant who, under the guidance of cabaret performer and promoter Carroll "Toddy" Todd (Robert Preston), trades in her womanhood for a shot at stardom. But when Victoria falls for nightclub owner King Marchand (James Garner), who already has his hands full with his ditzy girlfriend Norma (Lesley Ann Warren) and bodyguard (Alex Karras), she must decide whether to keep up the act or follow her heart.

It’s a complicated plot, for sure. But while the film’s Chinese-box concept and opulent execution are dazzling, its most impressive attribute is its overwhelmingly positive attitudes about homosexuality.

The film’s unapologetic opening shots are of Toddy and another man in bed, establishing immediately that the film is not going to pussyfoot around its gay content. It seems that Toddy is unlucky in love and that the younger fellow is just a gold-digging cad, and from the beginning moments it’s clear that this plucky yet somewhat sad, older gay man will be our guide through the rest of the film.

Actor Robert Preston, although a song-and-dance man, is a broad-shouldered, baritone-voiced one; he’s an odd choice to play such a flamboyant role, and that’s partly why it works so well. Toddy is one of the most out loud, out-and-proud characters ever seen in a major studio film, and he manages to be so without falling prey to many of the stereotypes about gay men that litter the cinema. It’s no small feat, especially considering that the film was made in an era when gay visibility in movies was just beginning to find its footing.

Toddy’s sexuality is discussed openly and frankly when he meets Julie Andrews’ Victoria (after a hilarious restaurant scene involving an uncooperative cockroach). When she asks him how long he’s known that he is gay, he counters, "How long have you known you were a soprano?" The two bond instantly and soon enough hatch the plot to reinvent Victoria as Victor.

Since the story takes place in the bustling world of Paris night life (which feels a bit more like 1930s Berlin, likely due to the source material), there are plenty of gay characters milling about, from drag queens to butch lesbians to chorus boys to bitchy photographers. While some of them are a bit theatrical, this is about the cabaret, after all. Throughout the film, every possible opportunity is taken to present contrasting images of gay people and gay life.

Most notable is the fact that after mistakenly believing that his boss, King Marchand, is gay (due to his burgeoning affair with Victoria, whom everyone else still thinks is a man), bodyguard "Squash" Bernstein (played by former pro football player Karras) comes out of the closet and soon becomes involved with Toddy. When King asks him about his sexuality, which surprises him, Bernstein notes that his tough-guy image was a way to stop people from asking questions, and then points out that the current French boxing champ is also gay.

Even King himself goes through a journey of sexual identity of sorts. Since outwardly it appears as though he is dating a man (only he and Toddy know the truth about Victor), he goes through a masculine crisis wherein he is forced to re-evaluate his views on what makes a man a man. After some missteps, which include getting the tar beat out of him at a bar, King comes to realize that love is more important than what others might think about you. Victoria eventually meets King halfway, but his journey of understanding is impressively followed through to completion.

This makes for quite a revolutionary message and one that was enormously well-received when the film was released in 1982. The movie was nominated for several Oscars (including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress) and walked away with the awards for Best Song and Score — and won the French Cesar for Best Foreign Film. (Considering that it was an American film about Paris, this is pretty amazing.) The film likewise scored a number of Golden Globe nominations and a win for Andrews.

Critical reception to the film was quite positive. In his review upon the film’s release, Roger Ebert focused on the film’s good nature, noting:

"The three most difficult roles belong to Preston, Garner, and Karras, who must walk a tightrope of uncertain sexual identity without even appearing to condescend to their material. They never do. Because they all seem to be people first and genders second, they see the humor in their bewildering situation as quickly as anyone, and their cheerful ability to rise to a series of implausible occasions makes Victor/Victoria not only a funny movie, but, unexpectedly, a warm and friendly one."

It’s quite a forward-thinking assessment of what some people might consider a throwaway musical comedy. Other reviews hailed the film as Edwards’ best work: Cosmopolitan called it "a 10"; The New Republic called it "the best American film farce since Some Like it Hot"; New York Times critic Vincent Canby called it Edwards’ "cockeyed, crowning achievement." Much was made of the fact that the actors — Preston , in particular — managed to embody their characters with vitality without condescending to them or tipping into camp.

AfterElton.com had the great pleasure of speaking with the lovely and talented Lesley Ann Warren about the film, which had an enormous impact on her career and cemented her as a favorite for many gay audience members. (Be sure to check out our companion piece for a full interview with Ms. Warren on her colorful career.)

When asked whether the cast was aware during filming of just how revolutionary the film was in terms of gay visibility, she responded, "I don’t think so — certainly not to my knowledge. You know, when you’re in the middle of creating something, you’re not that outside of it. In a way, it’s a very introspective process. I had no idea, for instance, that that role would have such an impact for me in the business — no idea. And I’m sure that’s how we all felt about the movie and its sociological or political exploration into gender identification and all that."

When asked how she felt the pro-gay and pro-tolerance messages of the film got there in the first place, she’s confident that the credit all goes to director Blake Edwards. "Blake at that time had complete artistic control," Warren said. "He really answered to no one. I certainly wasn’t privy to the creative conversations that he would have at the studio level, but I’m certain that his imprint and his decision-making was paramount."

The film was a huge boon for Warren’s career, and cemented her in the minds of many gay fans as a favorite. But when she first saw her gaga performance as histrionic chorus girl Norma, Warren thought her career was doomed. "I cried for about four hours when I saw it the first time," she recalled.

"I thought, ’This is the end of my career — this is the absolute end of my career.’ I thought it was just, you know, so big and so broad — and I was so wrong. And it wasn’t until I started seeing it at these huge screenings when people would be falling over themselves with laughter at my character and I thought, ’OK — I [am] completely wrong here.’ But then I’m generally wrong about my perceptions about myself, I must say!"

The role earned Warren Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and reinvigorated her career, which had been launched when she played the lead role in the beloved made-for-television movie Cinderella. But it also was a role that made gay audiences sit up and take notice of the actress, and it has likely impacted the rest of her career in that sense as well. In recent years, Warren has been invited to make appearances on Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives and other gay-produced projects.

When asked why she feels that gay audiences have responded to her as an actor, she replied: "Certainly the performance in Victor/Victoria because it is so wildly feminine — crazily so, this sort of larger-than-life persona in the area of female power. That’s definitely one aspect. But I think, because I’ve heard from so many gay men about Cinderella, that it’s also about this deep vulnerability, this brokenness, this kind of shattered quality that I carried for so long — I think it’s relatable on a very deep level. And I think that’s part of it, too."

Victor/Victoria made a huge impact on the careers of its cast and crew, as well as the audience who flocked to it, much of which was likely made up of gay viewers deeply affected by the film’s messages of understanding and hope. Warren believes the film’s message was so successfully conveyed because it was seamlessly integrated into the brilliant comedy that drove the film.

"The humor could also be simply enjoyed — if you chose to not think about what you were actually seeing, you could just enjoy the cockroach in the restaurant, you know?" she pointed out. "Just the brilliant slapstick stuff that was done so phenomenally. There’s so much to enjoy on so many levels — it was a discerning audience member that could choose to take in what it was really dealing with, head-on."

The year 1982 was actually a big one for Hollywood films about homosexuals and society’s perceptions about "gay lifestyles," but while Making Love (released in the same month), Personal Best (which explored lesbian love in the world of athletics) and Partners (a rather dense comedy featuring a gay sidekick) all raised the subject, only Victor/Victoria was able to wow critics and audiences alike and achieve box-office success. The film grossed $28 million theatrically (no small shakes for a musical in 1982) and has since made over $11 million on video. It recently was given a widescreen DVD transfer that allows new audiences to enjoy the film as it was originally intended.

Movie musicals have enjoyed a bit of a resurgence of late, but Victor/Victoria stands as one of the highlights of the genre, both in terms of gay representation and sheer brilliance in execution. Whether you saw the film in theaters back in 1982 or you’ve never heard of it before reading this, you owe it to yourself to spend some time with Victor, Toddy, Norma, Bernstein and King Marchand. Learning a lesson or two about understanding and the unpredictability of love is seldom so much jazzy fun.