Here’s my central takeaway from Blake Edwards’ 1982 musical comedy Victor/Victoria (playing at the New Beverly on Friday and Saturday, December 15th and 16th): Sex is supposed to be fun. Light. Enjoyable. And, for goodness sake, it’s o.k. to abandon all of your hangups. This is one of the first films I saw – at a tender young age – wherein I heard a character announce openly that they were horny. It was the first musical I saw wherein people had sex. And I recall that the sex in Victor/Victoria didn’t resemble the sex I had previously seen in action films and late-night cable-ready exploitation cheapies. Previously, movie sex had been heavy, deliberately arousing, aggressive, masculine, constructed for the male gaze. Victor/Victoria, in contrast, presented sex as something zesty, active, open, and enjoyed by everyone.
Victor/Victoria is hardly a pioneer in this regard; One can immediately conjure up 1972’s Cabaret for an even more vivid precedent, and some critics in the 1980s noted that Victor/Victoria owed much of its existence to the success of La Cage aux Folles a few years previous. But even compared to those sexual contemporaries, Victor/Victoria is infused with a unique lightness to its sexy material. It – casually – asks heady questions about gender, sexuality, misogyny, homophobia, and the damage that can be done by intellectual and sexual rigidity in these ideas, but it ultimately comes down on the side of taking it easy. Yes, these questions are important, but if – the film tonally argues – we just unwound ourselves a bit, and joyfully fell into bed with whomever we so pleased, then perhaps we could laugh off a great deal of the weight.
Victor/Victoria, based on an obscure 1933 German film called Viktor und Viktoria, is about a young impoverished stage performer named Victoria (Julie Andrews) who is taken in by an energetic gay man named Toddy (a sublime Robert Preston) who comes upon the idea that she could find great success in a drag club, provided she impersonate a drag queen. That is: A woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman. She is equal to the challenge, although we, as an audience have to take for granted that Julie Andrews could pass for a man; call it Twelfth Night Syndrome. Victoria attracts the eye of an ultra-masculine audience member named King Marchand (James Garner full-blown charming cad mode) who, over the course of the film, has to start asking himself some serious questions about his own sexuality. On the outs is King’s girlfriend Norma, played by Lesely Ann Warren, most certainly one of the film’s highlights.
All of these characters have libidos, and they’re no afraid to talk about it. There are frank discussions about what these people want, and the only one who ever looks uncomfortable is the straight guy. And he’ll eventually come around to be a lot more accepting. Norma, a horny ditz, has a wonderful exchange with Toddy, perhaps the first gay man she’s met. She doesn’t quite understand why a man would want to be with a man, and makes an innocent suggestion that the right woman could “reform” him. Toddy, without missing a beat, suggests that the right woman might also be able to reform her. They then mutually refuse to give up on men. It’s a funny scene that shoots down ignorance in a rather sweet fashion.
It’s one thing for a film to have a good sense of humor, but it is a greater triumph to write characters that have a good sense of humor. Edwards not only infuses Victor/Victoria with a light-as-a-feather tone, but allows the characters to be just as jokey, sarcastic, silly, and playful as any one of us might be. His characters, regardless of their sex or sexuality, are complete human beings, a quality denoted by their good humor. Being able to stay in high spirits, especially about your own joyous, silly proclivities, seems to be Edwards’ declared central feature – indeed, the clarion announcement – for humanness. To be complete, Edwards seems to say, one must be able to laugh at the situation.
Blake Edwards was very keen on stories of sex and sexuality, especially stories of how the thudding animal that is the straight male’s fragile libido needs to be challenged at every turn. He often toyed with gender lines, fluid sexuality, and general queerness throughout his work. This is a man who filmed two men “sword-fighting” with glow-in-the-dark condoms in Skin Deep. In his classic 10, he depicted how an older man can become obsessed with a faraway bikini babe he’s never net. Edwards perhaps most notably tackled the hetero ego in 1991’s Switch, a film about a boorish male philanderer who, after he’s murdered by three ex-girlfriends, is permitted by God (who possesses a male and a female voice) to return to Earth in the body of Ellen Barkin. What does a misogynist do in the body of a woman? Humility will certainly follow.
Edwards himself is not gay or bisexual, although he did have to address speculation about his sexuality when Victor/Victoria was released. That reporters asked him was a sign that they might have missed the point. Edwards was shaking off the conversation taboos with Victor/Victoria. He was the light language of comedy to lift up something previously considered complex and serious. He wanted to look at the sex conversation, wink, smile, and say “Can’t we all just have fun with it?” It was one of his greatest talents, and a persistent artistic ethos that colors the bulk of his comedic output.
More than anything, Edwards wants to look at his own libido and take the curse off of it. One may speculate that he had done some foolish things thanks to it (haven’t we all?), but he cannot afford to let it gain any weight. Victor/Victoria may not be his most important mission statement, but it is the one that is the most fun to watch.