It’s 1934 in Paris, and a young woman named Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is quite literally the starving artist. She is seen auditioning for a man named Labisse, the owner of the nightclub Chez Lui. During her audition she is noticed by the club’s residential performer, Carroll Todd (Robert Preston), or Toddy by most every one who knows him. Victoria fails the audition because she’s just too good, and this is a time when decadence and debauchery are what is considered “in.” Later that same day, in an act of utter desperation brought about by starvation, Victoria goes in to a local restaurant with a cockroach in her purse. Her plan is to gorge herself, and then use the cockroach as a means to blackmail the restaurant into not having to pay her bill. Toddy spots her and she invites him to join in her meal, since he just got fired from Chez Lui himself after having started a brawl in the presence of his bed-flipping ex-lover. Things don’t go as planned and a melee breaks out. Victoria and Toddy seek refuge at his apartment. Victoria ends up spending the night there, but the next morning Richard, the ex-lover of Toddy, shows up to claim his things. Victoria, dressed in Richard’s clothes, decks him really well and literally kicks him out of the apartment, leading Toddy to a revelation. Grabbing a pair of scissors he trims Victoria’s hair and says that she will now be masquerading as Count Victor Grazinsky, Poland’s greatest female impersonator and Toddy’s new lover. “Victor” is then presented to Andre Cassell (John Rhys-Davies), the greatest agent in Paris, and she is promptly booked in his best club.
Victoria is a smash hit following her debut performance. Unfortunately she has attracted the attention of a Chicago nightclub owner named King Marchand (James Garner). He is smitten with her and refuses to believe in this charade. Some days later, after another brawl at Chez Lui, this time caused by “Victor,” the pair escapes where Victoria admits the truth. King eventually decides they should try living together, but the strain of Victoria’s deception eventually breaks up the relationship. Victoria decides to quit being Victor, and in a last-minute save, Toddy masquerades as Victoria in one of the most outrageously funny performances ever.
Taken from a 1933 German film Viktor und Viktoria, Blake Edwards (Andrews’ husband) and Hans Hoemburg adapted the script as a musical comedy to serve as a vehicle for Andrews. Edwards then turned to a long time musical collaborator, that being Henry Mancini, and crafted some brilliant songs that capitalized on Andrews’ wonderful coloratura soprano voice (although Victoria claims to not be a mezzo-soprano in this film, some of the songs are definitely in the mezzo singing range). When released in 1982 it caused something of a scandal right from the opening scene where the audience sees two men in bed. Keith fondly remembers seeing this movie in the theater and when it shows Richard getting out of Toddy’s bed he frequently comments about how some people literally walked out of the theater without giving the rest of the movie a chance. That is a pity because the gender bending here is played completely for laughs, but never at the expense of the LGBTQ community. It is always very respectful and honest, even in the depiction of Garner’s Marchand, who is something of a chauvinistic pig. Even his derogatory use of the word “fag,” while clearly offensive today (I cringe every time he uses it), was sadly acceptable in that time, especially for a 1930’s nightclub owner who does business with “the mob.”
However, it is through Preston’s performance as Toddy that we really see the proper respect that is given to the gay community. As for Andrews, while her masquerading as Victor may not come off as believable, ultimately it does not matter for the joy here is in seeing Andrews at least attempt at trying to pass herself off as a man. However, the real magic is when she finally gets her chance to sing. Her first true performance (not counting her Chez Lui audition) at her debut is “Le Jazz Hot,” which in my opinion is probably the finest song that Mancini ever composed. It hearkens to that sexy New Orleans jazz music and really allows Andrews to show what she is vocally capable of. In the end it is probably the best toe-tapper you’ll ever hear. Later, she gets a chance at doing something more Spanish-styled with “The Shady Dame from Seville.” It’s a beautifully lyrical song that sees a reprise here and there, and while Andrews is magnificent in it, the real joy with that tune comes at the end when Robert Preston has to perform it in drag.
As for Preston, he is one of two people who steal this movie from underneath Andrews. He has a certain “savoir faire” that pretty much endears him to most people. As I’m fond of saying, everyone should have a Toddy in their lives. Then there is Norma Cassidy, the other scene stealing character. I didn’t mention her in the recap of the plot, but she should not be ignored. Brilliantly played by Lesley Ann Warren, she is the absolute opposite of Toddy. She’s hilariously gauche. She looks stunningly beautiful, but Norma has absolutely no sense of class whatsoever. Even in a nightclub performance back in Chicago (the song “Chicago, Illinois”), it’s nothing but racy. Warren is a comic jewel in this movie, and director Edwards had her placed perfectly because she could have easily overpowered everyone else in the cast. However, she shows up in just the right places to help accentuate the right scenes giving them their own naughty sense of sparkle.
Victor/Victoria is in my mind the perfect musical comedy. Keith and I have seen this movie countless times, and it’s the perfect treat to pull off the shelf after a bad or stressful day. Blake Edwards has quite the catalog of brilliant films, but I find this movie to be the crown jewel. Combine this story with Mancini’s perfectly joyous and beautifully touching music, along with this amazing cast, and you end up with one of the most entertaining movies to come along in a long time. Victor/Victoria will undoubtedly leave you with a huge smile on your face and a song in your heart!!!
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