Udo Kier stars as retired hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger in director Todd Stephens’ “Swan Song.” Photo: Chris Stephens, courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Udo Kier dazzles in Magnolia Pictures’ masterful new “Swan Song,” written and directed by Todd Stephens. The film opens with vivid flashbacks in a nameless nursing home and ends with an out-of-casket experience at a funeral home. At its core, “Swan Song” is a candid take on last wishes and final acts. More than anything, it’s a portrait of grief and loss, regrets and letting go. And Kier’s spellbinding performance will linger long after the closing credits.
Before becoming an institutional castaway, Mr. Pat owned the upscale hair salon in town. Linda Evans’ character Rita Sloan Parker, a k a a “demanding Republican monster,” was his rich socialite client. For 33 years, they had a standing appointment every Friday at 4 p.m. when he styled her hair and she confided in him. He thought of her as his friend; he adored her.
After the executor of Rita’s estate informs Pat that she wanted him to do her funeral hair and makeup, Pat absconds from the nursing home and hitchhikes to the cemetery to visit his dearly departed lover, David. Pat nurses a grudge against Rita, who years earlier was embarrassed by David’s death from AIDS. As a result, she took her business across the street to Pat’s protégé-cum-nemesis, Jennifer Coolidge’s DeeDee.
Rita’s betrayal added insult to Pat’s loss. It also hastened the end of his livelihood, since everyone in Rita’s orbit followed her to DeeDee’s full-service establishment. Viewers quickly realize that Pat’s wounds then multiplied. Because he and David did not have the right to marry, one of David’s nephews settled his uncle’s affairs as if Pat never existed. By now, of course, Pat and David’s old house, calla lilies, and backyard fountain are long gone.
Mr. Pat’s journey is an emotional rollercoaster through the modern LGBTQ+ era. An old client recognizes him when he stops in at The Encore Shop. Sue offers him a secondhand suit that she’s put away for just this moment. Years before, Pat made her blonde and gave her a “Dorothy Hamill” haircut her husband didn’t love. “I never felt prettier,” Sue exclaims. In that space where two people who haven’t seen each other in years wonder who recalls what, Sue deadpans, “Who could forget the Liberace of Sandusky?”
When Pat eventually spies Rita’s house, he encounters her gay grandson, Dustin, in the driveway. Invited in for the first time ever, Pat looks at the old photos Rita’s picked out for her farewell. As Dustin retrieves ice for their highballs, Pat wanders around and sees the hospice bed where Rita died. Filled with emotion, he skips out on afternoon drinks.
Still thirsty, he stops at Universal Fruit & Nuts Company, the neighborhood gay bar of his glory days. Mr. Pat waxes nostalgic and tells the millennial mixologist, “This place was family.” The bartender shares a flyer announcing that evening’s drag show, an event to mark the closing of the bar after 41 fabulous years.
Crestfallen, Pat leaves the bar and imagines his male friend “Eunice,” who proclaims, “Gay bars are so ‘90s. I do better on here (pointing to a dating app) than I ever did in the bars.” Pat responds, “I wouldn’t even know how to be gay anymore.” Eunice has the last laugh, “Tell that to your pantsuit!” (Spoken just like Carol Burnett’s eponymous character)
When he returns to Fruit & Nuts, Pat helps Miss Velma Humpback with her wig, then takes to the dance floor and announces, “I forgot how much I missed this.” Someone else asks, “Dancing?” Mr. Pat smiles and says, “Our people!”
Pat finally heads to the aptly named Ransom & Sons Funeral Home. First, the leopard-skin hairbrush handoff in the foyer, then the denouement: Pat and Rita’s final encounter includes the key lines “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you,” echoed in whispers to each other and attentive viewers.
He fixes her hair for the very last time using a pair of antique scissors, some perfect powder bleach, and his preferred product: Vivante. Pat also lovingly applies eye shadow and mascara to Rita’s ashen face, as well as to his own. He sends her off with his shears and then has a smoke.
Dustin arrives to his grandmother’s viewing hour and later sits down next to Mr. Pat. He discloses how important Pat was not only to Rita, but also to his own coming out process in their conservative family. Obviously, Pat paved the way for Dustin, a generation or two later. To all the “Pats” of the world, thank you for making the world a better place.
“Swan Song” is currently playing at The Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington.
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