Blake Edwards’s Victor Victoria is the classic 1982 gender-bending musical romp that sneaks its way into the hearts of every viewer with its undeniable charm and wit. Julie Andrews stars as Victoria, a “legitimate” soprano with a killer voice. She’s the quintessential starving artist who happens to meet Carole “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston) who convinces her to impersonate a man impersonating a woman. Through their collaboration, they are able to make Victoria the “toast of Paris” whilst chaos ensues within their private lives.
One of the strongest aspects to this movie is Edwards’s decision to lean into this movie’s flaws. Instead of asking the audience to suspend disbelief and taking this story purely as it comes across on paper, Edwards expertly injects hysterical dramatizations and exaggerations as “nudges and winks” directed toward the audience. With scenes of borderline slapstick physical comedy and impossible vocal ability (Andrews’s character is supposedly able to shatter glass and pop champagne bottles with her soaring high notes), a respect is shown for the intelligence of the audience.
This is most apparent just by the casting of Andrews in the lead. When people think of Julie Andrews, they don’t view her as androgynous or let alone masculine. Andrews and Edwards were husband and wife and that was probably the main reason for her casting. She served as the lead actress in multiple films that he directed during the period within which this film came out. By no stretch of the imagination should Andrews find any success in this role. Aside from a shorter haircut than most, everything about her screams femininity most especially her soprano voice. But the breadth of her vocal range is truly a wonder to behold as she utilizes her lower register to become more masculine – something she hadn’t really done up until that point. This is a role that Andrews was born to play, yet nobody would have known it.
The performances truly carry this film. It is not only Andrews’s turn as a woman impersonating a man who’s impersonating a woman that is so entertaining, but Robert Preston’s “Toddy” showcases his talent in rare form. Toddy is the perfect sardonic and flamboyant gay, but he never crosses the line into the territory of “being mean” which is so integral in making him likable to audiences. Preston expertly navigates his lines and conveys nuance with every spoken word. Just as Victoria is able to love who he is, the audience becomes enamored with him even faster.
Although this film is a musical, there isn’t an exceeding amount of musical numbers which is characteristic of the “backstage musical” genre. Characters don’t suddenly break out in song in everyday situations. They leave their songs for the stage. While Victor Victoria sparingly uses its music, each and every moment of musicality leaves a lasting and seemingly indelible mark on the minds and hearts of the audience. The film introduces the musical aspect with Andrews singing "Cherry Ripe". She sounds perfectly operatic and “legitimate” but the viewer agrees with the club owner that she could benefit from being more “illegitimate.” Then, Robert Preston later performs "Gay Paree" and shows why this story demanded to be told with music. The song elicits immediate laughs and perfectly characterizes the sensibility of the film: a love for queer sensibility.
One of the amazing things about this film is how lovingly it handles sexuality. There is something wonderful about how Victor Victoria seeks to tackle the stereotypes and expectations regarding queer expression. Unfortunately, a character like Toddy would normally never be treated humanely in comparison to his heterosexual counterparts in any other film especially in the day and time that this film was made! Not only is he not killed off (praise to the gay Gods!) but he is also beloved by almost everyone who encounters him. It’s hard to imagine that an effeminate man would ever be portrayed in such a beautiful and sympathetic way in any era, especially in a film as early as this one. Alternatively, Alex Karras contrasts Preston’s Toddy with his portrayal of “Squash” Ernstein as a traditionally masculine “rough and tough” bodyguard who just happens to be gay. He is lovable in a different way, but he only adds to the flame that seeks to warm the hearts of anyone who watches this film. There is something truly telling about the idea that the only voices of reason within Victor Victoria are the queer characters, or those who unabashedly and wholeheartedly support them.
Comparing this film to the more well-known and renowned Tootsie, Victor Victoria far surpasses the Dustin Hoffman cross dressing affair for the queer community. By all means, it is no surprise that Tootsie is able to reach such a large audience comparatively. It is fantastically written and has just as much heart, but it lacks a love from any character for breaking the unwritten rules of gender. In fact, what makes this film marketable is its appeal to the “rules". Its conclusion offering no commentary on honest gender expression and homosexuality, but left them as running jokes throughout the film where Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey feared how others would view him. On the contrary, Andrews’s Victoria absolutely adores being Count Victor Grazinsky, the male alias she adopts when “performing” off-stage. In fact, she probably would have continued portraying a man portraying a woman had it not interfered with her love life and been so physically demanding (Victoria is concerned that having to bind her “bosom” might leave them looking like “two empty wallets” after time).
While Victor Victoria has an undeniable cult following, it truly deserves the mainstream acclaim that Tootsie benefits from. It’s a niche film even within the niche audience. Critically acclaimed yet fatally neglected, the legacy of Victor Victoria is maintained by the Broadway community with revivals popping up every so often, and the queer community whose drag queens constantly tip their hats to the spectacular costume worn by Andrews in the scene featuring the musical number for "Le Jazz Hot". Even in this regard, it is such a shame that it is not as prominent among the queer community because it is one of the few older films that gets it mostly right. Victor Victoria should undoubtedly have the same midnight screenings as its distant, yet spiritual sister The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is movies like Victor Victoria that provided the template for LGBTQ stories to begin being explored on a mainstream level, such as The Birdcage which probably would not have been picked up for an adaptation had it not borrowed so much of what made Victor Victoria work.
Speaking of styling, Victor Victoria features a variety of stunningly impactful ensembles adorned on the slender frame of Julie Andrews. When she is dressed as a man, she is almost completely swamped by the fabric. Yet, she looks so completely stunning. She is just as breathtaking whether she is unmistakably feminine, or playfully and artfully skirting the ambiguity of gender with her androgynous style. The simple decision to make her wear smoky eye makeup as a man is so effortlessly perfect and truly a testament to the styling production team that put this film together.
Potentially, the only thing that detracts from this story is how the conclusion is handled. A lot of the last-minute decisions appear to be handled off screen and something feels a little haphazard about the final product. But undeniably, Preston’s ending with the undeniably hilarious rendition of "The Shady Dame from Seville" has the audience in stitches and unable to even think about how things could have (and maybe should have) happened. The delivery is so outstanding that it is hard to fault anyone for the direction they took in this regard. He perfectly contrasts Andrews’s earlier performance of the song. While she is sheer perfection, he is struggling to get a single moment correct.
Another almost misfire comes from the lack of a fully realized setting. Aside from some of the economic struggles, nothing in the film reads as outstandingly “Parisian” or dated. In fact, the behavior of the characters is quite modern. While it is not hard to believe that Andrews’s talent would find the stage as a “male,” there are so many more repercussions that her character never realizes. As homophobic and unsympathetic as he was, James Garner’s King Marchand seems to be the only one who recognizes the way the world views sexuality. There is no harsh reality found by anyone in the film. While it is certainly nice to see characters not being punished or struggling purely on the basis of their orientation or forms of gender expression, it feels somewhat inauthentic that everyone is able to go so long with relatively no struggle. So, maybe this film might not be true to life, but at least it recognizes it and relies heavier on compelling story telling than being correct just to be correct.
With June being Pride month, there is an abundance of LGBTQ films to explore, love and celebrate. Film is a powerful medium that not only provides understanding, but is able to illicit true compassion from even the hardest of harts if done correctly. Victor Victoria is one of the films that does it right and deserves to be added to any list of films to be seen in any month, but most especially one for now. No regrets will be had when watching this film, even in the moments that might make your eyes roll. Go out immediately, Victor Victoria will provide good company to any movie collection.