Swan Song  (12A) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Todd Stephens, US, 2021, 105 mins

Cast:  Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans

Review by Carol Allen

Charismatic German born actor Udo Kier, him of the disturbingly intense blue eyes, plays Pat Pitsenbarger, an elderly retired hair stylist and part time drag artist. The film is based on the story of a real life man of that name and profession by whom film maker Todd Stephens became fascinated    

When we first meet him, Pat is holed up in a dreary looking Ohio care home, smoking himself silly and it looks like nothing interesting is ever going to happen in his life again. Until that is he receives a posthumous invitation from a wealthy former client and close friend, Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans).  Her dying wish, he is told, is that he does her hair and make-up for the funeral, so she looks her best in her coffin.  And her estate is instructed to pay him a lot of money.  Who could resist?

Well Pat, as it happens.  He and Rita fell out big time years ago and haven’t spoken since.   However the invitation revives a lot of old memories, inspiring him to play hooky from the care home and embark on an odyssey into his past. It’s a classic format for revealing a character’s back story, so the film maker has to be sure that the character is interesting enough.  Fortunately Kier is perfectly capable of holding our attention, being as he is in nearly every shot. 

While still being a bit tarty about whether or not he’s going to take the job, Pat goes in search of the beauty products he will need; revives a friendship with his former pupil Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge); scrounges a deliciously outrageous outfit from a sympathetic charity shop worker and most entertainingly revisits the gay bar where he used to do his act years ago.  The bar is about to be closed down, so he joins the regulars for one last night of riotous partying and drag.  Pat’s short sequence on stage though leaves us wanting more.

There is also pain and sadness at the heart of this odyssey, as we discover when Pat visits the grave of his former partner, who died in the AIDS epidemic.

The film aspires to be “absolutely fabulous and gorgeous”.   It isn’t quite outrageously camp enough for that but Kier carries the film with apparently effortless style and panache – though it would have been fun to see a bit more of his drag act.

We don’t see a lot of Linda Evans, though there are some great portraits of her on the wall of the character’s luxurious residence.  And it must be weird to see yourself dolled up to the nines in your coffin.   How Pat managed to do her elaborate hair style in particular without removing her from the coffin remains one of the professional tricks of the trade which is not shared with us.

 In contrast to the character and his outrageous sense of style, the Ohio landscape, where the real life story took place and which is Todd Stephens’ home town, looks dead dreary.  One wonders why the real life Pat stayed there for his whole life.   It must have been that cool community round at the drag bar that did it!