He might not look like much in his soiled sweatpants paired with a fanny pack and a sour expression, but Pat Pitsenbarger was once “the Liberace of Sandusky,” Ohio. A flamboyant queen, whose heyday rang out with disco beats and ended with the AIDS crisis, he was THE premiere hair stylist of this podunk town, playing savior to harried housewives and snobby socialites. That was long ago. But, from the battered recliner in a shabby retirement home, Pat—or Mr. Pat if you’re in the know—has one last shot at reclaiming his throne. Styling the hair of a recently deceased frenemy will be his Swan Song.
Living legend Udo Kier stars as Mr. Pat. The German actor who collaborated with Lars Von Trier, Dario Argento, Werner Herzog, and Andy Warhol (to drop just a few names) is resplendent in a role that might be among the best in a storied and fabulous career. But it begins bleakly. The first act in the retirement home is devoid of color and flare, save for Pat’s flaming defiances of protocols. Long cut off from his friends and the LGBTQIA+ community, he is quietly waiting for oblivion, and keeping his hands busy folding napkins in the meantime. Enter the smug lawyer with a cheque for $25k if only Mr. Pat will bury the hatchet with a wealthy dead dame, who was long ago his best friend. Initially, he rejects the offer with a withering one-liner. (“Bury her with bad hair.”) But the temptation of one last shot at the limelight wins him over, so Mr. Pat hits the road.
Swan Song is a quirky and unapologetically queer road-trip comedy, only without the car. Broke and reclusive, Pat has no money or means to get across town to the funeral home, much less pick up all the beauty supplies he needs for the job. He uses his last bit of cash for the essentials (a pack of slender cigarettes and some lotto scratchers), then stomps into Sandusky on a mission. En route, he’ll discover how the town has changed, run into old enemies, and make new friends. With each step, Mr. Pat, who was once the grand dame of Sandusky, is coming through to her glory. A proffered Sunday hat here. A bit of shoplifting there. A mopped bottle of mousse and a generous dollop of sass, mark a quest to reclaim not only himself but also his legacy.
It’s winsome fun to watch Kier give BDE (Big Diva Energy) as he struts into dusty convenience stores, a Black-owned salon, and a humble vintage shop with equal bravado. He double-dutches with children, spills the tea with a long-lost pal (Ira Hawkins), and employs some eyebrow-raising tricks to fix the wrecked wig of a flustered drag queen. Kier absolutely slays punchlines that pull no punches, and the way he says “Sandusky” is magic, as if he’s proudly proclaiming an incantation. On top of all this, writer/director Todd Stephens (Another Gay Movie, Another Gay Movie 2: Gays Gone Wild) punctuates big moments with well-seeded yet surprising visual gags. Several of which made me cheer, and tear up. Because beneath the merriment and shade at play in this ferociously funny comedy, there’s an elegant elegiac tone that sings a tribute for Mr. Pat and those like him.
Mr. Pat is part of a generation of homosexual men who fought loud and proud for Gay Liberation. They didn’t just play a part in big city movements, like the Stone Wall Riot. They also made in-roads in small towns, creating safe spaces in gay bars, a place to dance and feel free, seen, and loved. They broadened minds just by being themselves, whatever the setting. They also watched their friends and lovers die from a plague that the straight majority just ignored, as if it was unseemly and not disastrous. Mr. Pat went through all this, and he has the scars on his hardened heart to prove it. Justifiably bitter, his journey from the retirement home to the funeral home, he has the chance to confront those who wronged him, and even let go.
This means a caustic reconnection with his protege-turned nemesis (Jennifer Coolidge in a surprisingly low-key but still effectively funny role), and confronting the dead bitch who walked away when he needed her most. (Dynasty’s Linda Evans makes for impeccable casting for the latter.) He also witnesses how the gay men of Sandusky live now. They are fathers and husbands, homeowners, and blithely unaware twink bartenders, who have the luxury of eye-rolling over the old queen reminiscing about the glory days when a second-hand chandelier hung over the dance floor. It’s a bittersweet thing, to see the impact Pat and his friends made, and how he’s invisible to those who benefitted from it. So, one last night. One last show. One last dance. One last chance to remind every last soul in Sandusky of the fierceness of Mr. Pat.
This film is magnificent celebration, a gay old time—literal and wonderful. Admittedly, a slow first act feels a bit excruciating, wallowing in the rut and rot of the retirement home. Be patient. You need that grounding to truly appreciate what comes after. From there, this comedy is jauntily paced, and precisely balanced, giving tastes of bitter, salty, and sweet so that every sequence is daringly delicious.
Kier is a revelation, unfurling viciousness and vulnerability with a masterful flourish of his bejeweled fingers. Watching his Mr. Pat come alive is mesmerizing and inspiring … perhaps especially after a year in lockdown. One sequence in particular, where Mr. Pat parties with the current LGBTIA+ community of Sandusky, filled my heart with joy and hope, and my eyes with tears. 2020’s lockdown robbed Pride Month from Americans, but in this magical movie, I felt that familiar rush of elation, pride, and community as if I were on that dance floor too. I’m crying now thinking back on it, an emotion too big and bold to keep inside. That is the power of Swan Song. It’s a fantastic film about the radical act of being truly seen while queer. Beautiful, smart, irreverent, and really f*cking funny, it’s a comedy that celebrates, condemns, and champions, all with the extravagant attitude of a queen. Simply put, it’s divine.
Swan Song was reviewed following its premiere at SXSW Online 2021.
Header Image Source: SXSW