After giving us many memorable and often offbeat performances over the last seven decades, German actor Udo Kier (76) could walk away from acting tomorrow and feel satisfied that he left on a high note after a commanding performance as a former hairdresser to Sandusky, Ohio’s socially elite in “Swan Song.” Like Pacino in “The Godfather: Part III” — “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in” — he’s forced out of retirement to make a deceased former client (played by legendary “Dynasty” actress Linda Evans) look beautiful for her final public appearance, in a casket. Directed by Todd Stephens who once again uses his hometown as the setting, the film is touching, funny, relevant, and authentic in so many ways. Kier is enchanting in the performance of a lifetime.
Kier plays Pat Pitsenbarger, a real-life local legend from Sandusky, whose glory days are just a memory, although sometimes it takes a while for those memories to surface from the deep recesses of his mind. The former hairdresser spends his days in a dark, decrepit nursing home where he sits in a recliner compulsively folding paper napkins that he pilfers from the dining hall. Later in the film, we find out why he does what he does, and let’s just say you can take the hairdresser out of the salon, but you can’t take the salon out of the hairdresser.
Pat’s only pleasure comes from smoking More cigarettes which he keeps hidden in his small room. Occasionally he shares a smoke with disabled resident, Ms. Gertie (Annie Kitral) as the two look out a window upon a world out of reach. Those moments in the film are both beautiful, touching, and they give us insight into the soul of “Mr. Pat” — the drag queen name he used while performing back in the day at the town’s only gay bar, The Universal Fruit and Nut Company. He may be a dispassionate diva on the outside but Pat’s heart of gold surfaces more than once in Stephens’s film.
With the help of flashbacks, we discover that Pat’s lover David (Eric Eisenbrey) passed away years ago from AIDS. With no will, David’s family took everything away from Pat. He was also betrayed by a former coworker Dee Dee Dale (played by the wonderful Jennifer Coolidge) who opened her own salon across the street from Pat’s, taking his best client with her. Although later in the story as the two reunite it becomes clear that Pat may be at fault for Dee Dee’s walkout.
One day, Pat’s monotonous life is interrupted by a visit from lawyer Mr. Shanrock (Tom Bloom) representing the late Rita Parker-Sloan (Linda Evans) — a Sandusky socialite and member of the Republican Party — who specified that she wanted Pat to do her hair and makeup for the funeral. The lawyer explains the provision for services rendered is $25,000. Pat balks at the offer and points out that Rita has split ends in her obit photo. She may have been Pat’s biggest client, but something happened in the past that he never forgave her for.
“Swang Song” operates in somber mode broken up by Kier’s funny prima donna moments as he sashays around Sandusky in a polyester green pantsuit, scarf, fedora, and nurse’s shoes. As “Mr. Pat” visits his old stomping grounds, searches for discontinued beauty products, and runs into people from his past, it’s very humorous and warm-hearted. Kier’s heavy German accent is the icing on the cake as he spouts off lines, including “My client demands HIGH-QUALITY beauty pro-ducts” to a redneck working at a convenience store where Pat uses all his money to buy More cigarettes and Lotto scratch-off tickets.
Let’s hope this movie does not become Kier’s swan song. I’m sure he has plenty of more great performances down the road. But if he walked away from acting today, he would leave on a mic drop high-note as “Swan Song” is his Travolta “Pulp Fiction” moment. After appearing in over 200 films, it’s great to see Kier in the starring role appearing in almost every frame.
Both my wife and daughter went to cosmetology school so getting a haircut for me is a breeze these days, I step out on the patio and a few snips later we’re done. Before these ladies came into my life, I have fond memories of a couple of gay hairdressers who I was fortunate enough to befriend as a teenager into my early 20s. Yes, they were expensive (so my visits were few and far between) and connected to my small hometown’s socially elite. Every Junior League association should have at least one LGTBQ hairdresser on its payroll. But based on my own experiences DJ’ing at gay bars, drag shows, and meeting people just like Mr. Pat,” I can vouch for the film’s authenticity.
Pat Pitsenbarger was a real character from Todd Stephens’s past. He passed away in 2012 and had such an impact on Stephens that “Swan Song” is a tribute to the Sandusky hairdresser. The filmmaker shared in the press notes that when he was seventeen, he walked into a gay bar for the first time where he met Mr. Pat busting out old school moves on the dancefloor. Most of us have memories of a “Mr. Pat” from our hometown and they will resurface after viewing Stephens’ love song to his past. “Swan Song” is a revelation.
(3 1/2 stars)
Now showing in theaters and available PVOD