Pat Pitsenbarger, the flamboyant retired hairdresser played by Udo Kier in Todd Stephens’ “Swan Song,” is based on an actual man who lived in the writer-director’s hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, where this movie is set. Kier’s Pitsenbarger is first seen on a stage in a white fur jacket and white pants, but this is just a dream from which he soon awakens.
Pat is actually in a nursing home, yet he remains valiantly fabulous in this most un-fabulous place, crossing his legs with real style and glamour as he sits down in a wheelchair in a dreary hallway while wearing dreary grey sweatpants.
Only a real star can make a gesture like that land, and Kier has always been a star, no matter the size of his role; over the course of a storied career, he has worked all over the world for directors like Paul Morrissey, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Gus Van Sant, Werner Herzog, Lars von Trier, and nearly anyone else who needed a rare bird like him. With his pellucid blue eyes and haughty presentation, Kier is so physically striking that he barely needs to do anything to hold the screen.
Kier’s Pat sometimes looks like he is drowning in self-pity, and he has reason to be. His lover David died of AIDS, and he lost their house to David’s nephew. His business collapsed after a former employee named Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge) opened her own hairdressing salon across the street from his and stole his best customer, the wealthy and much-married Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans). So Pat sits at the home and tries to forget by folding napkins fastidiously, nearly religiously, and he also works on the hair of a former client as she sits in some state of dementia in a wheelchair but somehow stills appreciates what he does for her.
The plot kicks in when a lawyer for Rita Parker Sloan stops by and offers Pat a $25,000 check to do the coiffure for her funeral, which was a provision in her will. Pat is disdainfully uninterested: “Bury her with bad hair,” he says. But his emotions begin to get the better of him, and he is soon out the door of the home and walking across the farmland to revisit some locations from his past and, maybe, do the hair of Rita Parker Sloan one last time.
The more commercial way of doing this story would have been to make Pat into a flinty and sassy guy no matter what, but Stephens chooses the more realistic path of making him into a person with flaws and a great deal of vulnerability, almost to a fault. To suit Pat’s mood, the soundtrack is loaded with the most lavishly self-pitying ballads sung by female divas, from Judy Garland belting “The Man That Got Away” to Dusty Springfield doling out “Yesterday When I Was Young” in her most masochistic tones of abjection.
Pat does prove quite adept at heisting most of the things he needs, from food and liquor to some of the rather old-fashioned hair products he will require for Rita, a woman he describes as “a demanding Republican monster” to a young gay bartender. (He quickly follows up with, “I adored her.”) Kier’s Pat can be extremely manipulative, as in a scene where he charms a former customer into giving him an outfit for free, but he does it with such style that all objections have to fade away.
In order to get the hard-to-find beauty product Vivante, he even stops into Dee Dee’s shop and has a measured sort of confrontation with her. (Coolidge never makes an obvious choice in this scene and winds up with something that looks like pure ambivalence for her character’s former boss.) The reality of Pat’s journey back to the grand house of this woman he loved starts to fracture a bit as he begins having fantasies of people who have died long ago, but the strangers in town he actually encounters treat him well.
If “Swan Song” had been made 20 or so years ago, surely Pat would have had to encounter some bigotry and intolerance as he sashayed around Sandusky in his lime-green pantsuit and Quentin Crisp hat, and it’s a measure of how much things have changed that it’s now believable that he would be viewed with some respect as an elder and someone who has likely suffered. That change is finally what “Swan Song” is about as it both pays tribute to a real person worth remembering and a real actor who is very much worth putting at the center of a movie.
“Swan Song” opens in US theaters August 6 and on demand August 13.