The initial raves and box-office returns of "Victor, Victoria" suggest that director Blake Edwards may make a fast getaway with this slow moving dreadnought that ought to sink from the weight of its implausibility.
Opening today at area theaters, "Victor, Victoria" transposes the plot of an obscure but frequently copied German movie farce of 1931 to a risque' Parisian show-business setting in 1934.
Victoria, a British coloratura played by Julie Andrews, has been stranded on the Continent by the failure of a touring light-opera company. Toddy, a courtly old homosexual entertainer-impresario played by Robert Preston, happens to see Victoria audition at a nightclub. He befriends her and offers to put her up.
Temporarily out of work himself, Toddy gets a brainstorm at the sight of Victoria, who has been compelled to abandon her belongings, dressed in one of his lover's suits and hats. He persuades his skeptical guest to lend herself to a potentially lucrative imposture and promotes her debut as "Victor," a singer at a cabaret specializing in transvestite acts for a heavily dressed-up clientele.
Victor proves an instant sensation, electrifying the customers at the close of his performance by reaching up and removing the wig that "disguises" his "real" sex. For the sake of the slow-witted, Edwards spells out the nature of the hoax in so many explicit remarks, reminding us that we've got a mischievious case of a woman pretending to be a man who pretends to be a woman.
The plot is then calculated to thicken with hilarious complications when a Chicago nightclub owner, King, played by James Garner, arrives in Paris for a vacation and finds himself attracted to Victor. Equally smitten with King, Victoria is obliged to conceal her feelings ostensibly to protect his/her thriving career.
Edwards always has had a knack for staging deliberate, slow-fuse sight gags. Several of the funniest payoffs are observed at a droll distance, through panes of glass, beginning with the deft sequence in which a famished Victoria swoons at the sight of an obese diner (George Silver) devouring an eclair.
Edwards has developed an equally consistent knack for gross miscalculations, particularly when it comes to creating leading roles for his wife, Julie Andrews. This tendency almost wrecked his career 13 years ago when he constructed a lavishly doting production, "Darling Lili." Last year, of course, Edwards recruited Andrews to bare her breasts for a coup de theatre while cast as a weirdly trivialized, muddled caricature of herself in "S.O.B."
Back in the '20s the transvestite acrobat Barbette evidently dazzled fashionable Parisians with a highwire act that ended with his removal of a ballerina's costume, revealing the man behind an artful female impersonation. Presumably, Edwards intended Victor's act to produce a comparable effect, but when Andrews doffs her wig, your immediate reaction is, "She'll never get away with it," because what meets the eye is a woman with a boyish haircut. The idea that Victoria would be accepted as a female impersonator in a milieu dominated by male homosexuals and transvestites seems incredible.
Edwards tries to reinforce the imposture by showing other characters buying it, but the character most intimately concerned, Garner's King, is convinced that Victor is really a woman and confirms the hunch more or less promptly by peeping on her from a bathroom wardrobe.
Given this speedy disclosure on top of the transparent implausibility of Andrews as Victor, the romantic plot generates scant comic distress. As a result, Edwards is obliged to shift the emphasis to keep the hoax afloat.
The potentially embarrassing romance between Victoria and King is subordinated to the reactions of comic supporting characters in King's entourage--Lesley Ann Warren as his jealous, dumb-blond mistress Norma and Alex Karras as his faithful bodyguard Squash, whose misconception of his boss' tendencies sets up a surefire humorous payoff. In fact, Karras' deadpan performance gives the movie a comic secret weapon to augment Preston's always stabilizing smoothness as the decaying but endearing Toddy.
Never a humorist of fine discernment, Edwards can be detected currying favor with gay audiences on one hand while implying that they could never see straight on the other. The dialogue is sprinkled with anachronistic slang which seems to reflect current terminology rather than the argot of the period.
Of course, Edwards hasn't exactly been a stickler for authenticity of any sort in "Victor, Victoria." If only he'd cared enough about the period to revive a few authentic '30s songs! Or at least insisted that Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse compose fakes that sounded faintly beguiling.