Reviews by Joyce Glasser swan song (June 10, 2022) Cert. 12A, 105 minutes.
The question is not whether one remembers Udo Kier, but how one could ever forget him. The German character actor acted in around 220 films by the Baron of the same name in Andy Warhol Meat for Frankenstein (1973) to Ron Camp in Ace Ventura: Animal Detective (1994), to a NASA flight psychologist in Armageddon (1998) and the role of a sadistic sailor in The waves are breaking (1996) the first of many in films directed by Lars von Triers. Kier has a distinctive face but an equally distinctive and still remarkably accented voice, which has garnered him a still lucrative career voicing a wide variety of characters.
But now, at 77, Kier has made an amazing comeback in Todd Stephen’s bittersweet film swan song. A caption tells us the film is “Inspired by a true icon” and while some of it was shot in a dreamy and surreal way, it’s obvious that this is a story that can’t (or didn’t want to) make up . . Patrick Pitsenbarger is based on a hairstylist who served the snooty Sandusky’s celebrities by day and enlivened the city’s only gay bar by night, dressed like a cross between Liberace and Quentin Crisp. Unlike Kier, Pitsenbarger was discreet, albeit openly gay, before being accepted, and Kier is enjoying the role and turning the inconsistent script into a watchable film.
Patrick Pitsenbarger lives in gray sweatpants in a cramped, depressing room in a small-town Ohio nursing home. His main pastimes are stealing napkins from the restaurant, which he endlessly folds, and cigarettes wherever he can get them, which he smokes endlessly. He finds ways to hide his habit from the nurse who reminds him of his stroke. These are the only remnants of his once defiant personality.
When Pitsenbarger’s routine is interrupted by the lawyer for the recently deceased matron of society, Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans, TV series Dynasty star and 1965 Beach Blanket Bingo star), he barely reacts. Even the prospect of a lucrative job offer is answered with an emotionless “I’m retired”.
The lawyer is persuasive and asks if he really would “deny a great lady her last wish”. In her will, Ms. Sloan provided that he would be paid $25,000 to do her hair for her funeral — and “to make things right.” The body is in the snobbish Ransom Funeral Parlor. Pitsenbarger wants the money, but he’s a proud man who can’t bring himself to forgive her for ignoring his lover David’s funeral.
The taciturn, chain-smoking inmate, whose mind is filled with opera music and conversations with lost friends, searches through a box full of all sorts of objects and photos and looks at a few. He goes to the landing to smoke a cigarette with a comatose, once attractive woman in a wheelchair. He plays with her hair, whispers “beautiful,” then realizes she’s been peeing on the floor.
It’s time to get out. The rest of the film is an odyssey and a detour down the rocky trail of memory as Pitsenbarger escapes the confines of his nursing home to confront the city in which he’s carved – or almost – a niche for himself on his own terms.
Still living in the past, Pitsenbarger is surprised to find that his defiant pomposity is unnecessary since times have changed. Hitchhiking with a makeshift “free beauty tips” sign is suspicious rather than enticing, although the harmless-looking seventy-year-old has no problem with being given a ride into town. Whether or not the driver is really mesmerized by the rings on his hands, when he tells her “there’s a lot more where that came from and everyone has a story,” we’re happy to skip her.
He walks down quiet, sunny, residential streets into the city center, hardly a main street, making various stops along the way to cash a government check for cigarettes and buy hair products, which he used to use and have since replaced with lower-quality imitations.
A trip to the site of the home he shared with David reveals a complex history of regret and reflection on the days when men living together had no recognized property rights. The house was demolished and when David died intestate, ownership passed to his nephews.
Again, the script is undersigned, boring, confusing and overworked, but some encounters register more than others. The tension builds during a visit to the salon, helmed by his former protégé Dee Dee Dale in a standout cameo by Jennifer Coolidge, targeting the carotid artery. It feels like a true betrayal commonplace in the high-end hair salon business and sheds light on Pitsenbarger’s feud with Ms. Sloan.
Sue (Stephanie McVay), a candy store clerk, remembers how Pitsenbarger once did her hair, and to her surprise, he remembers her too. “It’s all up here, it’ll just take a while,” he says when she’s flattered that he also remembers her son’s name. But that was his business. Unaware that he has no money, Sue ends up donating a lime green suit with a purple hat that transforms the dusty old man into Mr. Pat, and while the outfit looks like a daylight sign, Kier wears it sleek and groomed like a model.
Equally touching is an exchange with Gabriel (Thom Hilton), the soon-to-be-unemployed bartender, who tells Pitsenbarger that the owner has sold the club to a young couple and that this night happens to be the last in 41 years. The drag flashbacks are so old hat now that they don’t have the emotional impact of a later visit to the Sloan home, where he meets their now-adult son, Dustin (Michael Urie).
If it’s a shame that Rita Sloan’s transformation is anticlimactic and lacks the creativity we’d expect from this famous barber’s swan song, his brief scene with Linda Evens lights up. No pun intended, Kier plays the film head-on, giving it his all and embracing this rare opportunity to bring a tear to your eye.
77-year-old Udo Kier rises above his material in his dazzling portrayal of a real hairdresser.
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