There’s a common saying in the pop culture community regarding great character actors. They’re grouped together as “That Guy”s, people we see all the time, across tons of movies and TV, but for the most part their names aren’t often remembered except by fans until they get their moment in the sun to play a lead. People like Powers Boothe, John Carroll Lynch, and the late James Rebhorn are seen all over the media spectrum for years, and are instantly recognizable, but their names don’t always reach the tips of our collective tongues. Sometimes there’s a breakthrough thanks to a distinctive feature, like Keith David’s voice, or Gary Cole with his ability to command attention and slot into just about any role.
But for most of the “That Guy”s, it takes a defining role to firmly lodge them into the collective consciousness. Paul Raci did it last year with Sound of Metal, as did Delroy Lindo with Da 5 Bloods. Mark Rylance’s Oscar turn in Bridge of Spies made him a prime target for any production looking for a character actor. Matt Walsh, after several successful projects, finally got his permanent spot in the zeitgeist thanks to Veep.
Now, with Swan Song, it’s time for German actor Udo Kier to get his long overdue turn in the spotlight. With over 200 credits to his name, Kier has given competent side performances time and time again, thanks to frequent collaborations with Lars von Trier and Gus van Sant. Among his more prominent pictures are My Own Private Idaho, Nymphomaniac, Downsizing, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Dancer in the Dark, the 2007 Halloween remake, Shadow of the Vampire, and fucking SUSPIRIA! The man has been around. But now, finally, at the ripe old age of 76, Kier gets his moment, and boy does he make the most of it, giving one of the best performances of the year.
Set in Sandusky, OH (and filmed almost entirely on location; you can see Cedar Point amusement park in the background of a few scenes), Swan Song features Kier as Pat Pitsenbarger, a real-life former hairdresser and drag queen who catered to the cultural elite of the town as well as serving as an ambassador for its nascent gay community. In the film’s present, he lives in a retirement home, as he has no family (partner David died of AIDS in the 90s), and he’s recently suffered a stroke. But he keeps his mind active by meticulously folding napkins into squares that he would use in his work, and he never misses an opportunity to playfully defy the nursing staff, either by surreptitiously dying another resident’s hair, or cheekily sitting in a wheelchair and crossing his legs whenever someone patronizes him about his walking.
When news breaks that the town’s most famous socialite, Rita Parker Sloan (Dynasty‘s Linda Evans) has died, her will states that she wants Patrick to do her hair one last time for her open-casket funeral. Patrick is initially against the idea, as he and Rita had a huge falling out thanks to her public stance on gay rights and her siding with his former employee and rival Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge), essentially putting him out of business. But knowing that a lost friend will be truly lost forever if he doesn’t perform this one last task, Patrick acquiesces and begins a small odyssey across Sandusky, almost entirely on foot.
Patrick’s journey is one of figurative and literal transformation, as his drab clothes eventually get more and more fabulous as he progresses. Stopping by an old salon under new management for some product, he instead receives a saucy hat to shield him from the summer sun. Going into a consignment shop and meeting an old client who only felt beautiful because of his work, he earns a gorgeous pantsuit as a thank you gift because he hasn’t the money to pay for it. The further he goes, the more he regains his identity.
And it also works to a hugely heartwarming effect to see how people react to him. Patrick came up in a society where it all had to be kept in the closet, and at best open gays like him were considered a novelty. Here, he interacts with people who instantly accept him for who he is, and as his costuming gets more flamboyant, he gets treated that much more normally. In his attempts to challenge the status quo and make people uncomfortable, he instead encounters near-universal acceptance, to the point that he feels his own obsolescence creeping in. He’s not needed as a crusader anymore. Gays live everyday lives largely free of discrimination. The new residents at his old house embrace him as a brother. He marvels with an almost amused degree of comic disgust at a young gay couple with a child. A Gen-Z bartender at his home base gay club is more interested in what’s on his phone than the fact that the bar is closing down, ending the legacy of one of the community’s most needed safe spaces from Patrick’s younger days. The only resistance to his lifestyle comes in the form of a convenience store clerk who assumes that Patrick’s preferred brand of cigarettes is for his wife, as apparently they’re a more feminine type.
Amazingly however, throughout this journey, the emotions are always completely genuine and real. Patrick’s sense of loss is palpable, but so is his joy, not to mention his infectious sense of humor. With every quip and comeback I was delightfully reminded of Bart Simpson laughing, “Ha ha, he’s such a BITCH!” Dee Dee’s feelings of competitive betrayal also make sense from her personal standpoint, and from that of any ambitious small business owner. Even the imagined reactions of Patrick’s late companions makes sense not only in the context of Patrick’s own impressions, but they feel like the sorts of things that real people in these scenarios would say and do. Part of what makes this story so beautiful is that Patrick actively goes looking for false notes and really can’t find them, but still finds ways his own ways to slay and win every moment.
From beginning to end, this is one of the most delightful films of the year. Writer/director Todd Stephens (who penned the truly essential coming out film, Edge of Seventeen) creates the perfect material to let Udo Kier shine as he’s never done before, or really had the chance to. This is a wonderful marriage of filmmaker and actor, filled to the brim with humor, pathos, and truly thoughtful examinations on how far the gay community has come over the last few decades, even in a Red/Purple state like Ohio. I went into this film hoping for a funny lark of a film that gave one of the better “That Guy” actors a chance to stretch his range. Instead, this might be the sleeper LGBT hit of the year, and it’s a gem you should immediately seek out (theatres or VOD) if you can.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How important are LGBT films in your movie-going experience? Who should be the next “That Guy” (or Gal) to get a leading role? Let me know!