Producers: Todd Stephens, Eric Eisenbrey, Stephen Israel, Rhet Topham and Tom Kaltenecker Director: Todd Stephens Screenplay: Todd Stephens Cast: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Michael Urie, Ira Hawkins, Stephanie McVay, Tom Hilton, Justin Lonesome, Tom Bloom, Shanessa Sweeney, Jonah Blechman, Annie Kitral, Bryant Carroll, Shelby Garrett, Catherine Albers, Eric Eisenbrey, Roshon Thomas, Dave Sorboro, Ray Perrin and Tim Murray Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
There’s a sweet sincerity to Todd Stephens’ tribute to a gay pioneer in his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, and along with a graceful lead performance, that goes far to justify the rather meandering trip down memory lane.
The “Swan Song” in question is a final appointment for Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier), once the most highly regarded hairdresser in town but now, in his sixties, the long-time resident of a depressing nursing home. Pitsenbarger, who in his spare time had performed as drag queen “Mr. Pat” at The Universal Fruit and Nut Company, Sandusky’s one and only gay bar, was ultimately brought down by a stroke. But prior to that he’d been betrayed by his assistant Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge), who opened a salon across the street from m his, and ruined financially and emotionally by the loss of his partner David (Eric Eisenbrey) to AIDS
That tragedy brought another betrayal, when his regular customer, wealthy grande dame Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), whom he considered a friend despite her conservatism, neglected to attend the funeral. Sloan has just died, and her lawyer (Tom Bloom) drops by the home to inform Pat of a provision in her will. She asks that he do her hair for the wake, a service for which she offers $25,000, a sum that’s meant to convey an apology along with payment.
Pat has nothing but time on his hands—his major occupation is to obsessively fold and store paper napkins in his room or occasionally tend to the disheveled hair of a mute patient (Annie Kitral), while secretly smoking one of the extra-long Mores he keeps hidden (much to the upset of his nurse Shaundell, played by Roshon Thomas). But still angry at Rita’s old slight, he initially refuses the offer.
Upon reflection, however, he reconsiders, and easily escaping the home moseys around the town, trying to acquire the materials he’ll need to do Rita’s hair—a task that eventually takes him to Dee Dee’s salon—but taking the opportunity to visit old haunts. He goes, predictably, to the site where the house he shared with David stood before it was seized by the dead man’s nephew and later demolished (the couple now living there, played by Shelby Garrett and Bryant Carroll, commiserate), and to his partner’s graveside.
He also finds a second-hand clothes store, where he talks with a clerk who once came to his shop, and now offers him a green pants suit he dons (along with a wide-brimmed hat) for his future perambulations, on some of which he rides on a lawn mower down the town’s main street as angry drivers behind him honk in frustration at his slow pace. He searches for friends from the old days, and actually finds some, with whom he discusses how things have changed.
The change is made abundantly clear in Pat’s return to the Company, where he and other pioneers of coming out when they were likely to be treated with derision and hostility created an oasis of acceptance and camaraderie. There he employs his skill to help a frustrated performer with unruly hair and reminiscences about how central the bar was to the gay community. But its era is over, as acceptance, or perhaps simple indifference, has replaced open prejudice; that night, he’s informed by the young bartender, will be the establishment’s last.
Ultimately Pat makes his way to the funeral parlor, where he fulfills the terms of Rita’s will, though probably not in a fashion that would satisfy her if she were still alive. He also has the opportunity to have a conversation with her son Dustin (Michael Urie), which provides an ironic coda.
Structurally “Swan Song” is a bit of a mess, what with flashbacks to the distant past, from-beyond-the-grave appearances by the deceased and sheer flights of fancy (like the opening, in which Mr. Pat, dressed to the hilt, imagines himself receiving the applause of an audience in an elegant old theatre) interrupting what’s already an episodic piece. And the ambience is relentlessly nice—twenty-first century Sandusky (the real Pitsenbarger died in 2012) has mellowed as much as River City by the close of “The Music Man,” and one of the film’s observations is how little knowledge young gays have of the struggles Pat’s generation had to go through to change attitudes toward their community.
Nor is it visually inspired. The production design by Kassandra DeAngelis and cinematography by Jackson Warner Lewis are plain, and the editing by Spencer Schilly and Santiago Figueira W. adds little shape or rhythm to Stephens’ often slackly-directed scenes. The supporting performances, moreover, rarely rise above adequacy. (On the other hand, the costumes designed Shawna-Nova Foley and Kitty Boots capture the flamboyance the script often demands, and the score by Chris Stephens makes room for a fine selection of mood-setting songs from the past.)
The ingredient that gives the film its fizz, though, is the wry, shrewd performance of Kier, who brings his many decades of experience—too often wasted in roles far beneath him—to bear, painting a character both amusing and poignant. Rarely off screen, he obviously relishes a career-capper of a part, delivering even lines that lack genuine wit in a way that makes them sound better than they are.
Thanks to him, Stephens’ otherwise uneven portrait of his own local hero possesses real charm.