A legendary character actor’s first leading role in 50 years
Udo Kier’s latest movie, Swan Song, is based on the real-life hairdresser dubbed the Liberace of Sandusky, Ohio. Who knew? The latest in the “Ohio trilogy” from director Todd Stephens stars Kier as Pat Pitsenbarger, a.k.a. Mr. Pat, who busts out of his retirement home for one last hairdressing job: The corpse of a former client (Linda Evans).
SWAN SONG ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Todd Stephens
Written by: Todd Stephens
Starring: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans
Running time: 105 mins
The structure of Swan Song is a recognizable indie go-to, a day in the life of a character wandering through a small town full of, well, characters. It’s a bit of a cliché, but more than worth it for Kier, who quietly maintains Pat’s regal bearing even in the middle of a parade of humiliations, the aging process chief among them. The plot’s a slow burn as Pat gradually gets his mojo back, even as dementia intrudes with hallucinations of long-gone friends and places.
At the outset, he’s stuck in dirty gray sweats, compulsively pilfering and folding napkins from the nursing home kitchen, smoking on the sly. But flashbacks take him to his heyday as a local drag legend and elite hairdresser to Sandusky’s socialites. It helps to know there’s redemption on the other side of the nursing home scenes, because Stephens viscerally nails the institutional feel, the draining greyness and blank stares of the kind of old folks’ home none of us would wish on our loved ones.
It’s lovely to see Kier, a workhouse German character actor, in his first leading role in, apparently, 50 years. This is a face you know from countless films–depending on your tastes, it could be My Own Private Idaho, or Bacurau, or if you’re a philistine like me, Ace Ventura. Through his career he’s become a queer icon, so it’s fitting to see Stephens celebrating him with this role, which finds him at one point sashaying down a runway with a chandelier on his head. His chat with the Gen Z bartender at the dusty gay bar, on the eve of its closing, is a highlight. “Gay bars are so ‘90s,” a friend tells him with a sigh. But for Pat it’s not a relic, it’s the ghost of a safe space when those were in short supply.
Stephens perfectly casts a couple key roles, especially Jennifer Coolidge (currently killing it in The White Lotus) as Pat’s onetime assistant who left him to start a rival salon. And Stephens made an inspired choice to cast Evans as the deceased. Pat’s glory days were in Evans’ big-hair Dynasty era, also the epicenter of the AIDS crisis that killed his partner. His emotional journey around Evans’ character having abandoned him, over her own AIDS fears, feels tied in an interesting way toward right now. Can we learn to forgive people who acted monstrously during an epidemic? Kier’s fabulous turn offers a glimmer of hope.