The hero’s journey is among our most universal story patterns, crossing continents and centuries. We know its basic elements in our bones. But when the hero is played by legendary character actor Udo Kier, we’re in for some surprises along the way. Swan Song, directed by Todd Stephens, feels like the natural culmination of Kier’s 55-year career — a role the singular performer was destined for.
We meet retired hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger under the fluorescent lights of his grungy nursing home. Stephens is adept at using costumes and props to reveal character, and in just a few minutes, we know — or think we know — who Pat is. Wearing clean white Velcro sneakers and a beige sweatsuit, our hero seems determined to smoke himself to death — literally, he has already survived a stroke, and the nursing home staff members are exhausted by his refusal to follow doctor’s orders. His cigarettes of choice are Mores — long, dark-brown ladies’ cigarettes, which he stashes around his room.
As with all good heroes about to embark upon a journey, the call to action comes as a shock to Pat. An attorney shows up and tells him that a woman named Rita has died, and she stipulated in her will that Pat style her hair for the funeral — and there’s $25,000 to be earned. Pat stubbornly refuses and kicks the lawyer out. But the next day, he takes a battered hat box from underneath his bed, stuffs his fanny pack with costume jewelry, and crosses the threshold into the big, bright world.
Utilizing a handwritten sign that says “Free Beauty Advice,” Pat hitchhikes to the small Ohio town Sandusky. His first quest is to find Vivante, the most luxurious brand of hair-styling gel of his time (and the French word for “alive”). Pat meets friends and foes new and old: his protégé Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge), who opened a salon across the street from his own and put him out of business; Rita’s sensitive grandson (Michael Urie); a thrift-store owner who went to Pat’s salon as a school girl; and others. With everyone he meets, he acquires some color: a pink pastel sun hat, a colorful backpack, a lime-green pantsuit. Rita, “a demanding Republican monster” and former client whom he adored, may just get her dying wish.
A master of one-liners, Kier delivers some great ones here. When a convenience store employee looks at him incredulously, Pat knows what he’s thinking: “How could someone so flawless possibly be on social security?” A sense of mischief sparkles beneath Kier’s deadpan delivery, which is aided in part by his German accent, and you can’t help but feel that something special is happening between actor and character. This also makes Pat’s pain more visceral. His partner and lover, David, died of AIDS in the ’90s, and Sandusky is haunted by memories from Pat’s younger days.
Despite some setbacks, Pat is buoyed toward his ultimate test by the town’s small gay community. He visits the local drag bar that he helped open decades ago, where he long performed as Mister Pat. As Pat reminisces about his time as the “Liberace of Sandusky,” the bored young bartender (newcomer Thom Hilton) looks up from his phone to say that it’s the bar’s last day — it’s been sold to a straight couple with other plans for the space. Pat has one question: “But where will we dance?” Something changes just slightly in the bartender. The washed-up queen in the costume jewelry is his queer forefather — a man who sacrificed everything to demand that society see him honestly, who refused to negotiate with the drab masses, and who, despite the film’s first act, never truly stopped believing in his own excellence. Luckily for Pat, and for us, he’s in town for the club’s last hurrah — and it’s magnificent.
Swan Song hits some familiar notes, and perhaps that’s unavoidable. Its themes are spelled out by the people Pat meets on his journey, and the soundtrack — with ’70s hits like Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and Dusty Springfield’s “Yesterday When I Was Young” — is too on the nose. But with a character as vivid, idiosyncratic and original as Pat, I can’t say I care.
You don’t need to know that Sandusky is the real Ohio town where Stephens grew up, or that a real hairdresser named Pat Pitsenbarger inspired Stephens’ screenplay, to feel moved by the story. The character’s homecoming will resonate with anyone who has returned to their hometown to find that the buildings look smaller, the colors less vibrant. But Pat’s return has the opposite effect. “Pat is back,” he tells the young bartender. His brilliant final act is a redemption story that shines bright.