Written and directed by Todd Stephens, Swan Song is the third of three films the Sandusky, OH native has made set in his hometown; the first two, Edge of Seventeen and Gypsy 83, deal with life growing up as a gay kid in a small Midwestern town. The latest, starring Udo Kier, flips the script and instead looks at life from the perspective of Pat, an aging queen who’s lived his life unabashedly as himself, even during the years that flamboyant self wasn’t exactly accepted in milquetoast Sandusky. Now living in a senior care center, Pat, once an in-demand hair dresser with style spare, is a pale shadow of his former self, living in sweatsuits and subjected to endless days of mindless crafts in the common room. That all changes when the funeral director stops by one day to say that Linda Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), a society dame and a former friend (probably more of a rival) has passed and, despite their differences, she’s insisted that no one but Pat do her hair and make-up for her final goodbye in the casket.
Stephens turns Swan Song into something of a road movie, though Pat actually walks most of the way from the care center to the funeral home. Along the way, he encounters locals nearly as colorful as he is, each of them offering him something he needs along the way. He’s something of an institution in the town, we learn, and in fact the character of Pat is based on a real-life town citizen Stephens knew growing up. In Kier’s hands, Pat exudes a sort of heartbroken confidence; he knows in his bones who he is, a man with style and wit and stories to tell, but he’s also aware that the world has moved on without him, that what was controversial or bold in his day is old hat now, no big deal. A longtime character actor, Kier takes on one of his few starring roles here, and proves himself a force on screen; Pat doesn’t say much throughout the film, but when he does, it’s usually in response to someone’s assumptions about him, and it’s usually a zinger that puts that person in their place.
As the title would imply, Swan Song is about nostalgia, about time gone by and getting one last chance at what matters most. Making his way into town, Pat stops at a thrift store where the owner fawns over him, offering him a sharp leisure suit to change into, freeing him of his frumpy sweats. She tells him how much he’s meant to her over the years, that she always appreciated seeing him around town. It’s just the ego boost Pat needs, especially when he runs into salon owner Dee Dee Dale (the divine Jennifer Coolidge), who won’t let him forget that he’s the old guard. Their rapid-fire rapport is delectable, both because these two characters so clearly loathe each other and because these two actors are so perfectly made for moments like this.
There’s nothing terribly flashy about Swan Song (except perhaps the outfits), but that’s because that’s not where the heart of this affecting film lies. Instead, it is in Kier and his moving portrayal of Pat, a man with quite a history who isn’t quite ready to be done just yet, even if the world has moved on without him. What he knows, better than anyone he encounters on his way to take care of Linda, is that he is still every bit the man he was in his hey-day, and he carries himself with that confidence, too. Swan Song may be the end of Stephen’s trilogy looking back at life in Sandusky, but Pat is such an intriguing character, it could just as easily be the beginning of another that explores this fascinating man’s life.
Swan Song is now playing at Gene Siskel Film Center.
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