September 1, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Todd Stephens
Culture Representation: Taking place in Sandusky, Ohio, the comedy/drama film “Swan Song” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An openly gay and retired hair stylist, who has financial problems and health issues, reluctantly agrees to do the funeral hair of a deceased estranged female client (it was her dying wish), and he encounters various obstacles when he decides to walk several miles to the funeral home.
Culture Audience: “Swan Song” will appeal primarily to people who are Udo Kier fans and anyone interested in tragicomedies that have themes of aging, LGBTQ people, and reconciling with the past.
“Swan Song” (written and directed by Todd Stephens) skillfully mixes tragedy and comedy and serves it up in the delightfully sassy performance of Udo Kier. In the movie, he memorably portrays a retired hair stylist who is full of verve and defiance, despite possibly being near the end of his own life. Kier’s Pat Pitsenbarger character in the movie has serious health problems, he’s broke, and he’s all alone in the world. Pat (who was born in 1943) can be cranky and difficult, but it’s almost impossible not to be charmed by him in some way because he’s just so honest and unapologetic about who he is.
Pat (just like Kier in real life) is a German immigrant living in the United States. Pat currently lives in a nursing home in Sandusky, Ohio. It’s not stated in the movie how long Pat has been in America, but it’s at least been since the 1970s or 1980s, since he shares several memories of being part of the gay nightclub scene in America back then. Pat is still haunted by the death of his longtime love David James, a florist/landscaper who passed away of AIDS in 1995, at the age of 52. (Eric Eisenbrey portrays David in the movie’s flashbacks.)
Pat is living in a nursing home because even though he and David shared a house together, the house was in David’s name. And when David died, Pat found out that David did not have a will, and Pat had no legal right to the house as David’s domestic partner. Instead, all of David’s possessions went to David’s next of kin: a nephew who sold the house and everything in it. (The laws have since changed in several U.S. states to give rights to same-sex domestic partners when someone in the relationship is ill or deceased.)
It was around the time of David’s death that Pat’s career began to fall apart. He owned a beauty salon in Sandusky that was very successful, because the salon’s clients included all the high-society ladies in the Sandusky area. However, an employee of his named Dee Dee Dale (played by Jennifer Coolidge) betrayed Pat by opening up her own beauty salon across the street, and she lured away many of his top clients. Pat’s salon eventually went out of business, and he is still extremely bitter about it.
All of this background information isn’t revealed right away in the movie, but it explains why Pat is a curmudgeonly loner at the nursing home. His nursing home expenses are paid for by his government benefits. The only person at the nursing home whom he seem to enjoy being around is a mute, wheelchair-using resident named Gertie (played by Annie Kitral), whose long hair he loves to style on a regular basis. Pat recently had a stroke, but that doesn’t stop him from smoking cigarettes. His favorite cigarette brand is More, which is a throwback to when the brand was popular in the 1970s.
One day, Pat gets a visit from an attorney named Mr. Shanrock (played by Tom Bloom), who represents someone from Pat’s past: an actress named Rita Parker Sloan (played by Linda Evans), who was around Pat’s age and who used to be Pat’s client. However, Pat and Rita stopped speaking to each other years ago when Rita became Dee Dee’s client. Mr. Shanrock has arrived at the nursing home to tell Pat that Rita has died and she had a specific request in her will: Rita wanted Pat to be the one to do her hair and makeup for her funeral.
Rita wasn’t a superstar actress, but she was well-known enough to be considered one of Sandusky’s most famous residents. The local media outlets have reported her death as big news. And so, this funeral will be a fairly high-profile event. Pat is very surprised to hear that Rita’s dying wish was for him to do her funeral hair and makeup.
Mr. Shanrock shows Pat an obituary photo of Rita in her heyday that’s in the local newspaper and asks, “Perhaps you can recreate the same hairstyle?” Pat deadpans, “Split ends and all?” Pat immediately says no to the request, even after Mr. Shanrock offers a fee of $25,000.
Mr. Shanrock then tries to appeal to any sentimentality that Pat might have, by saying: “Let bygones be bygones, Patrick. It’s not healthy to hold a grudge. You would deny a great woman her dying wish?” Pat is unmoved and says flatly, “Bury her with bad hair.”
After Mr. Shanrock leaves in disappointment, Pat takes out a hat box that is filled with his personal mementos. He looks through photos of David and other items from Pat’s past. This trip down memory lane seems to have softened his attitude toward his falling out with Rita, because he changes his mind and decides that he’s going to do Rita’s funeral hair and makeup after all.
The problem is that Pat (who doesn’t have a car) is so broke, he can’t even afford to take a taxi or rideshare to the funeral home. He’s too proud to ask anyone he knows for a free ride. And he doesn’t have the money to get the specific high-end beauty salon products that he wants. So, what’s a financially strapped but determined retired hair stylist to do in these circumstances? If you’re Pat Pitsenbarger, you decide to walk to the funeral home by yourself—even though it’s several miles away and it’s very hot outside.
Before he leaves for the funeral home, a nursing home assistant named Shaundell (played by Roshon Thomas) confiscates his box of cigarettes and scolds Pat by saying: “Sometimes, I think you want to have another stroke.” However, Pat has another box of More cigarettes secretly stashed away. He puts several loose cigarettes in the fanny pack that he wears during the trip. Pat is seen frequently puffing on his smokes throughout the movie.
The rest of “Swan Song” chronicles Pat’s journey to the funeral home, including some of the people he meets along the way. He tries to pull off some hilarious schemes in an attempt to get some cash to buy beauty products or to get a free ride from a stranger. At one point, Pat stands at the side of a road and holds up a sign that says “Free Beauty Tips.”
During his journey, which is mostly on foot, Pat has flashbacks of happier times. And sometimes, he has fantasies about being the star of a drag queen show. Fans of campy 1970s fashion will have a feast for their eyes, since Pat is seen in various flamboyant outfits, including one where he’s wearing a chandelier on his head.
One of the people whom Pat meets is Rita’s nephew Dustin (played by Michael Urie), who gives Pat a very different perspective of what Rita thought of Pat during their estrangement. Pat also sees Mr. Shanrock again, and there’s some haggling over his how Pat is going to be paid for his services. And, of course, Pat inevitably sees Dee Dee again when it seems like her salon is the only one in town to have the products that Pat wants.
“Swan Song” doesn’t have over-the-top slapstick comedy. The movie is grounded in realism and has a bittersweet poignancy as viewers see Pat experiencing some of the joys and pains of his life. He was someone who made a living making his clients feel good about themselves. It’s a joy that he gave and which he comes to realize has been missing from his life for too long. There’s a standout scene toward the end of the movie where Pat is on the receiving end of this joy.
Thanks to writer/director Stephens’ witty screenplay and well-paced direction, “Swan Song” is as emotionally authentic as it is entertaining. However, Kier’s droll and touching performance makes this movie a fascinating jaunt for movie fans who adore unique and compelling protagonists. “Swan Song” is also a love letter to the LGBTQ community and loved ones left behind in the AIDS crisis. “Swan Song” isn’t just about what Pat discovers on his journey. Viewers will find out that this protagonist might appear to have a hardened heart, but underneath he has a very tender and loving soul.
Magnolia Pictures released “Swan Song” in select U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021, and on digital and VOD on August 13, 2021.