This is my entry in the MGM Musical Magic Blogathon hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood
Androgyny has always been a staple of Hollywood moviedom. Whether it has been two innocent bystander musicians on the run from the mob (Some Like it Hot), or a young Jewish girl trying to achieve her dream in learning the Talmud (Yentl), men posing as women and vice-versa have appeared in film numerous times, sometimes to great effect and with great affection for the role reversal. It has also been used in comic venues, often as a focal point of ridicule for the cross-dresser.
And that in effect is the primary point in many of the films featuring androgynous characters (usually depicted as being gay and then ridiculed for that, too.) Prior to Stonewall (which I think was a turning point in more ways than one), Hollywood usually made gay characters either one of the villains, or as a foil for the audience to laugh at simply because of his gay-ness. That is, when Hollywood even deigned to admit that a character was gay in the first place. This was in keeping with the Hays Code which specifically banned "sexual perversion" (their words not mine).
But after the Stonewall riots (and if you don't know the history behind this trend-changing event, I would recommend a little light reading at the very least), gay characters made great strides in cinema, (as well as in society in general), becoming people that were accepted as viable members of society as well as heroes, in some cases in said movies. To be sure, not always, but definitely more frequently than before. Of course, not all of the gay characters were actually played by gay actors and actresses, but the fact that Hollywood was more sympathetic to the culture was an improvement.
The movie we discuss today is a result of an active trend towards portraying gay characters not only openly, but with a sympathetic attitude towards them. Robert Preston, who portrays Carroll "Toddy" Todd, is an example of a gay character who is one with whom straight audiences can identify. And Hollywood's changing attitudes even went so far as to nominate Preston as Best Supporting Actor (unfortunately losing to Louis Gossett, Jr for his role in An Officer and a Gentleman).
The movie was a remake of sorts of a 1933 German film, Viktor und Viktoria, and the film garnered more recognition at the Oscars besides the aforementioned Best Supporting Actor. Leslie Ann Warren was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (losing to Jessica Lange), Best Adapted Screenplay (losing to Missing) and Julie Andrews for Best Actress (losing to Meryl Streep). It did come away with an Oscar for Best Adapted Score, however. And the song Le Jazz Hot, from the film is one of the more memorable songs in my opinion of a musical.
The movie follows Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews), a struggling singer in 1934 Paris. She is on the verge of starving because her particular style of singing is not what the clientele want. After performing for a cabaret owner, Labisse (Peter Arne), and being dismissed, she heads back to her hovel of a hotel room where she owes back rent. Willing to sacrifice her moral virtue just for a meatball, she sees a roach and has a panic fit.
Later at a restaurant, where she plans to eat a full meal, then release the roach and thereby get a free meal, she encounters Toddy Todd (Robert Preston). Toddy had seen her performance at the audition at Labisse's cabaret, Chez Lui, where he works as a lounge singer, and thinks she has potential. He encourages her to start a performance in which she will become a man who is a female impersonator. As such, she will be transformed into Count Victor Grazinski, and he, Toddy, will be her agent.
Toddy is doing this for altruistic reasons, as he has no designs on Victoria. One of the funniest scenes in the movie, after he has admitted he is gay, is when she asks "How long have you known you were gay?" and he responds "How long have you known you were a soprano?".
Victoria as Victor as Victoria becomes a sensation in Paris. On her triumphant premiere she performs the song "Le Jazz Hot" to a sold out crowd at the cabaret. Among the attendees is King Marchand (James Garner) who is infatuated with her, to the displeasure of his moll, Norma (Leslie Ann Warren). That is until Victoria removes her wig revealing herself as "Victor". At that point, the roles reverse, as it is Norma who cheers while King looks on aghast. King is shocked that he had been attracted to what turns out to be a man, and of course Norma's thrill is primarily due to King's reaction after his discovery.
Hijinks ensue as Marchand tries desperately to come to terms with his infatuation. He is convinced that he is not really attracted to a man and becomes convinced that there is some shady doings in the mix. As a result he tries to get his henchman, Squash (Alex Karras), to try to get to the bottom of the story but Squash fails. Marchand sneaks into the hotel room where Victoria and Toddy are staying and finds out the truth.
Much of the movie involves others trying to establish just what is going on. Norma is sent packing back to America where, in a bitchy mood, she tells Marchand's mob associates that King is doing dirty things with another man. Labisse, who has his suspicions, hires a detective to try and prove there is more than what he is being told to the situation.
Given that this movie is about a woman pretending to be a man, we are expected to believe the situation can actually happen. And maybe it could. But is Julie Andrews truly convincing playing a man? Not really, but I tend to side with Dr. Rebecca Bell-Metereau who, in her book Hollywood Androgyny, states that "[t]o quibble with the fact that Andrews and Preston both deliver totally unconvincing performances as the opposite sex... would be as pointless as to wonder why Shakespeare's characters cannot recognize Ganymede as Rosalind" (a reference to the play As You Like It, for the uninitiated). (For the record, the only scene where Preston is supposed to be playing a woman, I thought, was supposed to be for laughs and I don't think even the characters in the context of the movie were supposed to believe he was a she...)
Despite that fact, this movie is very entertaining. Coincidentally, it was released the same year that Dustin Hoffman made his movie Tootsie, which involved a male actor who goes to great lengths to get an acting job, so much so that he pretends to be an older woman to get a role on a soap opera. Viewing both of these movies as a double feature gives a very nice insight into the theme of androgyny as it was in its early stages of being an accepted theme in Hollywood.