You’ve never seen Udo Kier like this before. The heavily accented German character actor, who got his start in Andy Warhol’s “Flesh for Frankenstein” and was finally accepted as a member of the Motion Picture Academy this past year, has spent the intervening decades alternating between art films and exploitation movies, appearing as Nazis and nutjobs in everything from “Iron Sky” to “Nymphomaniac.” In Todd Stephens’ “Swan Song,” he plays a flaming small-town Ohio hairdresser who burns brighter than a dying star — which is precisely the way his character, Pat Pitsenbarger, sees himself.
Dressed like a cross between Liberace and Quentin Crisp, “Mister Pat” — who was in fact a real person — catered to the socialites of straight-laced Sandusky by day. In his off hours, he entertained at the local gay bar, the Universal Fruit and Nut Company, so comfortable with his queerness that he inspired Stephens’ own coming-out journey (fictionalized as “Edge of Seventeen”) and possibly also his subsequent getting-out adventure (the basis for “Gypsy 83”).
“Swan Song” brings the filmmaker back to his Ohio hometown, where he crafts as a sincere homage to this larger-than-life personality in which Kier is free to go big, comfortable that no matter how extravagant he plays it, Pat was almost certainly more outré in person. It’s fun to see Kier flaunt his natural panache, although the character’s sardonic zingers don’t come quite so easily, sounding slightly rehearsed — and about as sassy as Arnold Schwarzenegger — as they roll off his Teutonic tongue.
When we meet him, Pat is at his glamourless rock bottom: stuck in a retirement home, reduced to wearing saggy sweat pants and a sad T-shirt imprinted with the likeness of his dearly beloved (dead) poodle, daydreaming about his life partner (also dead), David. Stuck in this abominable vacuum of nurse’s shoes and non-style, Pat stockpiles paper napkins (stolen from the cafeteria and obsessively re-folded) and sneaks More cigarettes — hollow acts of defiance from what feels like a caged flamingo, drained of its color in captivity.
And then one afternoon, Pat receives a visit from the attorney of what used to be his favorite client, rich, right-wing Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans, whose “Dynasty” aura does most of the work). Rita hurt Pat’s feelings years earlier by ignoring David’s funeral, but according to this lawyer, her final wish was for Pat to make her presentable for the funeral — earmarking $25,000 for the service.
This outrageously generous offer was clearly Rita’s way of making amends — a chance to make up over makeup. Though Pat’s hard-up enough to accept the gig for the money’s sake alone, he’ll spend the next 24 hours deciding whether he’s really prepared to forgive her, while wandering around the town whose attitudes toward homosexuality have changed since he last looked.
Pat has no trouble escaping his minimum-security assisted-living facility, but it’s an epic quest for a septuagenarian to make it all the way across town to the funeral home where Rita’s corpse awaits. Pat refers to the haggard state in which he eventually finds her as “resting dead bitch face” — a barb that takes impeccable timing to pull off, and doesn’t quite land when Kier delivers it. But that’s OK, since the actor brings something no other performer could to the role, a sly European elegance (only Kier could pull off the polyester leisure suit, pale green as Watergate salad, he’s asked to wear for half the film), which he undercuts with just the right degree of pathos.
Another actor — a straight one, perhaps — might have gone all “La Cage aux Folles” with this character, whereas Kier isn’t panhandling for laughs by playing some tired gay stereotype. There’s a heart-on-his-sleeve sincerity to the performance that’s better than the material merits, for Stephens has written an earnest but anemic script. In addition to this being Pat’s last hurrah, “Swan Song” also acknowledges the end of a world in which gay culture — like drag shows and public cruising rituals — has become endangered by acceptance.
At every turn — from buying ladies’ cigarettes to hitchhiking in exchange for “free beauty tips” — Pat seems prepared to defend his flamboyance. But instead, he’s met with acceptance by everyone he crosses, implying that the only homophobia he faces now is within. Pat’s world has changed, and so too does his heart as he gravitates back to Rita, by way of his old protégé, Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge, playing it serious), a big-haired beautician whose years-earlier betrayal still chafes.
“Swan Song” ultimately allows Pat to put all that resentment behind him, but it suffers from the same clumsiness Stephens has shown throughout (one can see what he’s going for, but awkward cuts and worse angles undermine the performances and the mood). Had the helmer gone a little deeper, this might’ve rivaled Richard Linklater’s semi-similar “Bernie.” Instead, he falls back on cliché, giving Pat a nosebleed that telegraphs what’s in store for his hard-drinking, chain-smoking hero before he reaches Rita.
At the funeral home, Evans makes a gorgeous, ghostly cameo, enabling a poignant reconciliation — that is, until we see Rita’s final makeover: Her coffin coif looks like a bad wig. Not that it matters. Rita’s dead, and Pat could have done her up to look like Divine, and it still wouldn’t spoil the moment because Kier has shrewdly resisted camp. He doesn’t see Pat as a joke, so in the end, neither do we.