An Analysis of VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982) by Joseph Suglia

Victor/Victoria (1982) is clearly Blake Edward’s most significant and most pleasant film.  It has very little of the garishness, decadence, and sordidness that mar some of his other work, though I admire all of his cinematic projects.

I believe it would be fair to say that Victor/Victoria is about the moment at which art stops resembling life and becomes life.  The hilarious cockroach scene is a beautiful instance of the traversal of the seeming / being distinction: The restaurant IS, in fact, infested with cockroaches if the patrons believe that it is.  The James Gardner character feels duped at first–he is attracted to a man impersonating a woman, but that figure is, in fact, a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman.  Later on, Gardner’s character recognizes that it doesn’t matter, ultimately, if Victor is naturally male or female.  “Her” project is to contrive appearances of appearances–not to persuade spectators that her appearance is natural, but to persuade them that her appearance is merely a persuasive appearance, that her “truth” is purely phenomenal.  How clever that the film alludes to Madame Butterfly!  At times, the phenomenon is more “real” than any reality.  “People believe what they see”–they want to be taken in by appearances and are inescapably disappointed by nuda veritas.

I think, in this regard, of Bernstein and Toddy: Both characters are gay and yet also persuasively, almost natively heterosexualized.  When they are wearing their “straight” masks, are they lying?  Are they pretending?  The film conjures up the ancient paradox of Megara: When liars say, “I am lying,” are they telling the truth?  A lie is not a lie if everyone believes it, including the liar him- or herself.  I think of the wonderful bedside conversation between the Julie Andrews and ultra-masculine James Gardner characters: “I find it all fascinating. There are things available to me as a man that I could never have as a woman.  I am emancipated…  I’m my own man, so to speak.”

The point, I think, is not that one appearance is a false and the other is “the truth,” but that two mutually contradictory appearances can coexist simultaneously.  Julie Andrews’ character can switch from “Victor” to “Victoria” in the same way that some bilingual students switch from Spanish to English and then back to Spanish again.  And why not?  We live in, to cite one of the songs, a “crazy world / full of crazy contradictions,” a world of shifting, ambiguous appearances that give life its thrill.  Philosophically speaking, the film exhibits neither a pious, life-negating Platonism nor a Nietzschean celebration and aestheticization of hollow appearances.  It suggests, rather, that you can shift from one phenomenal identity to another without either identity being “true” or emptily fraudulent.  And why not?  Humans are enormously complex creatures, and life is overwhelmingly ambiguous and complex.

Joseph Suglia