Once upon a time, Pat Pitsenbarger was the bon vivant of his small Ohio town. The “Liberace of Sandusky,” one resident calls him. Pat was a hairdresser, and he was responsible for all the socialites of Sandusky. Then his star pupil opened a shop of her own—across the street no less—and took Pat’s number one client with her. It crushed Pat, but the aftermath was worse.
Now in his late-70s, Pat (Udo Kier) spends his days in a gray sweatsuit, shuffling around the nursing home trying to steal a smoke. He has his friends, and he has his routines, but it’s nothing like the good old days. Then comes the call to adventure: Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), that number one client from all those years ago, has died. Her will stipulates that Pat is to fix her up before they send her six feet under. And for his troubles, Pat will receive a large sum of money.
But Pat’s on his last legs as is. What’s money to him at this point? No, his journey is one of reconciliation, so the old queen sneaks out of the home and hits the road. Sandusky may be small, but Pat has a lot of terrain to cover before he can tackle Rita.
Written, produced, and directed by Todd Stephens, Swan Song delivers on the title’s premise. Stephens dedicates his movie to the real Pat Pitsenbarger, and Kier’s performance as the gay hairdresser is a delight. Partly because of how Pat views the world passing him by. At one point, Pat and a friend sit on a park bench and watch two fathers play catch with their children. “I don’t know how to be gay anymore,” Pat smirks. His friend doesn’t. They’ve come a long way, but sometimes you get so focused on the journey, you fail to notice when you’ve arrived.
There are a few smirks as to what that means in Swan Song—one character laments the loss of gay clubs to Applebee’s—but Swan Song isn’t just fixated on what it means to be queer in today’s world, but what it means to be old too. As Pat traverses Sandusky, he discovers that his landmarks are no more: His friends are dead, the haunts are closing up, hell, even his old house is gone, bulldozed into the ground years ago. Rita isn’t the only one who’s headed off into the great blue yonder. The more Pat walks, the more it feels like he’s bringing up the rear.
Swan Song has a pleasant tone to it. Kier maintains the balance of affirmation and elegy while seeking closure. Stephens and cinematographer Jackson Warner Lewis photograph this town with love and care. Swan Song is kind to the city when it could just as easily have been very bitter—a few asides of Sandusky’s racial make-up then and now hints at another movie just below the surface.
There are some missteps and some missed opportunities—a chandelier going haywire at an inopportune time is a tad ridiculous—but the rest works because Stephens cares about this town and these people. Kier is great, no doubt about it, but any Midwest town should be so lucky as to have someone like Stephens have its back.
Swan Song (2021)
Written and directed by Todd Stephens
Produced by Eric Eisenbrey, Stephen Israel, Tim Kaltenecker, Todd Stephens, Rhet Topham
Starring: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Michael Urie, Tom Bloom
Magnolia Pictures, Not rated, Running time 105 minutes, Opens Aug. 13, 2021, in selected theaters.