10.18.2006

Lesley Anne Warren in Victor/Victoria (1982) - Supporting Actress Sundays (Wednesday Edition)

One of StinkyLulu's most favorite things about actressing at the edges comes when an actress spins gold out of straw, transforming lame cardboard claptrap into vivid, surprising characterization. It's what Carolyn Jones did in 1953 and it's what (in what is -- it's prolly safe to say -- her single career nomination) StinkyLulu so adores about...


Lesley Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria (1982)
15 minutes and 54 seconds on-screen
11 scenes
12% of film's total screen time

Lesley Ann Warren's character, Norma Cassady, is little more than a plot device in peroxide and cha-cha heels. If a snarky animated feature was based on Blake Edwards' screenplay (which, along with his directorial pacing, is oddly tedious & turgid), the character of Norma would almost certainly have to be anthropomorphized as a goose. Because, really, that's precisely how Edwards uses Lesley Anne Warren in the role. Warren's Norma is the movie's golden goose, a garishly white creature -- all peroxide and ivory satin, with eyes somehow both big and beady -- who gawkishly fancies herself as the center of all attention (a trait which Edwards toys with slyly, ever edging her from the frame). Vocally, Warren's Norma mostly flutters and honks, jabbering in an accent that seems to be "generic gutter" and goosing her every scene with a manic vocality that blares atop the languid urbanity of her co-stars. Finally, Warren's Norma is just the movie's silliest goose, her self-conscious posture of tolerant sophistication debunked by the banality of her homophobia and heterosexism. (Among the queerest pleasures provided by Lesley Ann Warren's Norma comes from tracking how each of her many contradictory slurs derives from her basic cluelessness and prideful pretension. It's as lovingly comic a portrait of full-blown heterosexism as any film has e'er shown...)

But Lesley Ann Warren's performance as an American goose among the Parisian swans moves beyond the simplicity (and vaguely prim) screenplay to emerge as one of the savviest drag performance in 1980s film. Warren's performance is sexy, shameless and smart. Like the best drag personas, Warren's Norma is somehow in on the joke while also completely oblivious to it. Warren's performance as Norma never bores, often surprises (those line readings!) and becomes the only thing about this film worth remembering. (Though StinkyLulu confesses to an enduring softspot for Alex Karras' performance as Squash.)

Pauline Kael (somewhat famously) dismissed the enthusiastic response of gay audiences to Victor/Victoria in 1982: "Why are homosexual spokemen celebrating the film? Perhaps for the same reason that the young American leftist press celebrated Reds. They're hungry to see fantasy versions of themselves on the screen and, forced to, they'll accept crumbs." (p.333-334) Putting aside for the moment Kael's notorious tone-deafness regarding all things camp, here, the scold nails the perils of Victor/Victoria's politesse. And StinkyLulu's convinced it's the key to the enduring pleasures of Lesley Ann Warren's performance as Norma: Warren's Norma is the only unapologetically queer performance in this picture. (Exhibit A: Lesley Ann Warren's best line: "Poooooooooooooooooooookie. I'm whore-neee." Genius. Unfettered, untrammeled, utterly trashy genius...) Lesley Ann Warren's Norma created a campy queer haven in this bizarrely heteroprecious film in 1982...something it continues to do even more, even now. For that accomplishment alone, StinkyLulu will ever reserve two snaps and a dollar-bill for Miss Lesley Ann Warren's Norma...

But how does the campstastic-ness of Warren's Norma stack up against the straight-ness of the rest of 1982. Tune in (in just eleven days) to see. But in the meantime, lovely reader, please do share in comments your own thoughts -- yay or nay -- about this polarizing performance.

4 comments:

NATHANIEL R said...

er, what's polarizing about this performance? You mean there are people who don't think it's genius?!!? Off with their heads

but seriously. I could watch this performance on loop.

more in two weeks obviously.

criticlasm said...

Think, worry, worry, think--it's a vicious cycle, and before you know it, you're impudent..... What's with the soap?

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Not only is Warren's camp value off the charts, her professional polish is on full display throughout (she'd been in the game nearly twenty years by the time she filmed Victor). Among the many prize Warren bits it's impossible to choose one "best" moment; however, I can't think of another actress who could let loose with a "WHOOOOOOAA!!!" (when Warren's dress flys up just before she memorably utters "the White Sox and the Cubs" line in the unbelievable "Chicago, Illinois" number, which I've seen probably 500 times and still find fresh) with the same fearlessness and panache Warren gives the exclamation- this comes from years of performing experience, folks. Warren brings off every moment in high (and appropriately very broad) comic fashion, from her ticked-off reaction to Garner's attraction to Andrews' performance of "Le Jazz Hot," to her final "Lock the door" (almost) seduction scene with Andrews.

I'm hoping Warren may yet get another shot at the Golden Boy. During the last decade, I thought she gave two of the most touching performances I've seen, in her "cameo"-sized roles as Maggie Gyllenhaal's sweet, timid mother in Secretary and, especially, in her magnificent one-scene in Twin Falls, Idaho, when Warren's guilt-ridden Francine is forced to come face-to-face-to-face with the sons she left behind- Warren's only one screen a minute or so, but I think she's Oscar-worthy).

newland said...

Playing a dumb blonde has never been as easy as it may seem, and even if a few have excelled and have been recognised by Oscar, we know that the Academy can also fall for the dumb ingenue when it isn't done so very well (Jennifer Tilly, anyone?)

So after rewatching Victor/Victoria, I find Warren's performance somewhere between Judy Holliday (goooood) and Mira Sorvino (baaaad. She has her greatish moments, and I can perfectly understand why they nominated her, but that is enough for me. A win would be out of the question.