Remembering Blake Edwards
When I was a kid my favorite movie directors were Alfred Hitchcock and Blake Edwards. No, I’m not that old, but the likes of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese were far from standard bearers then. Hitchcock I knew primarily from TV screenings of his best pictures and reruns of the hit show that bore his name; the only film of his that I saw first run in a theater was his last, the slender Family Plot (1976).
But we never missed The Pink Panther movies. I didn’t quite know what they were, as there hadn’t been a new one since A Shot in the Dark in 1964. (Or, I should say, one that reunited star Peter Sellers with Edwards; no one remembers Alan Arkin in Bud Yorkin’s laughless Inspector Clouseau in 1968, and no one will remember the grim Steve Martin reboots in a few years.) But dad assured me that I would like The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) and since he was driving the car, what could I say?
Dad was right. We all loved it. He still laughs over the “minkey” business. So do I.
So did everyone. A year later came The Pink Panther Strikes Again. As a grownup I prefer the verbal gags to the elaborate slapstick ones, but look at how well-staged and well-timed this is, a perfect fusion of acting, direction, and editing. (It was also the first movie I ever reviewed, for my sixth-grade paper.)
Then, in 1978, The Revenge of the Pink Panther. It was not a bomb. And I’m confident my kids will go for it, too.
In between these treats I often watched The Great Race (1965) on TV. It was Edwards’ tribute to silent film comics and his attempt to make “the funniest film ever,” at a time when everyone in Hollywood had the same goal (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, etc.) Like them it runs awfully long and falls short of its aim, but not for lack of trying. You like pie fights? Blake Edwards gives you the mother of all pie fights, with Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood getting many in the kisser, and–the funny part–Tony Curtis staying unscathed for as long as possible. Edwards was a whiz at sustaining humor through lengthy takes and across the entire expanse of the widescreen frame, skills that are practically obsolete in our era of frantic editing and cutting right to the punchline.
But the joke was on him–from The Great Race to the pink panther’s return he was fated to go hitless, metaphorically pie-fighting with studio executives in boardrooms and enduring critical and commercial indifference. Marriage to Julie Andrews was a 40-year success that failed to translate to the movies, with the flop of Darling Lili (1970), a musical-to-end-all-musicals that helped end the musical a particularly bitter blow. It was a miserable stretch for Edwards, a jack-of-all-trades in Hollywood since the 40s, who had acted, written, and directed. By the late 50s Edwards was a reliable hitmaker, aided by frequent collaborators like composer Henry Mancini, who contributed the classic theme to his Peter Gunn TV show.
A lot of Edwards’ obits headline 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I don’t think it’s his best film–the elegance of his style was marred by questionable taste, never more glaringly than in Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed Japanese businessman. But thanks to a knockout Audrey Hepburn and Mancini’s “Moon River” it’s his most iconic, and they both hold up.
1962 brought two contrasts. Experiment in Terror is an exciting, still unsung thriller, with Lee Remick (a wonderful actress, gone too soon) and Glenn Ford. Look for it on Turner Classic Movies.
Remick and Lemmon, Edwards’ favorite actor, are outstanding in the no-holes-barred alcoholism drama Days of Wine and Roses. Both were Oscar nominees, and Mancini picked up another Oscar for another memorable theme song. These two films explore the darker tones to the filmmaker’s life and work.
But in his films he mostly kept the demons at bay through the thick and thin to come. (I’d say 1964’s A Shot in the Dark, the panther-less Pink Panther sequel, may lay claim to being the funniest movie ever, or one of them.) By 1978 he was riding high, yet the success of the Panthers was something of an artistic strait-jacket, one that yoked him to the combustible Sellers (I’m not a fan of the comedian’s “Indian” portrayals but 1968’s The Party has some of Edwards’ best widescreen gags, not always funny but marvels of craft along the lines of Jacques Tati). He broke out with the mature, worldly-wise, funny, and sexy 10 (1979), the film that launched a thousand cornrowed hairstyles as women clamored to be Bo Derek, Dudley Moore’s 11-rated lust object in the movie. Dad didn’t take us to that.
10, a huge hit, had a nice role for Andrews, as the woman Moore returns to. In 1981’s S.O.B., it was her turn to get her freak on, and so she does, popping her top and showing her “boobies” in a jaw-dropping sequence for anyone still enthralled by Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. It’s actually one of the sweeter scenes in Edwards’ poison pen letter to his Hollywood wilderness years, where mud is flung freely at barely disguised caricatures of various bigwigs. At the top of his profession he, too, let it all hang out.
That opening scene is a perfect lampoon of a bad musical, one that is made over into an R-rated romp with “boobies” over the course of two bitterly hilarious hours. But Edwards and Andrews play it straight–in a manner of speaking–in his last great film, the wise and witty and bravely open-minded musical comedy Victor Victoria (1982). Capping what might be called a “middle age” trilogy it has something for everyone–a delicious, gender-switching part for its star, in good form and voice, wonderful supporting roles for James Garner, Robert Preston, Lesley Ann Warren, and Alex Karras (!), among others, inspired slapstick gags, and a message of tolerance delivered with a spoonful of sugar and spice. Edwards received his only Oscar nomination for his script.
By the time Edwards received his honorary Oscar in 2004, his Hollywood career had been over for 11 years. He returned, unwisely, to past glories with Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), controversially assembled from outtakes of the deceased Sellers, and a desperate spinoff, 1983’s Curse of the Pink Panther. The bigamy comedy Micki + Maude (1984) is the only one I recall with any fondness, but its dual pregnancy story is…labored. The rest was toil and flop sweat; his final film, 1993’s Son of the Pink Panther, which I saw in an empty theater in San Jose, looks, bizarrely, like a 1963 one, as if it had been buried in a time capsule. An attempt at a Broadway career sputtered in 1995 with an ill-starred staging of Victor Victoria, with Andrews gamely recreating her Oscar-nominated role.
Was the final act as gloomy as I made out? I was surprised to find some support among my colleagues for movies I’d written off, like Blind Date (1987) and Skin Deep (1989). So let’s let Edwards have the last laugh, and bask in the “glow” of a classic funnyman.