“These are the directors who fall short of the Pantheon either because of a fragmentation of their personal vision or because of disruptive career problems.”
--Andrew Sarris, assigning Edwards to the category of directors called “The Far Side of Paradise” in his seminal 1963 book The American Cinema
Of the films I’ve seen that Blake Edwards made in his long, sometimes successful, sometimes troubled career, there are three that I can look back on with something like love-- A Shot in the Dark, The Party and Victor/Victoria. For me, his second collaboration with Peter Sellers in the Inspector Clouseau series remains the purest, the most graceful and delicate-- if those are words that can be applied in a sentence that also uses the name “Clouseau”-- and overall the funniest of a run of films that were not lacking in individual moments of oxygen-depleting hilarity (The wonderful but uneven The Pink Panther Strikes Again undoubtedly rules in the oxygen-depletion department.)
The Party, one of the most relentless slapstick features ever made (and I mean that in a good way), was a gateway for this eight-year-old’s eyes to a whole history of physical comedy. Edwards and Sellers’ shameless and giddy accessing of that history wouldn’t be enough to warrant the film its own place at the pantheon table, were it not for the fact that it also has the crack timing of a classic that hasn’t worn thin or given up many of its secrets over time, even if perhaps its bedrock of racial caricature has. (However you slice it, though, Hrundi V. Bakshi is no Mr. Yunioshi, and that may have everything to do with the one-sided war for comic supremacy waged between Sellers and Mickey Rooney.)
And Victor/Victoria was not only enjoyable for its expansive cabaret energy and cross-wired Rubik’s cube approach to sexual role playing, especially valuable during the nascent dawning hours of Reagan’s American morning, but also because it felt like a re-energizing project for Edwards, buoyed by the game energy of James Garner, the twinkling bombast of Robert Preston, the screwball abandon of Leslie Anne Warren and a never-better Julie Andrews, sporting androgynous echoes of Weimar decadence that would have had Bob Fosse, Luchino Visconti and Tinto Brass (but perhaps not Walt Disney) giggling like dirty schoolboys. Victor/Victoria marks one of the only times I’ve ever really enjoyed Julie Andrews as a screen presence, Maria von Trapp being one persistent and difficult albatross to shoo away. But in fact, the entire cast of Victor/Victoria shares Andrews’ anything-goes vibe, and that vibe is central to why the movie worked so well in 1982 and continues to do so. Victor/Victoria felt like a welcome creative respite and renewing in between increasingly desperate Pink Panther sequels, the timid sexual politics of 10 and the sun-blanched bile of S.O.B., a sour Hollywood reaming sullied by desperation of an entirely different stripe— here’s a movie whose transgressive sensibility and blunt satirical points, rooted in distress and anger that were undoubtedly quite real and vivid for Edwards, feel beamed in and unadjusted straight from 1971.
As Edwards’ films became more nakedly autobiographical—beginning with 10 and including S.O.B., The Man Who Loved Women and especially That’s Life!, they became increasingly marked by an uncomfortable kind of sad-sack entitlement which, however it relates to Edward’s creative state of mind, never resulted in a crucial translation of those midlife worries and insecurities into a definitive cinematic statement. The increasingly insular environment of That’s Life!, in which real family members were cast in a tale of a rich Malibu citizen’s reckoning with mortality (the movie was even shot in Edward’s beachside home) seemed to allow Edwards to take for granted that his privileged worldview would be one easily related to by his audience, a crucial misstep, it seems to me. And it didn’t help that the movie was as draggy and mopey as Jack Lemmon’s protagonist, bereft of much of the wit and buoyancy that were hallmarks of his previous films. (June Werrett, in her January 2003 Senses of Cinema profile of Edwards, provides a more sympathetic, and certainly more detailed overview of this period in Edwards’ career, and of his work in general that is highly recommended reading for fans of the director’s work.) Sunset was at least an attempt to work out the distrust of the machinations of the film industry that Edwards spewed in S.O.B. in a more palatable format—Werrett called this detective mystery set in 1929 Hollywood “the search for film-truth and that truth manifests in the running joke, ‘And that’s the way it really happened – give or take a lie or two.’” If it is also is ultimately unsatisfying as critique and a mystery, you can still feel Edwards, the filmmaker of vitality and curiosity, peeked through the scrims and constructs of the Hollywood façade. Conversely, pictures like A Fine Mess, Switch, Skin Deep and Son of the Pink Panther, the ill-fated attempt to resuscitate the Clouseau franchise with Roberto Benigni replacing Sellers, seem defeated from the get-go, retreats into patented realms of cable-ready “dirty” comedy and the desperation to refit tired slapstick games into new jackets.
It’s worth noting that my ambivalence about Edwards’ career is likely not universally shared, especially in these days after his death. Even Andrew Sarris eventually upgraded Edwards and began viewing his films through a much more serious prism. (His Village Voice ten-best list was probably the only one from 1982 which included Edwards’ Trail of the Pink Panther, a sloppy, occasionally hilarious compendium of Sellers outtakes intended as a tribute to the recently deceased actor that were cobbled together into a plot of sorts and peppered with in-character tributes from the likes of David Niven, Richard Mulligan and Joanna Lumley.) But even though the value of much of his work is tarnished for me, he remains a filmmaker whose charge to reinvigorate and reshape the boundaries of slapstick comedy is one that I respect, and one to whom I will always be grateful for the pleasures cited above which I have returned to time and time again and to which I will continue to revisit. I also look forward to catching up to the early Blake Edwards films that have so far remained on my to-see list, including Operation Petticoat (my childhood memories are far too vague for me to pretend I’ve really seen it), Days of Wine and Roses, Wild Rovers and most especially Experiment in Terror. It has also been far too long since I’ve seen The Great Race, and although I’d prefer to wait for a revival screening my daughters received the DVD for Christmas last year, so what better time to pop that one in than now, as a remembrance of a dedication to a brand of film comedy that, in this age of overbudgeted overkill may be as endangered as the long takes Edwards so often skillfully employed to record his shenanigans.
Blake Edwards died Wednesday evening at a Los Angeles hospital as a result of complications from pneumonia, his wife Julie Andrews by his side. He was 88 years old, and though it’s more fitting to celebrate the life of a man who lived so long and made such an indelible mark as an artist in the form that he loved, I’m grateful that his suffering, which included difficulties with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and depression, has now ended. My last image of Edwards is probably shared by many—shooting across the stage, in a wheelchair, in a parody of his slapstick style during the 2004 Oscar ceremony, where he would later receive a Lifetime Achievement Award—and it’s one I’m grateful for. It was a happy, surprising display of spirit from a man who had long been out of the spotlight, embodying as it did the kind of energy that propelled his best work, and it makes me smile to think of the possible metaphysical reunion going on right now (relatively speaking, of course) as Edwards and Sellers begin plotting slapstick antics for a whole new dimension.