Seven things I learned from Blake Edwards: A filmmaker remembered
What sort of lasting impact do the films of the comedy legend leave behind?
"We are, each of us, the product of an era." - George, "10"
Born in 1922. That's amazing to me. And Blake Edwards absolutely was a product of an era… of several of them… as well as one of the influences that turned out so many other people who are products of time spent with his amazing body of work.
I did not write something immediately about the death of Blake Edwards because of just how much the life of Blake Edwards meant to me. You can't really say "gone too soon" about someone who was born in 1922 and who left behind some of the great screen comedy of all time, but that doesn't change the impact I felt when I woke up to an e-mail from Dan Fienberg informing me that Blake had passed away.
We all have filmmakers we feel a special affinity for, and in the case of Blake Edwards, I have always felt somewhat alone in my love for his work. I am frequently amazed at how dismissive people are towards big chunks of his work, and in particular, how much disrespect there is for the "Pink Panther" series with Peter Sellers. I have said it many times in print before and I would feel remiss if I did not take the occasion of his passing to once again state just how great Edwards was. He had a phenomenal sense of composition, and if you've only seen his comedies on TV, panned and scanned, you have done him a great disservice.
The "Pink Panther" movies, for example, are gorgeous in full widescreen, all of them composed to take full comic advantage of the 2.35:1 image. He left behind a personal filmography that paints a very particular portrait of life in Southern California over a certain period of time, and he also survived several seismic shifts in the film industry, reinventing himself each time to great success.
I could write a typical piece about his films, but with Edwards, I feel like his work meant more than that to me. I didn't just passively watch his movies… I internalized lessons from them. I absorbed them. Edwards helped to shape my worldview, and my understanding of many things. The least I can do on this occasion is give back some of that accumulated knowledge.
GAY PEOPLE ARE AWESOME
"Victor/Victoria" was released when I was 12, and we saw it theatrically, then repeatedly on home video when it showed up. That film, much like "Some Like It Hot," played with gender roles and drag as fodder for comedy, but there was such unconditional acceptance and adoration of the gay characters in "Victor Victoria" that I took note of it, even at that age. There was a clear depiction of homophobia in the film, but none in the movie's perspective, and that affected me. The more of Edwards's work I saw, the more I realized it was a constant presence in his work, and more so in later years. In trying to capture the Southern California that he knew and recognized and the industry that he worked in, Edwards knew full well that open and acknowledged homosexuality was part of that, and he normalized it in his films in dozens of cases and in ways both subtle and broad. Edwards never idealized his gay characters, either. He just made them honest, and that still feels sort of revolutionary when you look at the work now compared to much of what Hollywood does.
HOLLYWOOD PARTIES ARE AWESOME
One of his greatest films, the comedy "The Party," is pretty much just a real-time demolition of a Hollywood party by the bumbling innocent Hrundi V. Bakshi (Peter Sellers). Edwards loved to recreate Hollywood parties in his films, and he made them look like these great decadent bacchanals full of witty people, naked women, and absolutely no consequence for anything. His parties each had distinct narratives, and anything could happen by the end of one. You might be involved in a car chase with people dressed as knights in armor and horses, or you might end up witnessing Richard Mulligan in full-blown meltdown, or there might be an elephant covered in hippie paint… no way of knowing. But there will be amazing food, plentiful drink, and music by Henry Mancini. What more could you want?
PEOPLE ARE INHERENTLY BOTH RIDICULOUS AND DIGNIFIED
Edwards loved to watch people fall down, the most basic form of comedy there is, but he also loved dry wit and wordplay and sophisticated characterization. He believed in breaking down barriers for the times he lived in, and he knew how to keep the moments where he pushed the envelope from being empty shock by always underlining them with deeply-felt humanity. Edwards sometimes gets a knock for making "rich white people" movies, but I think he was acutely aware of the way class worked in Hollywood, and one of the main points of "The Party" is the way an extra ends up deflating the pretensions of all of the industry in one long night. Edwards knew his own lifestyle was ridiculous as well as remarkable, and he was willing to lay bare his own fears and manias and weaknesses just as much as he was willing to make fun of anyone else. Even when he would reach for a base joke, he would find a way to twist it. In "10," for example, there's a little old lady serving tea to George (Dudley Moore) and a priest, and as she bends down, she farts. Loudly. Almost simultaneously, the dog gets up and bolts from the room, and the priest grimaces at George as he explains: "Every time Mrs. Kessel breaks wind, we beat the dog." That's Edwards in a nutshell. He'll get the laugh, and then he'll remind you that you're laughing at a real person, at things that unite us, and that is exactly what makes it okay.
COMEDY CAN, INDEED, BE PRETTY
Why is it that most mainstream Hollywood comedy today is directed in a manner that could best be described as perfunctory? There's so little style, so little wit in the actual filmmaking, that there's no real personality to set one apart from the other. You could stack up ten studio comedies in a given year and look at them and there'd be nothing to distinguish one filmmaker from another. That's not to say that they're "bad," per se, but just that studio comedy celebrates a bright, flat homogenized visual style these days. Do people really think comedy has to look like that? Because Edwards was proof that's not true. He was so good in so many of his films that the movies where he wasn't on his game really stood out. When you look at "City Heat," the Clint Eastwood/Burt Reynolds film that Edwards walked off of, you can can tell immediately what footage was shot by Edwards and what was shot by Richard Benjamin, the replacement director, because the Edwards stuff has a totally different character, a totally different visual signature. A movie like "S.O.B." or "Victor/Victoria" benefits enormously from being shot in scope, and even a well-meaning but gentle misfire like "Sunset" benefits from the way it gives the production period design room to breathe. Very few comedies every have the sort of visual lushness of the back-to-back-to-back "The Return of The Pink Panther," "The Pink Panther Strikes Again," and "Revenge of The Pink Panther," and I see no reason other filmmakers should be afraid to approach pure silliness with such sophistication.
JULIE ANDREWS IS NOT, IN FACT, MARY POPPINS
Turns out Julie Andrews is this hip, funny, bawdy Hollywood broad who just happens to embody English class. My first exposure to her as a child was in films like "The Sound Of Music" and, yes, "Mary Poppins," and there's a reason those films made her an international movie star. She is sunny and pure and beautiful in them, and her voice is just magic. She's an amazing singer. She and Edwards worked together early on in "Darling Lili," an epic bomb that really is a chore to sit through, one of my least favorite films for either of them. Later, though, they teamed up three times in a row for "10," "S.O.B.," and "Victor/Victoria," and that last film got something like ten Oscar nominations, including Best Actress for Andrews. That movie's take on sex and gender is so much more fully-formed and inclusive than you would expect from Maria from "The Sound Of Music" that it was one of the first times I ever consciously was aware that actors are not the people we see onscreen. Ironically, I think the more she worked with her husband in later years, the more we saw elements of the real Andrews. Even so, I think it is amazing how revealing Edwards could be with his work while still managing to maintain a healthy sort of privacy about his own life with one of the world's most famous movie stars. When I met her at the "Despicable Me" junket earlier this year, I was positively beaming. I love Andrews not because she played roles that were important to me in childhood, but because those roles led me to appreciate the full career of this wonderful lady, and the love that her longtime husband felt for her was apparent in the roles he wrote for her and sense of humor that must have been a big part of their life together.
SEX IS VERY COMPLICATED AND HAS ALMOST NOTHING TO DO WITH BODY PARTS
When you're a kid and you're first starting to consider sex and think about whether or not you're ever going to experience it and how and what it would be like, there are all sorts of images of sexuality that you're exposed to that influence your beliefs and your fears and your hopes. We are inundated with sexual imagery in film, some of it healthy, some of it wildly damaged, some of it irresponsible, and some just for fun, and how a filmmaker approaches sex can be one of the most revealing things in popular art. Most filmmakers avoid it entirely, or they use some very basic coded language to get past a sex scene in the most painless way possible. A fireplace. A hand grabbing a sheet in ecstasy. Tasteful shots of writhing bodies. Fade out. Not Edwards, though. Edwards understood that we are defined by who we are in the bedroom as much as anything else, and the humor that is built into our sexual natures is too good for him to avoid. The movie "10" deals with a 42-year-old man's brief detour into "manopause," a sort of panic about sexual options and performance and appeal, and Dudley Moore spends much of the film obsessed with a beautiful younger woman played by Bo Derek. When he finally gets her to bed, she's stunning, and Derek strips down to nothing, sets the mood with Ravel's "Bolero," sets the lighting just so. It should be erotic, but Edwards deflates and derails the sequence by highlighting all the little ways it is ridiculous, taking the steam out of George's dream. Edwards showed that attraction was a matter of all sorts of chemistry, whether drawn to someone as a sparring partner or for their wit or because of power and position or just because they look really good naked. He had an obvious interest in sex, but not in a snickering American way. Instead, Edwards seemed to understand that much of what we do is a reaction to what we are or aren't getting, what we want or what we need, and his attitudes still feel bracingly modern.
PLOT IS OVERRATED
Edwards was a very good writer, and he certainly had an appreciation for structure, but some of the biggest delights in his work come from his willingness to digress. When he's interested in something, he is perfectly willing to stop the film cold and just explore a joke or a set or a character. And some of his most enjoyable films are wildly light on plot. "The Party," as I mentioned, is just an excuse to pinball a bunch of characters and types off of each other for a few hours, and "S.O.B." takes almost 30 minutes to even begin to focus itself into something like a plot. The "Pink Panther" films would wander loosely through scenarios, and "The Great Race" is little more than a two-and-a-half hour long Looney Tunes cartoon, one gag after another. The best of his work is deceptively structured, like the way he found a spine in "Breakfast At Tiffany's" that may not be quite as hard-edged as the book, but which worked beautifully for a mainstream studio version of the story. Edwards would digress and we would follow because in the hands of a good filmmaker, the point isn't just the story being told, but the voice of the storyteller.
And that's one thing Edwards had to spare: voice. I miss him already, and I look forward to revisiting much of his work for years and decades to come as I introduce his movies to my kids.
Blake Edwards was 88 years old. He will always be a giant.
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