“[Blake] Edwards has become a stylistic influence in the cinema,” Andrew Sarris would write of the filmmaker in 1968, “And his personality and script dominate Ralph Nelson’s Soldier in the Rain the way Lubitsch’s personality once dominated Cukor’s One Hour With You.” Sarris would dub himself an “Edwardian”in his support of the film director and the inclusion of Edwards in his foundational book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968, still remains the most serious scholarship on him. Edwards’ distinction in the book included him in “The Far Side of Paradise,” the category that “falls short of Pantheon,” the highest distinction. Edwards would be categorized alongside the likes of Capra, Cukor, Minnelli, Preminger, and Fuller—strong company, but characterized as such for Sarris because there is fragmentation or disruption within their careers. This high distinction by Sarris would have the great film critic come back to the question of Edwards years after The American Cinema’s publishing. “I do not regret my critical commitment, but like so many other phenomena of the ’60s, what I once took to be a new wave of the future has turned out to be a receding wave in the past,” Sarris would write in a lengthy overview of post-1968 Edwards for The Village Voice in 1987. “But it has been an exhilarating ride on the surfboard all the same. Edwards remains some kind of director.”
Edwards as a film director can be looked at as an embittered but sharp Hollywood studio lifer who played ball with Hollywood in one half of a lengthy career but then often fought with studios film to film in the latter half. He had an overall fractured career marked with incredible survival instincts and anxieties that soon became the DNA of some of his most personal and best films. That is what makes Edwards such a good subject to look back on in the context of a career that for better or worse was so highly representative of the end of the studio-system Hollywood. But Edwards also made films full of idiosyncrasies that separated him from the pack of so many comedy directors. The Metrograph theatre in New York City has been lucky enough to have Edwards’ long-time collaborator and widow Julie Andrews select eleven films from his prolific career that presents a very eclectic, rich film legacy.
Edwards began in Hollywood by getting jobs as extras and acting gigs. But soon, Edwards became more interested in screenwriting, starting with co-writing the B-Western Panhandle (1948) at the age of 26, and forged his first serious Hollywood relationship by making a radio series for Dick Powell, Richard Diamond: Private Detective. He would then become an acolyte of director Richard Quine, serving as Quine’s screenwriter from musical comedies to the racing film noir Drive a Crooked Road (1954). Their work together extended into television with The Mickey Rooney Show, with Edwards as head writer, and he also began to direct for television and feature films. While films like The Perfect Furlough (1958), the hit Operation Petticoat (1959), and High Time (1960) are perfectly fine films, it is no coincidence that the best film from this early era of Edwards is the one that he had sole writing credit on, Mister Cory (1957), a good character study about male compulsion within a crime drama framework, with Tony Curtis as a gambler who manipulates situations ranging from casinos to romance.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) was Edwards’ commercial breakthrough. Much like his earlier work, it is a star vehicle but this time a female star vehicle, with Audrey Hepburn as the enigmatic socialite Holly Golightly. Adapting from Truman Capote’s novella, screenwriter George Axelrod would give the heroine a more sentimental happy ending and broader humor (mostly attributed to Holly’s neighbor I.Y. Yunioshi, played by a yellow-faced Mickey Rooney, a racist casting choice that Edwards voiced much regret over later). However, the film retains the sadness and darkness to Holly’s interiority and secretive past. Edwards films Hepburn’s extroverted performance as fully aspirational but then reveals a more layered person who is deeply unhappy and over-compensating. Edwards balances this drama with an assured and inspired comedic touch, particularly the visual gags at the parties that Holly and Paul (George Peppard) go to, such as when a woman whose turban catches fire without her realizing it. Nevertheless, the film’s legacy remains Hepburn’s iconography in the black Givenchy dress and the frothy, fizzy textures of Henry Mancini’s score and song “Moon River” as opposed to the bittersweet center of the film of a “party girl” in a massive identity crisis.
It is rather surprising that in-between Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther (1963) that Edwards made his most dramatic films to date with Experiment in Terror (1962) and Days of Wine and Roses (1962). The former is a handsomely slick late film noir set in San Francisco that has the bite of a proto-slasher with a Major League Baseball climax. The latter is an expansion on the equally masterful John Frankenheimer-directed teleplay, a highly involving drama about alcoholism and addiction. Edwards, who was so impacted by the film that he sought to kick his own drinking, presents how two people may fall off the wagon at the same time but that does not mean both cannot get back on, such as the case for Jack Lemmon’s Joe being able to recover while Lee Remick’s Kirsten cannot. It is a devastating socially realist picture not sugarcoating the breakdown of the nuclear family. Edwards never made a film that dark again. Or rather, it seems he was never allowed to make a film that dark again.
Edwards returned back to comedy and began one of his most lucrative and fruitful collaborations with Peter Sellers on what became The Pink Panther series. The earliest two films, The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark (1964), are quintessentially 1960s Hollywood of pastel colors, international locations, Mancini’s iconic jazz infused score, and physical comedy gags that are reliant on smart direction and sharp camerawork with little visual effects. Sellers’ physical gift for comedy was maximized by Edwards; often the two would figure out on the fly what gags they wanted to capture and in the end produced a remarkable result in how, despite moving gag to gag, there is so much pleasure maintained in watching the comedy unfold. Edwards was emerging as a gifted pop film stylist, not unlike Jerry Lewis for his contemporaneous reputation as an actor-director of comedy. Often in an Edwards farce, he has his camera pan around to observe his cast of characters in their varying spaces or he rests the camera, choosing to have the scene unfold, and let chaos ensue among characters or some physical disruptor. Such as the case with Edwards’ other comedies for the period, The Great Race (1965) and the World War II farce What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966). Andrew Sarris would note that these films in their comedy would break rules and traditions within classical slapstick comedy by gags in rapid succession transcending probability and realism. “Edwards leapfrogs over the lighter gag by opening a door in someone’s face and sending him out of the window,” Sarris delightfully surmises and with that getting the “biggest laughs out of jokes that are too gruesome for most horror films.”
Sellers and Edwards’ ultimate triumph was arguably outside of The Pink Panther universe with the flawed but ingenious, had-to-be-influenced-by-Tati Hollywood satire, The Party (1968), about an Indian actor (unfortunately, Sellers in brown-face), coming to Hollywood and sabotaging his big chance at stardom. It is the first real instance of Edwards doing a show business satire. As this film was being made the producers of The Pink Panther movies tried to extend the series without Edwards, Sellers, or even Mancini’s score with Inspector Clouseau (1968). There was much more to come in severity for Edwards as far as being undercut in his own successes and being second-guessed by the studio.
The next period would be crucial as far as showing the key transitional point in his career. In 1969, Edwards would marry Julie Andrews, a marriage that lasted until Edwards’ death in 2010. Their first film together would be what Andrews did best: musical-comedy. However, Hollywood was changing and the Hollywood musical was becoming a stale and expensive piece of art, and Edwards’ first film with Andrews, Darling Lili (1970), would prove to be one of the most notorious cases of its time.
Seemingly forgotten now, Darling Lili came at a time when the sixties was hitting a counter cultural period and full of political upheaval. May ‘68 had, in fact, caused this WWI musical-comedy aerial epic farce to have some of its shooting moved from Paris to Brussels. Beyond the aerial stunts, there was Andrews not so much playing against her girl next door image than using that image as a facade, as she plays a beloved English performer who is in actuality a German spy. And in one musical sequence, she performs a striptease‚ subverting her good girl image entirely with a smile. Paramount Pictures throughout the shooting took the film away Edwards. It went over-budget significantly and after three years in development with one version a studio cut and another version a roadshow cut with an hour run-time difference (the roadshow cut having overture and exit music), Darling Lili made a fraction of its budget. Edwards only decades later was allowed to make his preferred cuts to the film. The streak of interferences for Edwards continued with the western Wild Rovers (1971), starring Ryan O’Neal and William Holden, with nearly an hour of what Edwards intended for the film cut without consent. Watching it, one does sense that, while well-acted, it is a compromised product and greatly abridged from its origins. Andrews in her own right was in a bit of precarious situation in this New Hollywood, as the roles were not there for her as they once were. She turned to television with a variety show special called The Julie Andrews Hour in 1972. Edwards would direct Julie, a behind the scenes documentary of the first episode of the show that is both a love letter to Andrews and also an honest raising of the curtain of where she was at the time. Edwards asserts himself minimally but he gives a telling quip to his wife with a sigh, “What’s a nice girl like you doing on television?” It is not ideal to be where they were when they both knew what it was like to be at the top. After more studio interference on Edwards’ The Carey Treatment (1972), he enacted a self-imposed Hollywood exile and moved to Europe. Ultimately, he returned to Hollywood to make more sequels for The Pink Panther series, seeking to become a commercially viable director again.
Edwards would survive the 1970s by ending the decade with his comeback film, 10 (1979). Like his other commercial hits it would be embraced for its iconography, with Bo Derek becoming a sex symbol, yet it is in actuality a savagely self-reflexive comedy about male romantic commitment. Still, the film gave Edwards a welcome back to Hollywood and with his new capital, he waved the middle finger back at the film industry by making S.O.B (1981), as inflammatory and cynical about new media as Network but crasser and funnier. Inspired by his experiences on Darling Lili, Wild Rovers, and The Carey Treatment, S.O.B. is a Hollywood satire of a film director who rebels against his studio by re-cutting his financial flop into a musical porn epic. With rapid fire quips and on-camera chaos of sight gag after sight gag, S.O.B. was a return to form for Edward. He would follow that with the equally farcical and brilliant Victor/Victoria (1982), another period comedy-musical with Andrews in lead, supported by her S.O.B. co-star Robert Preston, and Henry Mancini doing the music, which had explicit queer elements of homosexuality and cross-dressing and was nominated for several Oscars. This comeback for Edwards would, however, not have him untouchable from an increasingly focus-group obsessed Hollywood. A few years after Victor/Victoria, the would-be Laurel and Hardy send-up A Fine Mess (1986) got re-edited after poor test screenings which had Edwards disown the film and self-finance what was his last masterpiece, That’s Life! (1986). Shot in his Malibu home with Andrews as the aging vocalist who is facing a potential career-ending diagnosis, Jack Lemmon as her architect husband having panic attacks and suicidal ideation, and Edwards’ children and stepchildren with Andrews playing the on-screen adult children of the middle-age couple, this is a deeply personal work that is at its heart a comedy full of pain about aging, mortality, disconnect, and love. It cuts deep. Edwards always best when wearing his heart on his sleeve.
Edwards would accept his Honorary Oscar on the Academy Awards telecast in 2004 after crashing his electric wheelchair on-stage as a gag. He would get up and give his speech while covered in dust. It was a perfect distillation of both his high-points and low-points, a disastrous crash on the biggest stage—and yet he obviously did something right to be on that stage.
"Blake Edwards: A Film Selection by Julie Andrews" is showing October 19 - 27, 2019 at the Metrograph in New York.