With the passing of Blake Edwards, the world has lost a master, and an important link in the development of American comedies. Edwards is the bridge in comedic sensibilities from the more urbane and droll sex comedies of the pre-Hayes code era (think Ernst Lubitsch) and the modern sensibilities that moved more towards the explicitly sexual and scatological (say, Judd Apatow).
For modern audiences, the work of Edwards will always seem of period. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but works as diverse as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Party and the Pink Panther series feature racial stereotypes that temper more politically correct enthusiasms. But just as D. W. Griffith is one of the greats, Edwards legacy is only tarnished but not ruined by such elements. Like most comics, his films were a reflection of their era, and a commentary on them, and it takes some distance to find the truth underneath the polyester period trappings.
Like most from his generation, Edwards’s directorial career started in television, after writing a number of B westerns and films for Richard Quine. His early efforts are most notable for the cast, with Operation Petticoat the best remembered of the bunch (with Tony Curtis and Cary Grant). Television served him well, as he created Peter Gunn, and set a tone of cool that would dominate his 60’s work. In 1961 came Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audrey Hepburn’s filmography is reasonably long and she is an international sex symbol, so it says something that Holly Golightly is her career-defining role. Her fashion sense (that black dress!) and the extended cigarette holder here are as immortal as Bogart’s trench-coat, or Harold Lloyd’s glasses. Though the film is scarred by Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of an annoyed Asian neighbor (which might be forgivable if we weren’t supposed to laugh at the abuse he takes for wanting quiet simply because he’s a wacky Asian), it was here that Edwards matured into a great director. So much of modern comedy is performance-based, but if you watch the party scene in this movie, it’s a musical number of comic choreography. If released today, the film would be seen as the Hollywoodified version of a much tougher novel, but that also goes to show how wrong modern concerns for fidelity can be. The film exists right on the precipice of the new freedoms regarding sex on screen (European films had already started to feature nudity), which is why the film can only intimate the fifty dollars Holly gets to powder her nose is a euphemism for sexual favors, but it – like so many of the films of the past – it gives the film a couple layers. Some viewers may think she’s on the verge of real prostitution, others may never get what’s going on, while others can see the sad truth of her “profession.” Regardless of the retroactive schmaltz associated with “Moon River,” the ending of the film works like gangbusters, and the film deserves it place as one of the great romantic comedies. In 1962 he stretched his muscles, doing a thriller/noir with Experiment in Terror, and – one of his personal favorites – the melodrama The Days of Wine and Roses. The latter is more effective than the former, but both are good movies, and showed that Edwards had a range. With Roses he showed that he understood pathos, which is the key to any great comedy. In another career, these would be crown jewels, but the next year he made The Pink Panther. For those who are only familiar with the franchise in passing, or through Inspector Clouseau’s fights with Cato (Bert Kwouk), what’s fascinating about the first film is that it’s a European heist movie with an international cast that includes David Niven, Robert Wagner and Cappucine. But Peter Seller’s Clouseau was the role, which led to A Shot in the Dark a year later. The franchise waned dramatically as it went on – and also led to a bizarre spin-off in 1968 with Alan Arkin – but it had enough audience pull to lead to eight official movies in total (including one with Ted Wass and another with Roberto Benign) or an even ten if you include the Steve Martin remakes. It’s a comic legacy of diminishing returns, but between the first two films and The Party, Edwards set a tone for how comedies were made in that era, and films like Casino Royale and What’s New, Pussycat? are inconceivable without Edwards. The Party has a rabid fan-base, as it’s an effort that either delights from beginning to end or puts you off with its dated approach and its mild case of racism. The film stars Sellers (and other than Stanley Kubrick, it’s hard to argue that Edwards wasn’t Sellers’s best director) as an Indian actor who is mistakenly invited to a party, and manages to turn it into full-on chaos. The movie is a perfect time capsule of the era, and as it was made in 1968 you can feel the film torn between the counter-culture (which gets a watered down representation) and a more staid sensibility. There are lots of bubbles, and an elephant. Slightly more fun is Edwards’s The Great Race, which has Tony Curtis reuniting with Some Like it Hot co-star Jack Lemmon, along with Natalie Wood and Peter Falk. It’s very arch and silly – a live action cartoon – and all the more enjoyable for it. Edwards had no problem cashing Clouseau paychecks through most of the 1970’s, though his relationship with Sellers crumbled, and the comedy got more and more labored, but he did get to make a World War II film with his wife Julie Andrews in Darling Lily, and the Western The Wild Rovers with William Holden and Ryan O’Neal. But in one of the great flukes of right place-right time, he turned Dudley Moore into a leading man with his 1979 film 10, which was a cultural phenomenon (there are still jokes made about Bo Derek’s hair in this film). Edwards was always interested in the social mores of sex, and the film hit a cultural button. Moore plays a guy who keeps seeing what he considers the perfect woman (which in 1979 was defined in the dictionary as Bo Derek), and contorts his life and nearly ruins his current relationship to be in a position to fuck Derek’s character. In that way Edwards showed his great gift for torture and near-missing in comedy. It was a build-up to his last great picture with 1981’s S.O.B. The story of a filmmaker who wants to get someone known for their wholesome image to do a nude scene – featuring Julie Andrews going topless – was Edwards at his sharpest, and i s one of the best satires of Hollywood. He followed it with Victor/Victoria, the still-funny sex comedy about a female drag queen played by his wife, who falls for a man who doesn’t realize she’s a woman. It was a great rebirth, but turned into his last great run of quality. Like most great directors, Edwards worked long past his prime, and the rest of his films from the 1980’s were misses. There are moments in Blind Date and Skin Deep, but they’re few and far between. He knew the blueprints, but it’s hard to imagine how much cocaine made Ted Danson and Howie Mandell in A Fine Mess seem like a good idea. Comedians and comic directors don’t tend to age well, as we’ve seen with many of his contemporaries (Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks). But if anything, Edwards marks the end of the age of elegance in comedies and comic directors. John Landis is one of the last, but so much of comedy – even from names like Judd Apatow – are driven by dialogue and the performers more than visual wit (you see more of that internationally). Edwards knew that certain angles and certain cuts could be hysterical, and he used the language of cinema to enhance or create a joke. For that – among many other reasons – is why he’ll be missed.