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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The Pink Panther (1922-2010)

Let’s face it, in recent years it hasn’t been everyday that we have heard the name Blake Edwards. So it seemed like one of those bizarre cosmic coincidences when, on the day he died but before the news was known, I was listening to a discussion of him.

Specifically, I was listening to a podcast in which Dennis Miller and Lisa Dabbs (Miller’s radio show’s designated “Book Lady”) were discussing Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman (try saying that title without pausing for breath!) by Sam Wasson. Miller and Dabbs concurred that Breakfast at Tiffany’s was not their favorite Blake Edwards movie. Respectfully, I had to disagree with both of them.

Most of the news bulletins cited Edwards as the director of the Pink Panther movies, and that is certainly what sticks out on his c.v., since he made eight of them. (Let’s overlook the 1968 deviation, Inspector Clouseau, directed by Bud Yorkin and starring Alan Arkin, and, for that matter, the two recent movies starring Steve Martin.) And they may even be the films that, collectively, brought the most pleasure to the public. The definitive Panther flicks were the ones starring the incomparable Peter Sellers. That safely allows us to overlook the Edwards misfires that followed Sellers’s too-early demise: Trail of the…, Curse of the…, Son of the… The Edwards/Sellers Panthers define the director’s niche in our collective cinematic memory: what one headline writer summed up as “sophisticated slapstick.” It’s true. Edwards’s comedies often had the trappings of a classic James Bond flick: glamorous locations, jet-setting characters and conspicuous affluence. Somehow, that made the ludicrous pratfalls all the funnier, kind of like bringing a whoopee cushion to a formal dinner. The elegance of the music provided by frequent collaborator Henry Mancini (going all the way back to the TV series Peter Gunn) was the icing on the pie in the face.

Edwards worked, however, in more genres than just comedy. In 1971 his western Wild Rovers starred William Holden and Ryan O’Neal as cowboys who decide to rob a bank. He made the 1972 medical drama The Carey Treatment. And he made the 1974 political drama The Tamarind Seed, with Julie Andrews (Mrs. Edwards) and Omar Sharif. Nearly simultaneously with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he made two notable dramas, both starring Lee Remick: the thriller Experiment in Terror and alcoholism-themed romantic drama Days of Wine and Roses. While Edwards got a single Oscar nomination in his whole life (in 1983 for writing the screenplay for Victor Victoria), Tiffany’s and Roses pulled in five nominations each. The former won Oscars for Mancini for his score and the song “Moon River,” and the latter got another statuette for Mancini for the title song. Edwards did get an honorary Oscar in 2004 for his body of work, and he provided one of the most memorable acceptances in the history of the telecast. With Jim Carrey playing straight man, a motorized chair presumably bearing Edwards careened across the stage and then crashed.

Merely viewing Blake Edwards’s work as that of a laugh factory underestimates him, as his better films demonstrate. Amid the sight gags and physical humor, there was dead serious commentary on the human condition. In the characters who endure all kinds of slights and absurd bad luck, there was something of Edwards himself in there. Around the beginning of the 1980s he made a couple of very personal films, one making possible the other. His classic midlife crisis comedy 10 boosted the careers of Dudley Moore and Bo Derek and gave him the clout to make S.O.B., which was more or less his autobiographical roman à clef as well as a poison pen letter to the Hollywood that had frustrated him so much. (This anger toward the movie establishment was clearly a long time brewing. It is on full display in his one—and for my money, superior—non-Pink Panther collaboration with Peter Sellers, The Party.) S.O.B. was perhaps Edwards’s blackest humor of all, as his onscreen surrogate, played by Richard Mulligan, has his actor wife with the world’s most wholesome reputation (based on and played by Andrews) bare her breasts to save his movie and then dies an absurd death. A subplot has another man dying of a heart attack while jogging on the beach and being ignored by everybody for days except for his faithful dog.

Some other movies you may have forgotten that Edwards made: the military comedy The Perfect Furlough (with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh), the car race comedy The Great Race (with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis), the war comedy What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (with James Coburn and Dick Shawn), the romcom The Man Who Loved Women (with Burt Reynolds and Julie Andrews), the bigamist comedy Micki + Maude (with Dudley Moore, Amy Irving and Ann Reinking), the romantic comedy Blind Date (with Bruce Willis and Kim Bassinger), the facing-mortality dramedy That’s Life! (with Lemmon and Andrews), the horse race comedy A Fine Mess (with Ted Danson and Howie Mandel), the Hollywood western comedy Sunset (with Bruce Willis and James Garner) and the body switch comedy Switch (with Ellen Barkin and Jimmy Smits).

It can be difficult to generalize about a filmmaker who has such a varied body of work. But let’s do it anyway. Other than frequently casting his wife and sometimes his daughter (Jennifer Edwards was a regular supporting player in his movies), one thing you could usually count on in a Blake Edwards was a bit (or a lot) of physical comedy along the way. There was usually going to be a party, often with things getting way out of hand. And there was usually a fair amount of drinking. You could count on at least one good scene of people hoisting one (or two or three), whether it is Peppard and Hepburn tippling at the 21 Club after sending her ex-husband (played by Buddy Ebsen) home or Steve Franken downing drinks meant for the guests he is supposed to be serving at a swanky Hollywood party or Dudley Moore chatting with a bartender in a Mexican resort or William Holden, Robert Preston and Robert Preston downing highballs as they wake a deceased friend.

And that’s the other thing to remember about Edwards. He was also a screenwriter. And, while all those people were drinking all those drinks, they were also talking. And the talk was interesting. To see a Blake Edwards movie is to be reminded not only how much we have lost the art of conversation but also of how much our movies have lost the art of dialog.


-S.L., 23 December 2010

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