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Blake Edwards’
Sad Songs of Love

 


I am extremely partial to the films of Blake Edwards [1922-2010]. All it takes is for me to hear, over the credits, the first wistful orchestral chords of Darling Lili (1970), The Tamarind Seed (1974), Victor/Victoria (1982), The Man Who Loved Women (1983) or Micki & Maude (1984) … and I’m in dire need of a tissue to dry my glasses. Is it just me, or do I truly hear something so sad, something which is filled with such longing, in these melodies?

 

Coming back to these movies again and again like an old friend, I’ve noticed that Edwards picks, for these musical overtures, the songs which we will later hear complete with their most melancholic lyrics: from “Whistling Away the Dark” in Darling Lili to “Crazy World Full of Crazy Contradictions” in Victor/Victoria. Of course, since this is also the man who has it in him to have made the Inspector Closeau-Pink Panther comedies, we might just as well say that his films are characterised by their moments of anarchic joy, or liberation, or simple mirth concerning the foibles of the everyday. But that’s not what I hear, not what is speaking to me …

 

I am quite happy to know comparatively little about Edwards’ personal life; and I’m willing to assume there is nothing directly autobiographical in most of the films. Edwards is light years away from the kind of personal cinema in which such open self-expression (or self-indulgence) is possible. Edwards takes upon himself all the constraints of a certain old-fashioned, Hollywood-style professionalism – and, in the contemporary context, he is fairly unique in doing so.

 

The surface of an Edwards’ film can be completely accounted for by the conventions of genre, mainstream narrative, or standard stereotypical character construction. If there is something nakedly personal in the depths of these films, it is sure to have been camouflaged, filtered, reworked into the fictional contingencies at hand. Thus, Edwards carries into contemporary American cinema the mastery of what Raymond Bellour once called (apropos Hitchcock) the indirect aim. He advances masked; his voice is muffled by the din of the familiar; he chooses to work solely with elements that are pre-given.

 

Paradoxically, it is this ethos of disguise that finally serves to make Edwards’ films so deeply personal to those who have come to love his work. His cinema is profoundly concerned with those voices which, in our world, can barely be raised above a whisper; and those fragile dreams which can scarcely be represented. Edwards well knows what the mainstream cinema is, and thus what it can be used to reflect upon: the monumental weight of tradition and convention, the endless rehearsal (one more time) of ritualistic scenarios in which feeble individuals take up their appointed place as social subjects.

 

Edwards is, in one sense, a completely dutiful servant of the film industry – he is just as money-conscious and opportunistic as the next operator, and sometimes more so (as evidenced by his production of not one but two Clouseau films after Peter Sellers’ death). But there is also in him something that, while going through all the right motions, worries and doubts and carves out a sad space for reflection; something which reminds me irresistibly of Manny Farber’s idea of a termite art eating away within the façade.

 

It is all summed up in the most beautiful moment of what is, for me, in all respects, Edwards’ finest film, Victor/Victoria. At the end of this torturous plot-line involving the difficult transvestite disguise of Julie Andrews as a-woman-pretending-she’s-a-man-pretending-he’s-a-woman, all disguises are dropped, as befits a let’s-come-clean authentic happy ending; sexual difference and heterosexuality are, seemingly, finally affirmed for the natural facts they are conventionally assumed to be.

 

But this resolution is not what takes centre stage in the final musical number; rather, it is the gloriously camp Robert Preston as Toddy who stands in for Victor and destroys a song we have previously heard performed (“The Shady Lady of Seville”). He screams with delight as the audience – an assembly of all the film’s major characters – stands to applaud. Here, for Edwards, is the power not of truth but of performance, illusion, disguise and game playing. And, above all, the double-edged art of the performer to be both in the performance, winning the audience, and ironically also outside the performance, laughing at the crowd which lets itself be so easily won.

 

As Richard Dyer remarks in his study of Judy Garland in his book Heavenly Bodies, Preston’s camp style here stands for the truth that can only be, in the final instance, indirectly spoken through artifice and disguise, not beyond it. And this truth is addressed to those in the audience who can read (or see and hear) between the lines. As the great critic Gérard Legrand remarked in his Positif review of That’s Life! (plaintively titled “An Act of Love”) in 1986: “The filmmaker seems to say: it is up to the spectator to be attentive if he wants to be truly, profoundly touched”.

 

I’m suggesting we go at Edwards’ art as something that is fleeting, fragile, fugitive. When he is not exploring his dearest themes, Edwards’ termite art goes in other directions, equally unique in the Hollywood context: a sort of detached, almost purely formalistic inquiry into the mechanisms of narrative, character and stylistic construction. There’s often a startling textbook quality to his films, a palpable desire to demonstrate the limit cases of Hollywood form.

 

Hence the major structural trick of Return of the Pink Panther (1975), which is to virtually exclude the hero (Closeau) from every major move of the plot until the very last moment; or the curious case of A Fine Mess (1986), which, as that perceptive Edwards commentator Rick Thompson wrote in Cinema Papers, “posits a few very simple components, and arranges them in a mathematics of permutation, not transformation. Important fiction abstractions like Motive and Emotion are reduced to either Cause or Effect”.

 

Blind Date (1987) leans more to the side of his formalism than his inquiries into the murmurs of the heart. After the knockout trilogy of 10 (1979), S.O.B. (1981) and Victor/Victoria in the first years of the decade, Edwards’ career wobbled a little in terms both of commercial success and artistic confidence – the two post-Sellars Panther films being rather too perverse for most tastes, and The Man Who Loved Women plumbing a reflective depth which consigned it (in Australia, at least) to video-only release. There was a minor triumph, Micki & Maude, and also Edwards’ most defiantly small and domestic experiment, That’s Life! – an entirely remarkable and singular film. Whatever the scorecard, Edwards in Blind Date found himself looking around at a few of the contemporaneous successes that no doubt took a few cues from his comic craft – After Hours (1985), Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Something Wild (1986) – and decided to re-cast and streamline them.

 

Blind Date is a formal reflection upon the Catastrophe Narrative, a genre that Edwards himself perfected at least as early as The Party in 1968. Everything, in the ordinary opening stages of the film, takes the form of an ominously cued set-up: we see a straight, rather uptight guy, Walter (Bruce Willis), trying to find a suitable female partner for a very delicate business dinner with an extremely conservative Japanese tycoon. He is handed – too good to be true – a meek and beautiful Kim Basinger (from The Man Who Loved Women) as Nadia. Walter is also handed a warning that he does not heed: whatever you do, don’t let Nadia drink.

 

Add to this unstable equilibrium the forecast of a peeved, hysterical male friend (John Larroquette as David) who may at all times be in pursuit of the heroine, and you are ready for the whole house of cards to topple. When it does, calamity piles on top of calamity well into the long night. The spectacle reveals Edwards at top form: brilliant gags conceived for deep spaces, big frames and long takes, and clever use of a soundtrack that comments slyly on whatever we see falling apart.

 

Edwards always mounts his comedy in terms of elaborate, symmetrical structures – movements and counter-movements, positions and reversals, crossovers and tie-ups. He plots in terms of threads, on graphs of shape and rhythm. Blind Date pulls a great trick about mid-way by exactly reversing the tables – as Nadia sobers up, Walter decides to go crazy – and the whole catastrophic trajectory replays itself, but differently.

 

This in itself would be enough of a comic coup to complete a simpler film; but Blind Date has in fact hardly started. After the night that cancels itself out comes the day, and a question for both Edwards and his characters: what to do with the remains and the consequences? If a life of routine has been disturbed, should it be left to sink back into normality, or will the glimpse of radical novelty be seized and made to continue? Now Blind Date becomes a romantic comedy in the Capra-McCarey mode, and Edwards puts all the previous motifs of the film to a new use. Catastrophe becomes no longer the principle of a malign destiny (as in After Hours), but a tool that the hero must use to win his heroine from the clutches of her wicked husband-to-be. These narrative moves are wonderfully executed.

 

Blind Date goes easy on what Leonard Maltin refers to time and again (with evident distaste) in his TV Movies and Video Guide as Edwards’ penchant for “pain-and-destruction” gags. But of course, no true Edwards fan would want to overlook this aspect of his Weltanschauung. The fascination with bodily corrosion and mutilation in Edwards’ work takes on some gloriously clinical and pathological forms. His darkest and most uncomfortable film (and certainly his bravest), S.O.B., reminds us that black comedy, in its truest Swiftian form, is a matter of seriously wallowing in the depths – faeces, corpses, the works. Edwards has long had an anal preoccupation, emblematised once and for all in the phallic-shaped “dynamite stimulant” that gets inserted in the backsides of both a horse and Richard Mulligan in A Fine Mess. Add to this an almost jolly obsession with castration in its various real and symbolic forms (poor Herbert Lom in the Pink Panther films progressively loses a finger, a nose … ), and you no doubt have in Edwards suitable case for psychoanalytic treatment.

 

Edwards seems in fact to be both playfully and seriously aware of his neuroses, and uses his films as therapeutic acting-out in search of a cure that is (thankfully) never imminent, short of death’s arrival. A sort of generalised transactional analysis permeates Edwards’ later films, whether taking place in an actual analytic situation (10, The Man Who Loved Women), or in the dialogues of friends or lovers (Micki & Maude, Victor/Victoria). In the film which most adopts the form of an analytic case study, The Man Who Loved Women, Edwards makes a daring split-second associative leap between Burt Reynolds’ fond memory of his early sexual experiences with prostitutes, and his clearly libidinal worship of his mother.

 

If Edwards’ concern with therapy-on-film was merely confined to the Woody Allen (or worse: Henry Jaglom) school of idiosyncratic ego-psychology, I wouldn’t find it as touching or engaging as I do. The Man Who Loved Women makes the connection, all-important for a proper appreciation of Edwards, between a conception of the self which is isolated and drive-centred (torn between the life-drive and the death-drive, potency and impotency), and a self which is finally worth little without an empathetic attachment to others. This is doubtless what attracted Edwards to François Truffaut’s original version of The Man Who Loved Women (1977): the idea of a man who is not a self-centred lady-killer, for whom all women would be the same – but one who is compulsively appreciative of all women in their difference, and who offers himself as the best token of this appreciation.

 

Of course, our society offers a handy, conventional solution to the self/other problem: pairing off, preferably in a heterosexual match. Edwards understands the romance of the perfect match better than most directors – that’s what Blind Date, The Tamarind Seed or 10 are devoted to conjuring – but it is also what worries the hell out of him the most. It is on this level that the underlying sadness of many Edwards’ films gets spelt out. His films are littered with resigned, shipwrecked characters – stoically single men and women of various sexual persuasions – who have never been able to cut it for long within the traditional relationship scenario. (Edwards tends to displace the burden of this melancholia onto his gay characters.) What remains as an alternative is the affirmation of non-sexual friendships that have the strength and wisdom to include differences (such as the Julie Andrews/Robert Preston partnership in Victor/Victoria). Or – in exceptional circumstances – the possibility, for a time, of playing with multiple gender identities (as is the contract between Andrews and James Garner in the same film). Or something still more radical …

 

What knocks on the door of Edwards’ most progressive films is the thrilling possibility of actually thinking and instituting self-other relations in a radically different way: multiple-partner arrangements with the option of bisexuality. This bears no relation to the sexual fantasies of the so-called Permissive Society: for Edwards, this is a fully and powerfully sentimental dream, a song of love. Some viewers would undoubtedly have to make a few leaps and adjustments in their sensibilities to square themselves with the earnestness of a film like The Man Who Loved Women, with its image of dozens of women mourning over Burt Reynold’s grave and Andrews adding the narrational commentary: “What love can do … ”

 

So why the sadness? Edwards knows that what he attempts to represent in such moments is not a given reality, but indeed a very fragile dream. His films chart all the difficulties of ever getting to one of these Utopian conclusions: the conflicts of love and career; the limitations of largely conditioned individuals struggling fitfully to live differently. Finally, Edwards finds himself making a quick cut to the land of the fairy tale, in order to at least suggest to us what might be. But this is not mere escapism; it is the trace of a real and deep yearning.

 

It is this fairy tale quality so openly avowed in Micki & Maude (which is, in its closing moments, the story of a successful threesome, with the two women pursuing their careers and the man giving up his to mind the kids) that makes it such a touching film. Edwards has to strip away more and more of the reality of the film’s initial situation and concentrate solely on the intimacies of love between the characters in order to persuade us that its dream could be taken for a reality. Micki & Maude is not dramatically weak so much as it is pointedly fragile; and its fragility deserves to be respected.

 

One last thing: Blake Edwards and character stereotypes. For some indignant viewers, all its takes is a glimpse of Bo Derek as the “ideal woman” in 10 (of course, she turns out to be nothing of the sort) or Larry Storch as a raving Indian guru in S.O.B. (only one in a long, long line of Edwards’ racial types) to be utterly turned off these films. But, beyond the immediate humour milked from these characters, it pays to follow them all the way through, to find out what Edwards ultimately does with them. A stereotype is, for Edwards, the most given, congealed, conventional element imaginable. As soon as we see them blink into life on screen, we assume they will remain static and functional. But this is often merely a ruse. Edwards confronts our assumptions with wild revelations, improbable speculations – again, making real what might have seemed only fleetingly possible. This game gives rise to some of my very favourite Edwards moments.

 

In Victor/Victoria, Edwards sets up what first seems to be two incontrovertible poles of straight heterosexual masculinity and femininity: Alex Karras as Squash, bodyguard of King (James Garner), and Lesley Ann Warren as Norma, a gangster’s moll. At one point, Squash bursts into his boss’ bedroom, hearing agonised moans that turn out to be the sounds of ecstasy – King and Victoria (Julie Andrews) making love. But Squash, of course, sees Victor, not Victoria. King leaps out of bed to explain to Squash what is really happening. The latter hides in shame behind the door; there is a pause. Finally we hear Squash say, “If a guy like you has the guts to admit he’s gay, so have I!” He emerges and, crying, embraces King.

 

Norma’s moment of character-transformation is not as radical, but almost as delightful. Near the end of the plot she is confronted by Victor in full transvestite garb. Norma backs away screaming; whatever’s going on is far too “pervoise” for her given sexual orientation. But, suddenly, she decides to loosen up, and, warming to the idea in her imagination, suggests: “Well – shut the door!”

 

Micki & Maude pulls off a similar coup. Dudley Moore as Rob, in the course of hysterically trying to cover up the truth of his other love, finds himself conjuring an improbable tale to his wife, Micki (Ann Reinking from All That Jazz, 1979) concerning the illicit affair, at the hospital where he works, of the (huge, old) nurse played by Lu Leonard and the (balding, nerdy) doctor played by Wallace Shawn. Later, in a scene that swerves off from the rest of the plot, Nurse Verbeck confronts Dr Fibel in a side room. “They know that I worship your body like a cathedral!” she blurts out. As they begin to passionately kiss, he says: “What everyone else doesn’t know won’t hurt them!”

 

And the difference, as always in Edwards, is between what they know – what they see, hear and understand – and what we are allowed to know by the film itself. And that’s all the difference in the world: between the merely given and the fabulously possible, between constraining reality and inspiring dream. It’s that difference I hear in Blake Edwards’ sad songs of love.

 

MORE Edwards: The Return of the Pink Panther, Son of the Pink Panther, Switch

 

© Adrian Martin June 1987


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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