There was a period (1979-1982) when each new Blake Edwards film was a step bolder and more brilliant than the previous one. The line stopped at the breathtaking Victor/Victoria (1982), but neither he nor we knew that then. It was the Edwardsian Royal Road: as well, no single film before or after that peak period is uninteresting, and many are indeed great. But ’80 to ’82 was a special time to be alive – to be 20! – and to love Blake Edwards. I know, because I was there, lining up at the cinema with regular folk.
Now, I am fully aware that, even among serious film people, this is not a particularly widespread or popular taste-position. Edwards’ career (so we are told) reeks of commercial opportunism, middle-class ideology, mere “professionalism” (such a dirty word, it seems!). But seek and you shall find in Edwards something like an apotheosis of the given: given conventions, assumed and embodied to their fullest, to the veritable point where they constitute a kind of secretive camouflage. Under that mask, a performance is taking place – neither subversive nor compliant, but a third option, another way.
Blind Date is a pretty good Edwards film. It’s quite impossible to separate his commercial projects from his personal ones: Blind Date has none of the therapeutic strain that drives 10 (1980), The Man Who Loved Women (1983), Micki and Maude (1984) and especially the sublime That’s Life! (1986), with their shared thematic of coming-to-self-knowledge and expanding or redefining our relations with others. But it sure takes up – above and beyond the armature of theme – the director’s characteristic exploration of narrative forms and mechanisms.
Here, as often in Edwards, we have a terrific structure. Set-up for a Catastrophe: an average guy, Walter (Bruce Willis); a business dinner on tender hooks (as we Aussies like to mis-say); and a woman, Nadia (Kim Basinger), who – the hero is duly warned – should not be allowed to drink, and also has (by the by) an angry fiancé (John Larroquette as David) in hot pursuit.
It all falls apart beautifully, and just keeps getting worse into the long, dark night. Just before mid-way, the tables turn (she sobers up while he goes batty) and, accordingly adjusted, we get a fast reprise of everything that’s already happened. End of night, completion of comic counter-movement. I wonder if Edwards had the success of Jonathan Demme’s gloriously twisty Something Wild from the previous year (1986) in the back of his mind. (Blind Date, in an earlier form, was originally slated for Madonna and Sean Penn as co-stars.)
End of the night – but is it the end of the film? On the next day, Edwards ponders what to do with the pieces of his fiction (scripted by Dale Launer, who was on a good run from the mid ‘80s to early ‘90s) – just as the characters wonder what to do with the remains of their lives after this night that so badly shattered the patterns of their oppressive routines. How can the night be reclaimed?
At this point, Blind Date unrolls itself anew as a romantic comedy, a little in the vein of It Happened One Night (1934) – complete with a big wedding, a father (William Daniels as Judge Harold) who hates the wimpy groom-to-be (i.e., David, his own son), and a final act of liberation. Did I – as the tub-thumping, normative, mainstream reviewers love to ask – “care about the characters”? Not terribly much (they don’t actually exist, after all, they’re two-dimensional figures in a movie) – but I sure admired their respective moves.
Things flow better here for Edwards than in the previous year’s A Fine Mess (1986). All his familiar formal parameters are volatised: off-screen space (catch that dog’s death – the type of gag around which Edwards could and would contrive an entire plotline, I bet); deep focus frames to populate and play with; long takes; soundtrack rhubarb. The character-types don’t quite get to spin as they do in his most profound films and/or his funniest, like The Party (1968); but they are lit up and animated very nicely indeed by a uniformly good ensemble of actors.
So go on, do your duty: crawl to the cinema where Blind Date is screening and humble yourself before this supposedly Lesser God of American Cinema. There is so much to learn here – and so many received opinions to revise.
Note: This review was written in the same period as my general essay “Blake Edwards’ Sad Songs of Love”. I have literally been writing about his films all my adult life, from the age of 17! And this passion has never waned; for more recent expressions of it, hear my audio commentary on the 2017 Olive DVD/Blu-ray of Operation Petticoat, and watch my 2020 audiovisual essay made with Cristina Álvarez López, Impending.
© Adrian Martin June 1987