Blake Edwards’ position in the modern American cinema is unique. His career effectively began when the collapse of the Hollywood studio system in the early 1960s spelt virtual death for most of the great American auteurs, from Howard Hawks and John Ford to Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray.
Yet, not only has Edwards managed a steady yearly output, working in relative independence; he has managed to create a distinctive and coherent world – a set of thematic and stylistic preoccupations – as significant as that of Sam Peckinpah or Alan J. Pakula.
The fact has not been often recognised, for on a superficial level Edwards’ films can appear slick and opportunist: Julie Andrews is a singer, therefore Edwards cashes in on the fact by having her sing in all her roles for him; the films are often set in lush, exotic locales, calling forth the derogative label of travelogue.
Worst of all, it would seem, Edwards preys upon the worst stereotypes and fantasies of our culture: the desire for bourgeois wealth and luxury, the Playboy ethos of beautiful women existing for pleasure of debonair men.
One wouldn’t deny that Edwards is a shrewd businessman, and that he knows two or three things about how to survive in the commercial film world. But this superficial view ignores the consummate art of these films and their disturbing – even subversive – complexities.
In Edwards, every detail has a place, a meaning and a function in evoking a particular view of the world and (more specifically) Western culture. Edwards sees the state of things as constantly precarious and unstable, ruled over by bad luck, missed connections, lack of trust, loss of identity. The security of normality – particularly for men – is forever being undermined.
In a Freudian sense, Edwards’ heroes – in the comedies and dramas alike – are haunted by the idea of castration. In the Pink Panther series, Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) progressively loses his thumb, his nose … and it is only, presumably, Edwards’ strictly limited possession of good taste that prevents him from making a joke out of an actual castration.
Edwards’ films are also marked by an insistent refusal – or inability – to be resolved or closed off. Many of his films (particularly Gunn, 1967) end almost exactly as they began, kicking off the narrative and all its cultural/sexual problems once again.
The greatest problem is precisely sexual difference, the placing of men and women within patriarchy. The women are forever threatening to exceed their given roles – whether villains (the prostitute in Gunn who turns out to be a man) or heroines (an endless parade of characters with ambiguous names like Sam) – and the men lose more and more of their power and persuasion, culminating in Inspector Clouseau in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), hopelessly behind every move of the story, its passive victim.
In this context, Dudley Moore in 10 – neurotic, diminutive, clumsy, decked out in a white suit, “one of the great Anglo-Saxon heterosexual bores” – is the perfect Edwardian hero. To quote one of Julie Andrews’ songs in the film, “He’s no more than a man”.
After the low point of The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), Edwards has happily risen to top form once more with 10. The visual and narrative economy of the film is superb. The first scene, a surprise birthday party for George Webber (Dudley Moore), establishes immediately the age of the hero – 42 – and hence his self-perceived problem with diminishing masculine prowess; and his occupation as a pianist and songwriter, hence his cultural position and image.
One learns, too, about his relationship with Sam Taylor (Julie Andrews) – she feels settled, he doesn’t – and his slight distaste over the homosexuality of his musical collaborator, Hugh (Robert Webber). And the very situation – George fumbling in the dark, suddenly and surprisingly greeted by all his friends – is a vivid, quintessential image of the precariousness of things, characteristic of Edwards.
The same economy extends to the comedy, from which the likes of Mel Brooks could learn a great deal. In a great comic tradition, Edwards – unlike Woody Allen – refuses to let go of physical slapstick, the dynamic relation of the actor to the external world and its objects.
Nothing is lingered on past the moment it takes to state it: the film cuts immediately from such gags as George getting attacked by a bee in a church, or falling into his swimming pool, to the next scene. What would take other directors several shots to do, Edwards achieves in one, exploiting the full resources of the Panavision screen; for example, the shot in which a very old tea lady trundles slowly across the full width of the screen before banging her head against the fireplace.
The film’s seeming travelogue sojourn in Mexico is not wasted: George running to get off the hot sands is a source of pure slapstick as well as a sign of his bumbling anxieties. Finally, Edwards’ comedy is free enough to include digressions that are almost surrealist, like the obviously fake shark fin that surfaces in the water, or the dentist’s assistant who talks to all patients as if they were children (“Tut-tut, you forgot to brush your teeth!”).
The advertising for 10 – “See the world’s most beautiful woman!” – makes it clear that the film is concerned with male sexual fantasies; but, at this level, it is far from being simple-minded. Edwards delves into the many-sidedness, the duplicity of male desire within patriarchal society. Like in American Graffiti (1973), George first sights Jennifer (Bo Derek) as he stops his car at traffic lights; he turns, sees a woman in the adjoining car dressed in bridalwear; a moment later, the car moves on and she is gone. The film thus implies that what George desires is an image, a fantasy projection that, by its very nature, cannot be grasped.
Later, Edwards conjures, via George’s imagination, the cliché sequence of shots alternating George and Jennifer running towards one another in slow motion. But the cliché is subverted, for the sequence ends before the bodies can make contact. Indeed, George’s fantasy position as a voyeur necessarily excludes any awareness of the other as a person: when Jennifer looks back at him on the beach as Las Hadas, he goes to pieces. George much prefers the security of his home telescope, through which (with permission) he observes the perverted sexual practices of his neighbour – his ego ideal.
Little wonder, then, that George’s relationships in the real world are less than successful. After an argument with Sam in which he inadvertently reveals his brutally sexist assumptions (“I’m tired of you calling sexually emancipated women broads!”, she complains), he spends roughly one third of the film trying to get in contact with her to apologise. But, as always in Edwards, chance and coincidence get agonisingly in the way: they ring one another at the same time, thus both getting the engaged signal; George’s car travels down a road which, two seconds later, Sam’s enters from another direction; after going to the dentist, George gets a call from Sam, but she cannot recognise the voice and calls the police to arrest this “sexual pervert making obscene noises”.
Unable to deal with such frustration, George flees to Mexico to chase his fantasy woman. What exactly is his image of Jennifer? Here, Edwards plays on the instability of sexual identity. The viewer can infer that what George is chasing is the virgin bride, the beautiful, intact bourgeois girl dressed in white. George gazes at her dancing with her husband before their wedding night, and the image emphasises her stirring, yet-to-be-savoured sexuality. But when George, thanks again to chance (he rescues her husband at sea), finally gets close to Jennifer, he finds something even better: a super-broad, eager to be promiscuous, inquiring, “Have you ever done it to Ravel’s Bolero? My uncle showed me how …”
However, George’s fantasy does not reach its fulfilment. Jennifer, careful to follow ‘technique’, keeps insisting that the record of Bolero be re-started. Then her husband rings and George, suddenly stricken with a distaste for her loveless promiscuity, leaves Jennifer, in order to return to Sam.
Mixed in with this history of a particularly male fantasy is another, which counter-balances and criticises it. In the Las Hadas bar, George meets Mary Lewis (Dee Wallace). What she desires in him is in fact another image: the sophisticated star (“We met at Truman Capote’s party”), the glamorous man.
The scene in which George plays the piano in the bar is not merely a chance to show off Moore’s real-life musical talents. Cutting between Mary gazing at George, and George staring off fantasising about Jennifer, it sets in place a double structure of sexual fantasies. They get drunk and go to bed together but this liaison, too, does not work. The difference is that the woman blames herself for the failure to “get him up” (even though he is too drunk to manage anything). It is her responsibility, she feels, to satisfy him. Even if she actively desires him, she has a strictly defined role to play. Mary, falling short of that role, is condemned by our culture to misery and loneliness.
In what is probably the most moving and disturbing line of the film, Edwards indicates the total inadequacy of the way patriarchy has constructed sex roles: as Mary watches George and Jennifer dancing, she asks the bartender, “Is it fair that when a man gets older he looks distinguished, while when a woman gets older she just looks old?”
The final sequence, the reunion of George and Sam, is extremely complex; it deserves extended attention. At one level, it is beautifully expressive and touching: they hesitantly, nervously sing the song George has just composed, “It’s Easy to Say I Love You”; George, finally wiser, proposes to her, but she refuses to accept there and then, because of their relationship and her previous failed marriage; finally, they make love to the Bolero, not for the sake of performance and technique, but playfully, inventively, reciprocally. Likewise, Edwards plays on with voyeurism by filming the scene through the neighbour’s telescope. For once, a happy ending that is well earned.
But one must go further than this conventionally humanist reading. On another level, this scene caps the film’s profoundly reactionary ideological message – to affirm the heterosexual monogamous couple, and exclude all other possible sexual practices. This message is stated in several ways. Throughout, several characters have incarnated a ‘free love’ philosophy, extolling the primacy of pleasure, of “whatever makes me happy” – Jennifer, obviously, but also gay Hugh, and George’s neighbour. Hugh ends up miserable, his boyfriend leaving him for another, and he urges George: “Don’t do what I’ve done; don’t lose that lady.” In other words, Hugh desires his homosexual relationship to follow the dominant heterosexual pattern: mutual dependence and possession between two people.
Similarly, George’s neighbour, searching in vain for something exciting to look at through his telescope, bucks his lifestyle and tells his girlfriend: “From now on, we do it in the dark!” – like George and Sam. Another detail can also be noted: just before the final sequence, one hears a single line from Sam’s operetta performance: “I give my love to just one man”.
However, Edwards’ films are not simply complicit with such an ideology. A third reading of the final scene is possible. Throughout the film, there is an implicit connection made between the fantasy images held by the characters and the images we see on the screen. This connection is clinched, for example, in the shot where George observes two girls in his rear-view mirror, and even more so in the angry comment of George’s neighbour before he gives up his promiscuous ways: “I give you X rated and give me back PG!”
And so it is at this moment, when the neighbour leaves the telescope, that Edwards’ camera irresistibly dollies towards it and takes its images for itself. Suddenly, the audience is shown the terrible fact that he or she is the voyeur, the third party who has paid money (as George might pay for a ‘broad’) to gaze at the relations of others from the secure, anonymous end of the telescope, this Panavision peephole of the screen.
While the fiction sews up normality and perfectly resolves itself, Edwards brings us to the realisation that the abnormal lies at the very heart of this, our society – that abnormality is the cinema itself, “the very institution of perversion” (Raymond Bellour).
© Adrian Martin February 1980