There are 28 Blake Edwards DVDs on my shelf. 27 of those are productions he directed. For many of them, he wrote the screenplay. He acted in one, at the beginning of his career. Those DVDs represent only two-thirds of the movies Blake Edwards directed over the course of his amazingly diverse career. (Someday, I hope to have a complete collection!)
Most people know this man for his Pink Panther movies, and, like most people, that’s where I first came to know his brand of dark humor and hilarious slapstick. (Note that I don’t, as a rule, enjoy slapstick. His take on the genre makes me laugh no matter how many times I’ve seen the film.) The Pink Panther movies were, for the most part, a delight — but there is so much more to the directing talent of Blake Edwards. In fact, writing this post made me feel I could write a book about this multi-talented man and his contributions to our world. Perhaps some day I will.
Many people have a mind-picture of a film director as someone who sits in the stereotypical canvas chair, shouting “Roll ’em!” and “Cut!” through a megaphone (such as in the image above). However, there is much more to it than that.
A director must be a masterful communicator, knowing how to communicate to actors as well as knowing how to reach the movie-going audience with the film’s story. This means that a director must be a student of human understanding and reactions, both to encourage actors to create full and believable characters, and to touch the audience and help them to identify with the characters on the screen. In both drama and comedy, a keen sense of timing is necessary. A commitment to the story, and to finding the means of telling that story, are paramount. Understanding camera angles, judicious use of different approaches to shooting a scene, the ability to cut a scene that is, in itself, a great scene but doesn’t move the story forward — all these things and more make a great director.
Blake Edwards had all these things. Like anyone who does things boldly and challenges norms and structures, he made his share of mistakes, and received more than his fair share of criticism, but at his best (and there was, in my opinion, a lot of “best”) he got to the heart of issues, he made us think, and he turned our thoughts on their heads two seconds after we’d had them. He was a man of brilliance laced with darkness and overlaid with sheer silliness — but silliness that was often a coverup for depth and pain. He was a director who challenged the standard ways of doing things, and who left us with some staggeringly funny moments, and some piercingly painful ones. He was a chameleon, in his embrace of so many genres, so many expressions of the human story.
For the most part, he used comedy, but it had a purpose. He is quoted in Sam Wasson’s book A Splurch in the Kisser: the movies of Blake Edwards, as saying of his use of comedy,
“I think a lot of my comedy can be compared to blind-siding, which is a football term. A quarterback will be looking to throw a pass downfield when all of a sudden, he’ll get nailed by a tackler he hasn’t seen. Suddenly, he’s wiped out, and I think that’s my job — to sort of blind-side people in order to shake them up and make them think. I prefer to do it in the comedic arena, because it makes it more palatable and easier to digest. When you deliver a message very heavily, it becomes preachy and too many people just lock up. I much prefer to deliver a sermon through laughter.”
Although I don’t agree with everything Wasson says about Edwards in the book, his analysis of the way the movies are directed, and the choices made by Edwards the writer, Edwards the director, and Edwards the editor, are insightful and made me realize just how much thought there was behind every decision, behind every moment of film that made it to the screen.
For example, in his chapter on Darling Lili, Wasson shows how Edwards used camera angles, song choice, costuming, actions by the characters on the screen to show us in ways obvious and veiled, the duplicitous nature of the character of Lili, on the surface a pure English entertainer of troops and civilians alike in the First World War, while in secret a German spy. Most of the time, we are unaware of the hidden messages in the way Edwards used different shots, but he was assuredly aware of every nuance. Quite often he will use a close-up as a set-up, making us believe one thing, then he zooms out to show us that what we thought was truth is illusion. Such a seesaw between reality and illusion is a hallmark of Edwards films.
One reason Blake Edwards’ work appeals so to me is because I know that much of it grew out of his lifelong struggle with depression, and in later years, his struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Since I, too, deal with depression and anxiety (on a smaller scale), I find it inspiring that Edwards did so much despite — or perhaps because of — his personal struggles. His way of coping is shown to us in his work, as so often the comedy balances on the razor edge of pain, and the laughter and the cries are intermingled in film as in life. He was masterful in working this dichotomy to its best advantage in his films.
Blindsiding, stealth sermonizing, gut-punches of truth through black humor and laughter — Edwards’s movies abound with these things. His movies challenge mores and morals, juxtapose reality and unreality until one isn’t sure which is which. Just when we think we have a grasp on what is going on, Blake stands our thinking on its head, spins it around, and sends it off in another direction. Through these movies, we get a picture of humanity, flawed, confused humanity, laughing on its way to the gallows, but laughing nevertheless. We identify with the characters, we question the characters, we may recoil from the characters — but we always engage with the characters and their story.
He often said, “Characters make your story.” In a very real sense, the director makes the story as well, and Blake Edwards did this for us so many times.
Thank you, Blake Edwards. Thank you for the angst of That’s Life, and the identity-questioning of Victor/Victoria. Thank you for the zaniness of The Pink Panther and the raw pain of The Days of Wine and Roses. Thank you for the biting satire of S.O.B. and for the lovesong of Darling Lili. Thank you for the laughter and the tears. Thank you for the inspiration you continue to give me. Thank you for so much.