Few careers in motion pictures were as lengthy and varied as Blake Edwards’. The Oklahoma-born director began as a bit player in the forties, tried his hand at screenwriting while still in his twenties, before making an effortless transition from television directing, in the earliest days of the medium, to theatrical features. An early string of comedy hits—Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther series—established him in Hollywood, but his back-to-back pair of ambitious, expensive, genre-defying features—Darling Lili and Wild Rovers—nearly ended his career during Hollywood’s shakiest years, near the dawn of the 1970’s. Ten years later, Edwards and his greatest collaborator, his wife Julie Andrews, engineered their big screen comebacks with a string of artistic successes.
Movies by Blake Edwards command the attention of a devoted following, and we asked three of our favorite critics to discuss Metrograph’s upcoming retrospective, which was programmed by Julie Andrews herself. (Yes, she will be here in person for four screenings.) Carlos Valladares moderates the conversation, and he is joined by Greg Cwik and Monica Castillo.
Carlos Valladares: When you’re walking down the street and someone who's not a cinephile accosts you and asks you to describe Blake Edwards, which three words do you pick?
Monica Castillo: Three words is tough, but I guess the shorthand would be... a comedy director with heart.
Greg Cwik: Yes, I’d tell them he’s an empathetic comedy director. Because I find that empathy is central to his work, especially in his post-Pink Panther movies, like 10. But does it sell him short to call him just a comedy director?
Carlos: He would've been the first to tell you that people asked him all the time, "Do you want to be remembered as a comedy director?" And he’d say, "No." There’s the sheer quality of his dramas.
Monica: I think for pop culture references, a lot of people might recognize The Pink Panther before Days of Wine and Roses, even though I have a personal preference for Days of Wine and Roses.
Carlos: Of all the dramas, Days of Wine and Roses is king for me.
Greg: Even so, I think he has a pretty natural skill for exhuming the uncomfortable humor in daily life in the dramas. Even if they're not uproariously funny, they're uncomfortably funny.
Monica: There's definitely wit and cleverness, even in his more serious works. It’s never pure melodrama.
Carlos: To take up Days of Wine and Roses, that film starts off as a romantic comedy in the vein of Breakfast at Tiffany's. There's the meet-cute with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. It has this airy tone to it for the first 30 minutes so that, if you're not aware of where it's going to eventually go, the movie is a complete shock.
Monica: These two characters are falling in love, and we fall in love with them, so with everything that happens afterwards, we are already emotionally involved.
Carlos: Jack Lemmon is an up-and-coming San Francisco executive who meets Lee Remick. They start chatting it up and romancing. They start drinking socially, occasionally. Then it turns into a …
Monica: A spiral.
Carlos: The breaking moment is the scene where they're both at her parents' house, in the countryside, and he's trying to find a bottle of gin that's been buried somewhere.
Monica: He tears apart everything, and it's a physical manifestation of that sense of desperation.
Greg: I think one of the keys is that he was so good at casting. Jack Lemmon was not one of the great bibulous actors of the era, but I can't think of someone else doing it.
Monica: It was kind of against type, which is also something that Edwards uses to his advantage. And then there’s Julie Andrews. He gave her parts that were against her very clean-cut Disney image. Other directors wouldn't even consider her for these parts.
Carlos: For me, in terms of Andrews' development, her star trajectory, the first key film beyond Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music is her first movie with Blake Edwards, Darling Lili. It's a film that was explicitly made to break that image that she had in the public imagination. She's a chanteuse from England and she's on the side of the Germans in World War I and she's also romancing this English ace played by Rock Hudson. She has this remarkable scene in the film. It's a striptease sequence where she starts off in this very cutesy, Sound of Music-esque, bubbly, classic British music hall number. It goes wild with zooms and she strips off and gets down to this garter. He zooms into the crowd just shocked. You could just see the image being shattered in real time.
Greg: And you can tell that Edwards was so in love with her. I think the way he used Julie Andrews, especially in The Tamarind Seed and 10, there's an air of dignity about her. He clearly adores her, but he doesn't objectify her in a way that other directors might have in this period.
Carlos: For me, The Tamarind Seed is not one of the major films, but he's got 30 or something films and 20 of them are heavy hitters. He's much better at handling the romance between Sharif and Andrews than he is with the espionage element.
Greg: I think the reason The Tamarind Seed works so well, at least for me, is because he understands that romance and love is not just a corporeal physical lusting. They talk to each other, they have this badinage, and they listen to each other in a way that you don't see in a lot of Hollywood romances.
Monica: I think there's definitely something to be said about the rhythm of his dialogue. It's almost the speed of a screwball comedy, but not so quick that you can maybe miss a punchline or so. If characters are falling in love, it's a little bit slower, more breaths are taken in between. It's a little bit more awkward. They're coming together. Even when he’s depicting a friendship, like in Wild Rovers, he's really good at getting the actors to that spot where you get a sense of the relationship just from listening to them talk.
Carlos: Monica, I'm so glad you brought up Wild Rovers because this is a crucial film in Edwards' life because it was his second big commercial failure around the time of Darling Lili. At MGM, James Aubrey cut something like 40 minutes from the movie and completely butchered it. It's a revisionist Western which came out the same year as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and it's got three major scenes: The robbery, the chase, and then the deaths. Beyond those major scenes, which take the space of maybe individually five to ten minutes each, it's just grace notes. It's just breathing between Ryan O'Neal and William Holden, and it’s very tender. For me, I didn't mention my three words for Blake Edwards. It would be vulgar, tender, complicated. He's always going back and forth.
Let’s think about Edwards' place in pop cultural knowledge. When you ask someone, "Have you heard of Blake Edwards?" the answer is usually "No." But if you list films, especially one film, Breakfast at Tiffany's, people instantly…
Greg Cwik: Can I be honest with you? Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of my least favorites of his movies. I’m also uncomfortable with Mickey Rooney.
Monica: I can't believe I'm defending Breakfast at Tiffany's because it's also not my favorite, but it is such—I hate to use the word iconic, but it is an iconic movie. I think the reason why Audrey Hepburn was able to break out in the way she did is because he gives her so much material and lets the camera just love her. You see that with lots of the women in his films.
Carlos: Even someone who could be a complete like utter stereotype as Lesley Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria. She’s the gangster's moll, she comes out with such vibrance every single scene, and it's everything to do with the space that he's giving Warren to really act her part to the hilt.
Monica: She could have easily been an accessory. She could have just stood by the gangster. But we see there’s so much more to her.
Greg: You called Breakfast at Tiffany's iconic, which is I think obviously apt. Compared to something like S.O.B., it’s easier to reference or replicate or emulate, and the images of Audrey Hepburn are seared into the cultural imagination on college dorm posters. But when you think of S.O.B. and 10 you're like, "Oh. This is a lot more ambiguous. It's a lot more complicated." They're elegantly directed, but the shots are not a poster you're going to put on your wall, except for Bo Derek.
Monica: I was going to say, I knew the Bo Derek image years before I knew the movie.
Carlos: I knew the line "Have you ever done it to the Bolero?" before I'd even gotten that beautifully constructed scene with Bo Derek and Dudley Moore which goes on for 15 minutes.
Greg: It's a patient movie, but if you read the synopsis of it, you don't get to the plot of the movie until halfway through. The first hour is him just having a rough time! I love 10. I'm probably going to keep mentioning it.
Monica: There’s the archetype that he has: the troubled man going through middle age, having a sort of identity crisis. That also describes That's Life!, which was loosely autobiographical. It was a little uncomfortable to watch, but it is so eye-opening and so empathetic for both characters. The Julie Andrews character is going through her own problems, and Jack Lemmon's character is so wrapped up in his own thing that he cannot even notice that things are off with her. She's holding back from letting him know what she's going through, because she believes he can't handle it. But for that first hour I'm like, “Tell him please, please tell him!” But it's really amazing how evenly the film’s empathy is extended to both of them.
Carlos: Right. You always get the sweet and the sour with all of his characters.
Monica: I’d like to jump to his sourest movie, though: S.O.B. Nobody comes away clean in that one!
Carlos: He skewers everybody: The studio, the stars, the doctor played by Robert Preston!
Monica: Such a great character. He just comes down from checking on his patient who had just attempted suicide and his response is, “Why doesn't anyone ask how the doctor's doing?” He's offering vitamin shots to people left and right. It's wild. But all of this came out of the fallout after Wild Rovers and Darling Lili at the studios. Here was all this pent up bitterness, and he put it into one movie, and it’s still funny as hell. It's barbed, but I'm laughing the entire time.
Greg: In fiction, suicide really messes with me. I think S.O.B. has one of the better depictions of it. It’s humor, but it’s also an empathetic depiction of the fallout from a suicide attempt.
Monica: Some people might think, “Oh, no, it’s too serious. We can’t joke about this.”
Carlos: It comes out of his own life too. There’s a story that he tried to kill himself with a razor blade, and as he was about to do it, his dog comes and starts licking his hand. He's trying to shoo the dog away. He takes up a ball, throws it, dislodges his shoulder, trips over, drops the razor, steps on it, and has to go to the hospital because he's afraid he's going to bleed to death.
Monica: That’s like a scene out of one of his movies. Carlos, I was thinking about the question about why Edwards doesn’t have a bigger cultural cache and I think there's something to be said about the fact that he's a studio director who was successful before everything changed in the 1970's. I think he gets lost in the shuffle of the other auteurs who have very unique voices and perspectives, while he was able to work within the studio house styles, but with his own cinematic language. He's almost a Howard Hawks type. He can move through so many different genres, but there's still a style that you can identify.
Carlos: On the table, we have a copy of Cahiers du Cinema with his name on the cover, next to Polanski, Eisenstein, and Satyajit Ray. It's just so interesting to see that in the '60s they considered him as a major voice alongside all these other heavy hitters who we now consider major auteurs and whatnot. He's just sort of lain fallow and I honestly think it has to do with the comedy.
Greg: My dad, who is not a cinephile, loves the Pink Panther movies and he thinks they're the greatest comedies ever. Then someone who has this filmmaking vocabulary can watch them and be like, ‘Oh yes, the mise-en-scene, how elegant.’ His films have a huge spectrum of appeal.
Carlos: I just wanted to end with a moment or some moments from Edwards' films that is burned into your memory. If there is one.
Greg: The mannequin scene in Experiment in Terror. I love the chiaroscuro lighting, and you know there's going to be a body. It’s just such expert camera movement and composition.
Monica: I think my favorite scenes are the performances by Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria. She shines in each and every one of them. It’s unbelievable how much energy she brings to the screen.
Greg: Can I mention one more scene? In 10, there is the scene with Dudley Moore and Julie Andrews. They’re lying in bed, and he refers to women as broads. She's like, “You know that's derogatory.” He's like, “I did not use it in a derogatory sense.” So they go and get the dictionary and look it up. It's just such a good fight between a man and a woman. That scene is so uproarious and uncomfortable.
Carlos: The scene that keeps coming to mind is the number “Whistling Away the Dark,” which is the opening song in Darling Lili. I think it is the longest take of Edwards's career. It's about four minutes of Julie Andrews singing this incredible Henry Mancini music. It's one of those songs that you listen to obsessively for long periods of time.
Monica: It's time for a rediscovery of his work. Someone should do a Blake Edwards retrospective.
Carlos Valladares is a South Central L.A.-born writer and critic whose work has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Gagosian Quarterly, Film Comment, Notebook MUBI, and elsewhere; he is currently working on his PhD in Art History and Film at Yale University.
Monica Castillo is a New York City-based film critic and writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, RogerEbert.com, Remezcla and elsewhere.
Greg Cwik is a writer and critic who has written for The Believer, The Village Voice, Mubi, Slant, Playboy, Vulture, Reverse Shot, and elsewhere.