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Blake Edwards 1922 - 2010

Posted by Ty Burr  December 16, 2010 01:46 PM

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Blake Edwards, the film director who brought old-school slapstick into the modern movie era with the "Pink Panther" series and who turned a tart novel about a Manhattan call girl into the elegant screen classic "Breakfast at Tiffany's," died at 88 yesterday in Santa Monica, Calif. The cause was complications of pneumonia; Edwards' wife, actress Julie Andrews, and his children were at his side.

Over the course of four decades as a director, Edwards established a freewheeling filmography notable as much for the acrid cynicism underneath the laughs as for the laughs themselves. In effect, he gave the physical comedy of the silent era and the character-based humor of Hollywood forebears like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder a modern neurotic spin. Late in life, especially, Edwards channeled his discontents with the film industry and his own life into hilarious cinema. 1981's "S.O.B." may be the most bitingly funny poison-pen letter to Hollywood ever made.

If Edwards specialized in comedy, he could also make stark dramas like 1963's "Days of Wine and Roses," an uncompromising tale of alcoholism that hasn't dated an iota. The director had big hits -- "Tiffany's (1961), "The Pink Panther" (1963), the midlife crisis comedy "10" (1979), the gender-bending farce "Victor/Victoria" (1982) -- but he also presided over some of the more notorious bombs of his era, and he almost killed his wife's career with their first two films together, "Darling Lili" (1970) and "The Tamarind Seed" (1974).

Edwards found success in radio, television, and even, late in life, on stage, with the successful 1995 Broadway adaptation of "Victor/Victoria." The movies, however, were where he made his lasting mark. The "Panther" series, starring Peter Sellers' bumbling French detective Inspector Clouseau, became a personal franchise for the director, established with the first film and "A Shot in the Dark" in the early 1960s, arguably peaking with 1975's "Return of the Pink Panther" ("do you 'ave a lee-sance for your minkey?"), and tailing off into the 1980s with five lesser sequels.


Edwards also worked multiple times with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, and the director’s relationship with composer Henry Mancini extended over three decades and resulted in twelve Oscar nominations for music and four wins, including for "Moon River" in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."


There was considerable pain in Edwards' personal life that took some time to surface in his films. Born William Blake Crump in Tulsa, Okla, in 1922, he was abandoned by his father at an early age. His mother relocated to Los Angeles and married Jack McEdwards, a Hollywood assistant director. The young Blake escaped into movie theaters and the world of slapstick pioneers like Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton. Serving in the Coast Guard during World War II, he took a drunken dive into a shallow swimming pool and spent the next five months in an L.A. naval hospital with a broken neck. Even in traction, comedy wasn't far away: Edwards woke up one day to find First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at his bedside, asking in what battle he’d been wounded.


A stint as a child actor energized Edwards for his post-war career. He wrote and starred in a low-budget 1947 western called "Panhandle" and created the oddball singing-detective radio series "Richard Diamond," episodes of which can (and should) be heard online. Working his way into television in the mid-1950s, Edwards created the "Peter Gunn" series (1958), with its memorable Mancini opening theme, and "Mr. Lucky" (1959), both of which enjoyed healthy runs. By then he had already made the leap to movie directing, after a fertile writing apprenticeship with director Richard Quine best remembered for the delirious 1957 army comedy "Operation Mad Ball."


The similarly rambunctious "Operation Petticoat" (1959) starred Cary Grant and Tony Curtis and established the young director as an up-and-comer, and when John Frankenheimer was taken off "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Edwards had his chance. To him can be charged the film's bittersweet chic, its softening of the original Truman Capote novel, its timeless veneration of star Audrey Hepburn, and the appalling racial caricature of Mickey Rooney’s "Japanese" neighbor.


The next few years saw Edwards trying out different genres with "Days of Wine and Roses" and 1962’s darkly bizarre suspense film "Experiment in Terror." With "The Pink Panther" and the superior "A Shot in the Dark," though, the director found his métier: Impeccably staged physical madness. Jack Lemmon, in a 1991 article, said of his six-time helmer, "I don't know a director better at visual comedy than Blake. He's the best I’ve ever worked with at what is not shown on the screen."


In that interview, Lemmon went on to cite an example in the "Pink Panther" movies in which Clouseau moves off-screen into a hotel bathroom and is followed seconds later by the hurtling body of his manservant Cato (Burt Kwouk); sounds of mayhem and a jet of water ensue. "Ninety-nine percent of directors would have hired two stunt guys... it would not have been as funny," said Lemmon.


The working relationship with Sellers was legendarily fraught: Edwards once surmised the reason the two fought so much is that they were so alike. In addition to the "Panther" films, Edwards and Sellers collaborated on the outrageous 1968 comedy "The Party," as politically incorrect a film as can be imagined -- the star plays a clueless East Indian at a wild Hollywood bash -- and probably the purest and funniest distillation of Edwards’ gift for comedy timing.


A 1953 marriage to Patricia Walker ended after 14 years and two children, one of them the actress Jennifer Edwards. In the late 1960s, an indirect flirtation with squeaky-clean movie star Julie Andrews -- she heard Edwards had said she had violets for pubic hair (or lilacs; the story varies) and sent him a bouquet of violets (or lilacs) in response -- led to courtship, marriage, and two costly flops that soured the director on the American film industry. Front office intervention on "The Wild Rovers" (1971) and "The Carey Treatment" (1972) added insult to injury, and Edwards decamped to Europe for a few years, returning only to fire up the Clouseau series with Sellers again.


Those films were successful but battles with the studio continued. At one point, an MGM executive flatly refused to greenlight one of Edwards' scripts. He bought it back and eventually turned it into "10," the sex comedy (but not really) that returned him to the front ranks and briefly made star Bo Derek a household name. His next film, "S.O.B.," was frank revenge. It is a dark, crass, hilarious take-down of Tinseltown idiocies that climaxes with the unthinkable subversion of a topless Julie Andrews.


"S.O.B." offended all the right people and some of the wrong ones, but Edwards mended fences with the following year’s "Victor/Victoria," one of the breeziest, most smartly written comedies of the 1980s. That was the high point: The rest of the decade saw the films slope off from antically funny ("Micki + Maude," 1984) to the merely antic "Blind Date" (1987) and "Sunset" (1988). After one more ill-advised gender-bender (1991’s "Switch") and an attempt to restart the Clouseau franchise with Roberto Benigni (the unspeakable "Son of the Pink Panther," 1993), Edwards called it a day.


The successful two-year run of "Victor/Victoria" on Broadway, with Andrews reprising her lead role(s), was a late-career highlight, and in 2004, Edwards was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his "extraordinary body of work." The award was presented by Jim Carrey, a personal fan. Edwards' only other Oscar nomination was for writing "Victor/Victoria"; he never received a nomination in the directing category.


That is an absurd oversight. Edwards may not have been the funniest director in Hollywood history -- at the very least, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, and Billy Wilder are ahead of him in line -- but he may have been the filmmaker who most loved being funny. He gloried in the nuances of timing; for him, comedy was close to ballet, especially during his peak middle years. You don't remember scenes in Edwards movies so much as you treasure precise moments: The gorilla in the sports car in "The Pink Panther," Holly Golightly and her cat in the rain, Peter Sellers and the endlessly unrolling toilet paper in "The Party," the discreet crunch of Alex Karras' finger as the closet door closes on it in "Victor/Victoria." Edwards liked big, messy pratfalls but he adored the tiny calamities far more, because he knew they built toward the kind of profound cosmic chaos that can only be faced with helpless laughter.


Edwards is survived by Geoffrey and Jennifer Edwards, his two children from his first marriage; Amy and Joanna Edwards, two Vietnamese daughters adopted during his second marriage; stepdaughter Emma Walton, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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