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"These Days… You Can't Be Too Careful": Late Edwards
All comedians are rebels, even when they are outwardly conformist, for their comedy disrupts our perception of things as they are, and makes us wonder if things might be better otherwise. This is as true of "conformist" comedians like Bob Hope (whose wartime roles as a coward gave voice to the unspeakable fears of servicemen) as it is of more outwardly defiant jesters, the Lenny Bruces who are more celebrated in their afterlife.
Blake Edwards was a rebel, of sorts, in the 1960s, but then everyone successful seemed to be. It was in the 1960s, after his long and productive apprenticeship in film and on television, that he became one of Hollywood's most successful writer-directors. The first Panther films helped, but even more so did Edwards' alliance with the social change associated with the era. The social codes and mores of the past were subject to criticism and correction in films such as Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966) and Darling Lili (1970; the latter two anti-war war films) in a manner similar to many other Hollywood releases of that era. The difference between these films and works like The Americanization of Emily and Catch-22? Edwards was a talented film director.
Edwards took advantage of the spirit of the age by making a series of films attempting to reinvent one of Hollywood's greatest traditions, the slapstick comedy, with his 1968 feature The Party being a particularly creative work. Its off-center improvisations are well analyzed by Peter Lehman and William Luhr in their classic study, where they argue, "The Party may very well be one of the most radically experimental films in Hollywood history."  At minimum we must agree that Edwards here both visually and aurally works toward the open, readable-in-many-ways film we associate more with 1970s directors like Altman and Ashby.
My emphasis here is not formal, but on the film's content. We are meant, in The Party, to identify with the alien outsider, Bakshi (Peter Sellers), as he dismantles bourgeois proprieties. His good-natured efforts to fit into the Beverly Hills party to which he has inadvertently been invited comprise the narrative engine, such as it is, of The Party's first two-thirds. The Clutterbuck mansion, every room and level of which we seem to explore, becomes an utopian space of pure pleasure, seemingly outside conventional time and space. As Bakshi passes through the party, his unfailing politeness and efforts to fit in disrupt the hypocrisy he everywhere encounters, liberating a waiter to drink as much as he pleases, a guest to sing, a small boy to fire his toy gun at will.
Late in the film Edwards performs the risky move of allying the pure pleasure we find in Bakshi's walkabout to very specifically contemporary rebellious youth. These 1968 youths are the spirit of the age, but they're also comical movie hippies who have painted an elephant with nonsensical slogans akin to those found painted on the dancers in the contemporaneous television series Laugh-In. Sam Wasson puts it this way in his own recent book on Edwards: "If authenticity and love are synonymous with the gag and the film ends with a barrage of slapstick, it would appear that The Party chronicles the triumph of the countercultural youth revolution over the 1950's middle-class conservatives."  Yet Edwards allies himself and expects us to ally ourselves with Bakshi and his dismay at the hippies' disrespectful painting of the elephant; their joint attempt to make this right by washing the animal in the mansion's pool leads to the final explosion of the party space in the film's final chaotic sequences. Bakshi serves to correct both the Establishment and its youthful challengers.
Society continued to change and evolve in the 1970s. Most of Edwards' films of that decade are set far away from the contemporary United States, notably his return to the Pink Panther series with its studio-built France. In the 1980s, however, after the phenomenal success of 10 (1979), Edwards launched into a series of sex comedies that attempted to build on that film's success.
10 was a film that acknowledged (several years late) the "sexual revolution" of the 1970s, selling it to the public with the comforts of punishing farce (the humiliations rained down on our surrogate, George [Dudley Moore]). Edwards' follow-ups over the next decade continued to work that vein to evident audience exhaustion; I will here look at Edwards' final three non-Panther comedies, Blind Date (1987), Skin Deep (1989), and Switch (1991). All of them were critically dismissed in their time and draw poor audience reviews today, if comments on IMDb can be believed. Edwards' obituaries skipped over them. But all three are interesting works, helping us understand both this director and his times.
Blind Date, Skin Deep, and Switch are built around controlling sexuality, recognizing its appeal but also marking it off as dangerous and disruptive. The films take a similar approach to any other form of social difference as well. As such they are much more conservative than a 1960s film like The Party, defining the term "conservative" in the simplest fashion possible: a work that seeks to conserve (preserve, protect) long-established traditions, in preference to challenging them. Thus, Nadia (Kim Basinger) in Blind Date is an ideally supportive potential girlfriend/mistress (and by extension wife) when Walter (Bruce Willis) first meets her. In the well-handled scene of their first meeting Walter squints in the darkness of her hotel room to see if she is as ugly as he fears; she verbally warns him that he can still run away. The match he has lit gradually reveals her pleasant features, to their mutual relief; she is not too different for him (fat, ugly) and thus will indeed be a suitable blind date for his socially mandated presence at his boss's dinner.
Before meeting her Walter is warned several times about the dangers of allowing Nadia to drink. Walter's brother (Phil Hartman) sees the lecherous possibilities of her becoming "crazy" when she drinks, as his wife/Walter's sister-in-law/Nadia's cousin, Susie (Stephanie Faracy), warns Walter she will, and while Nadia also warns Walter that drink makes her "go crazy," Walter still insists on opening Pandora's box by ordering champagne for her, not once but twice.
Nadia thus is a comic monster, exactly like the cute gremlins in Joe Dante's contemporaneous 1980s horror comedies; "don't let her drink" equals "don't get them wet." She then proceeds to disrupt the business dinner, notably by humiliating a fellow female, the traditionally garbed wife of a visiting Japanese businessman, whose elaborate wig she snatches. She then "liberates" her by directing her to the many California divorce lawyers present at the dinner. The resulting chaos gets Walter fired, and over the remainder of the evening a series of escalating disasters result with Walter in prison facing a ten-year sentence for attempted murder.
Ultimately Nadia is re-domesticated, brought under control, first through her sacrifice of $10,000 to bail Walter out, then through her willingness to marry her dreadful ex-lover, David Bedford (John Larroquette), the lawyer who gets the charges against Walter dismissed. Walter's anonymous gift to Nadia of liquor-laced candy allows her to disrupt her wedding to David by leaping into the Bedford family pool (where Walter joins her). The parallel to The Party is instructive. The leaps all around into the pool at the Clutterbuck mansion in The Party are liberating, shared by all (Bakshi, his potential girlfriend Michele, the hippies, the servants, some visiting Russians, Mrs. Clutterbuck, and the elephant). The leap into the pool in Blind Date is of the romantic couple only.
The film's epilogue is conservative as well. The comparison here is to the intriguing coda of Jerry Lewis' The Nutty Professor (1963). In that film the magic serum liberates nerdy Professor Julius Kelp's atrocious alter-ego, Buddy Love. Love is pure ego, but he is sexually compelling where sweet Julius is not, and in a telling detail Kelp and his new love Stella leave on their honeymoon packing a bottle of the Buddy Love-evoking formula. In Edwards' film, by contrast, we leave Walter and Nadia on their honeymoon, together on a beach, accompanied only by a prominently displayed bottle of Coca-Cola. Nadia will drink no more.
In Blind Date Nadia has an on-off switch, triggered in her case by alcohol. A full study of Edwards' career would have to analyze his use of liquor as an agent of both liberation and misery, a topic he had already made an entire film about, 1962's Days of Wine and Roses. (Wasson is quite witty here: Blind Date is "Days of Wine and Roses, but funny.")  Nadia here equals that film's Kirsten (Lee Remick). In both films liquor liberates the woman's sexuality, a prospect that both intrigues and scares their partners (Joe [Jack Lemmon] in the earlier film, Walter here). Control of that on-off switch is at issue in all of Edwards' late comedies, but there is also an interesting ambiguity to them, an irresolution about the binary nature of that switch.
Take for example the ambiguity in the run-up to Blind Date's denouement. Cousin Susie eats the last piece of Nadia's candy on her wedding day morning, and discovers immediately that it's been laced with brandy. We know that Nadia had seen Walter's car as she arrived at the Bedford mansion, and that she suspected Walter of trying to contact her the night before the wedding. We can reasonably guess, then — but can't be sure — that Nadia eats the mysterious box of transformative candy while knowing that it comes from Walter.
This irresolution comes to the fore in Edwards' final sex comedy, the appropriately titled Switch. Lusty Steve Brooks (Perry King) is punished for his hedonism by being murdered by three of his lovers, but is promptly and divinely judged as having done exactly no good deeds, and no bad deeds. (It's good to know that Steve's active sex life is not held against him by the Almighty!) Stuck between worlds, Steve is allowed to return to earth delegated, like the hero of the oft-filmed tale of Liliom, to find one woman who genuinely loves him in order to win a space in heaven. The devil (Bruce Martyn Payne), however, finds this too easy, and persuades God to even the odds by changing Steve's gender to female.
As the suddenly female Amanda Brooks, Ellen Barkin offers a splendid farcical performance, one equal to that of the underrated John Ritter's in Skin Deep (or the well-recognized Peter Sellers' in The Party). The film's play with gender roles is of a piece with Edwards' career-long play with the theme, from Bing Crosby's startling apparition in drag in High Time (1960) through films such as Victor/Victoria (1982), and has properly been the center of much Edwards commentary. My interest here centers on the film's conclusion. Amanda is successful in her task, rendered so by her giving birth to a girl child who loves her. But there are two ambiguities. She is pregnant from having sex with Steve's best friend, Walter Stone (Jimmy Smits). But we don't see them couple, leaving open whether the sex was consensual (as Walter claims) or rape, as Amanda loudly proclaims after discovering the act has occurred while she was passed out. Edwards never resolves this question, despite Amanda's evident forgiving of the crime, and Walter's mournful visit to her grave after her death in childbirth.
The second ambiguity closes the film. God is pleased. (God is played by two voices, that of a man and a woman, who alternate lines, in a neat echo of the gender ambiguity running throughout the film. Again, Wasson: "Switch's devil is male without a female counterpart. That's why he's in hell.")  To enter heaven, however, Steve/Amanda must choose which gender identity s/he will take for all eternity. The film ends with our protagonist unable or unwilling to decide. The film's open ending echoes the lost openness of The Party, and as such fittingly ends the best part of Edwards' career.
However. Despite his willingness to play, throughout his films, with gender, and to otherwise challenge conventional Hollywood formulas, Blake Edwards overall must be characterized as a social conservative, one who builds his sex comedies, no matter how audacious they may seem at first, towards a traditional happy ending complete with a committed couple, as with Blind Date. Our third film, Skin Deep, also demonstrates this. Compulsive womanizer Zach (John Ritter) is determined to win back the love of ex-wife Alex (Alyson Reed), despite the fact that Zach and Alex seem to have no chemistry whatsoever, and that their predestined reunion precludes the polymorphous freedom the liberated Zach indulges in throughout most of the film. Edwards seems to be serving us up sexually liberated cake throughout the film's many funny scenes, saving the dried-up meat and potatoes of compulsory monogamy for his fadeout. This is the saddening opposite of successful "comedies of remarriage" like The Awful Truth (1937), where McCarey's reunion of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne is genuinely both satisfying and sexy.
Again, the parallels to The Party are suggestive, and points out what Hollywood (and America) lost when it missed the transient hope of utopia glimpsed in the late 1960s. The Clutterbuck mansion in The Party is a place of joyous exploration; its equivalent is the large house Zach lives in for a while with girlfriend Molly (Julianne Phillips). One night, after a quarrel, Molly pours lighter fluid into the piano Zach is playing, and then tosses in a lit match; the resulting explosion burns down the house. The next day finds Zach and Molly ("Who let you in?" he asks her, in one of the film's funniest lines) poking through the rubble in search of lost mementos. What had been in The Party a house of possibilities, liberated by soapy chaos, is replaced by a ruin that must be sifted for whatever survives.
Is this a metaphor for post-1960s America? The big comic set piece in Skin Deep (featured in newspaper ads at the time of the film's release, and in the film's DVD menu) involves the glow-in-the-dark condoms Zach dons for a (thwarted) sexual encounter. "These days… you can't be too careful," says Zach's would-be lover, Amy (Chelsea Field), a direct reference to the sexual plague of the 1980s, AIDS, something Edwards here directly acknowledges, bravely refusing to let the calamity stop him from winning deep, low laughs. It is good to leave Edwards here, then, at a comic high point, wrung from calamity, and remember him at his best, a rebel very much of his times, but still a rebel.
issue #7 (1.2011)