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about the writer

Brad Stevens is the author of Monte Hellman: His Life and Films (McFarland, 2003) and Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision (FAB Press, 2004). He contributes regularly to Sight & Sound and Video Watchdog, and recently appeared in the documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape.

Blake Edwards in the '80s
By Brad Stevens

Blind Date
Blind Date

The finest comedies produced during Hollywood's classical era — those of Howard Hawks, Vincente Minnelli, Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, George Cukor and Leo McCarey — share a common theme: the exposure and deflation of masculine presumption. In the 1980s, a diametrically opposed approach became prevalent, one rooted in masculine anxieties that arose in response to the feminist movement and were usually expressed in the form of a particularly crude misogyny. If the comedies of this period can be summed up by a single line of dialogue, it is surely the one uttered by Bill Murray in Ivan Reitman's Ghostbusters (1984): "Let's show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown." A handful of individual works still took the critique of masculinity as their theme, notably Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985) and Elaine May's Ishtar (1987) — the latter, in marked contrast to Reitman's highly successful film, a significant critical and commercial failure. But only one director managed to maintain this tradition throughout the decade: Blake Edwards, who has sadly died at the age of 88.

The films Edwards made during the '80s are: S.O.B. (1981), Victor/Victoria (1982), Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), The Man Who Loved Women (1983), Micki + Maude (1984), A Fine Mess (1986), That's Life! (1986), Blind Date (1987), Sunset (1988), and Skin Deep (1989), to which list we should add 10 (1979) and Switch (1991), the two films which bracket Edwards' '80s achievements, the television films Justin Case (1988) and Peter Gunn (1989), and the TV series Julie (1992).

It has to be admitted that some of these films find Edwards working on a lesser level than others: the two Pink Panther entries are rather routine (there would be a further addition to this series, Son of the Pink Panther, in 1993, which would prove to be the director's swan song), Sunset and the various television pieces are pleasant but minor, and A Fine Mess obviously disfigured by studio interference (it was called The Music Box until the entire sequence which justified this title was removed). But that still leaves us with nine masterpieces which, taken together, compose one of the most distinguished bodies of work to emerge from America in an otherwise mostly impoverished decade.

I realize that describing films such as Blind Date, Micki + Maude, and Skin Deep — films which were generally considered undemanding mainstream comedies, and are now long forgotten — as masterpieces will be controversial. But, looking at several of them again recently, they still seem to me at least as creative, sophisticated, and vital as any of Hollywood's acknowledged comedy classics, with which they share a sense of robust good health. Most '80s comedies exploited neurotic fears — fears of the human body, of femininity, of The Other, even of the emotional engagement encouraged by genre films (hence the extremely popular series of parodies such as Airplane! and near parodies such as the Indiana Jones series). Edwards regards these fears with a wry amusement that, in this context, has the force of a radical protest: even his undisguised and unashamed sentimentality functions as a critical tool, implicitly critiquing that knowing cynicism which had become so prevalent in American cinema.


One of the most striking things about these films is their range of approaches: although they all belong more or less to the comedy genre, there is an enormous difference between the comic drama of That's Life!, the musical comedy of Victor/Victoria, and the pure slapstick of A Fine Mess. But this eclecticism can often be found within the films themselves: The Man Who Loved Women's contemplative tone is rudely punctuated by a slapstick sequence involving bedroom farce and the humorous potential of glue, while S.O.B is a wild mixture of farce, parody, satire, slapstick, musical comedy, verbal comedy, sex comedy, and black comedy. But what unites all these films, and also links them with the finest comedies of classical Hollywood, is their emphasis on the exposure of masculinity. Edwards' project is strikingly coherent in its systematic assaults on various masculine types: the hero who expertly controls people, narrative events, space, and especially his own body is mercilessly parodied in the figure of Inspector Clouseau; the sexually promiscuous Don Juan type whose personality is rooted in his ability to manipulate women is subjected to extensive criticism in 10, The Man Who Loved Women, and Skin Deep; the uncompromising creator in conflict with forces of brute commercialism is exposed as a narcissist whose artistic activities depend on the denial of his wife's autonomy in S.O.B and That's Life! The deflation of masculine presumption is all the more impressive in the latter two films, given that they are overtly autobiographical: their central characters live in Edwards' house and are married to women played by Edwards' wife, Julie Andrews. (That's Life, co-written by Edwards' analyst, features so many members of the director's family, including several pets, that it might be seen as his incursion into Philippe Garrel territory.)

Blind Date
Blind Date

Edwards makes for a striking contrast with Buster Keaton, whose protagonists often misunderstood objects and situations but were able to master spaces. Edwards' male characters, on the other hand, attempt to master spaces in the Keaton style, but find them slippery, unreliable, deceptive, prone to unexpectedly shifting, dissolving, or opening onto other, previously concealed spaces: one thinks especially of Clouseau, unable to negotiate even the most apparently straightforward of spaces without encountering opposition; or S.O.B.'s Felix (Richard Mulligan) slowly sinking through the carpet covering a hole in his bedroom floor, eventually finding himself deposited in another room where a party is taking place; or David (John Larroquette) in Blind Date driving his car into those buildings which suddenly loom into view whenever he is briefly distracted. If space for Keaton is ideologically neutral, for Edwards it is ideologically loaded, and mocks all attempts to master it. As in Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve, and Orson Welles' The Trial (a clear influence on After Hours), the deflation of masculine presumption in Edwards' '80s films is usually undertaken by one or a series of independent women (culminating in Switch, which, with wonderful logic, transforms the presumptuous male into the independent woman). But Edwards' unpredictable, uncontrollable women are able to enlist unpredictable, uncontrollable spaces as allies in their project: females and inherently feminine spaces combine forces to undermine the assumptions of men who attempt to predict and control them. With Edwards now sadly consigned to his own offscreen "space," it seems highly unlikely that this level of mise en scène will ever again be achieved in America's commercial cinema.

Brad Stevens




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