Thursday, December 16, 2010
RIP: BLAKE EDWARDS
Blake Edwards, a writer and director who became a Hollywood master of screwball farces and rude comedies like “Victor/Victoria” and the “Pink Panther” movies, died Wednesday night in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 88.
His publicist, Gene Schwam, said the cause was complications of pneumonia. Mr. Edwards’s wife, the actress Julie Andrews, and other family members were at his side at St. John’s Health Center, Mr. Schwam said.
What the critic Pauline Kael once described as Mr. Edwards’s “love of free-for-all lunacy” was flaunted in good movies and bad ones: in commercial successes like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) and “The Pink Panther” (1963) — the first of a series of films starring Peter Sellers as a bumbling French policeman — and in box-office disasters like the musical spy extravaganza “Darling Lili” (1970), starring Ms. Andrews.
Mr. Edwards’s last major success, “Victor/Victoria” (1982), was a farce about a starving singer (Ms. Andrews) who pretends to be a homosexual Polish count who performs as a female impersonator. Mr. Edwards received an Academy Award nomination for his “Victor/Victoria” screenplay, which was adapted from a 1933 German film written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel. It was his only Oscar nomination. But he was given an honorary award by the Motion Picture Academy in 2004 for his “extraordinary body of work.” That work spanned more than four decades.
After writing several zany comic soufflés, including “Operation Mad Ball” (1957), for the director Richard Quine, Mr. Edwards began directing his own light and buoyant comedies, including “This Happy Feeling” (1958), “The Perfect Furlough” (1958) and “Operation Petticoat” (1959). He later turned his comedy to the dark side in films in which middle-aged male protagonists — unlucky womanizers, artists at the end of their creative tethers — are just one banana peel away from disaster.
The critic Andrew Sarris wrote in 1968 that Mr. Edwards had gotten “some of his biggest laughs out of jokes that are too gruesome for most horror films.”
Those jokes include a long sequence in which Tony Curtis embarks on a slapstick three-continent car marathon in “The Great Race” (1965); a desperate Peter Sellers is unable to find a bathroom in “The Party” (1968); Burt Reynolds’s death while staring at the legs of a nurse in “The Man Who Loved Women” (1983); and nearly every incident in “S.O.B.” (1981), a movie in which Mr. Edwards takes an ax dipped in cyanide to the movie industry, which alternately embraced and spurned him.
After a series of critical and box-office failures in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Mr. Edwards spent several years in self-imposed exile in London and Switzerland. He returned to write and direct three “Pink Panther” movies between 1975 and 1978, followed by the unexpected critical and commercial success of “10” (1979). One of his most personal films, “10,” starred Dudley Moore as a composer whose 42nd birthday causes a whopping midlife crisis and an obsession with a beautiful young woman, played by Bo Derek, whom he considers a perfect 10.
Although Mr. Edwards is known for his comedies, one of his most successful films was “Days of Wine and Roses,” a harrowing drama about an alcoholic couple. According to Mr. Edwards’s commentary on the DVD of the movie — which was based on a “Playhouse 90” television play by J. P. Miller and starred Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick — Mr. Lemmon, whom Mr. Edwards often said was his favorite actor, felt that the material was so bleak, it needed a director who could inject some humor.
Both men were drinking hard in 1962. When he stopped drinking about a year later, “the film had as much to do with it as anything did,” he told The Times in 2001.
Mr. Edwards’s string of successful movies ended in the late 1960s, as did his first marriage, to the actress Patricia Walker. His marriage to Ms. Andrews, the Academy Award-winning musical comedy star, sprouted a year after his divorce. At the time, Ms. Andrews’s public image was of the endlessly cheerful governess she had played in “The Sound of Music.” According to a joint interview the couple gave Playboy in 1982, Mr. Edwards, who had never met Ms. Andrews, wowed a party crowd that was speculating on the reason for her phenomenal success. “I can tell you exactly what it is,” he said. “She has lilacs for pubic hair.” Ms. Andrews sent Mr. Edwards a lilac bush shortly after they started dating, and their marriage lasted 41 years.
His survivors include a daughter, Jennifer, and a son, Geoffrey, from his first marriage; two Vietnamese daughters, Amy and Joanna, whom he and Ms. Andrews adopted; and a stepdaughter, Emma — Ms. Andrews’s daughter from her marriage to the Broadway designer Tony Walton.
“My entire life has been a search for a funny side to that very tough life out there,” Mr. Edwards once said. “I developed a kind of eye for scenes that made me laugh to take the pain away.”