“How do you thank someone for a million laughs?” With the passing of Blake Edwards, one of the very last survivors of the golden age of pictures has gone. At 88, he had seen the whole parade: his grandfather was a silent film director, his father was in the business, and Blake started out as an actor in the l940s, eventually turned to screenwriting—quite successfully—and then to directing in the mid-l950s. Over the years, he had an impressive array of popular and superbly made pictures, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s (probably Audrey Hepburn’s most iconic appearance), Operation Petticoat (Cary Grant’s biggest box office hit), 10 (which made Dudley Moore a superstar), S.O.B. (which bared wife Julie Andrews’ breasts and skewered Hollywood mercilessly), Victor/Victoria (a taboo-breaking gender-bending farce that he transferred successfully to Broadway as a musical), and, of course, the glorious Pink Panther series that started in the l960s and ran throughout the l970s (giving Peter Sellers his most devastatingly funny incarnation as the hopelessly bumbling Inspector Clouseau).
I first met Blake on the set of his comic extravaganza, The Great Race, where I discovered he was the first person besides Jerry Lewis to use video-assist monitors (which Lewis invented), and which is standard equipment on sets now. Edwards was very laidback in a kind of intense way, which is a contradiction in terms but fits the man I came to know over the years. He had a mordantly wicked sense of humor, very black Irish—Julie Andrews’ nickname for him was Blackie—and a self-deprecating manner that was quite disarming. He often seemed very amused at the absurdities of life in the movie business, indeed life in general. This was a man who once, at night, dove by accident into an emptied swimming pool and broke nearly every bone in his body; he was often doing things like that, so that a lot of his humor was derived from his own foibles. But Blake’s most vivid characteristic was this wry sense of rebellion, a kind of conspiracy against any form of authority.
For a man famous for his comedies, he also made one of the most searing dramas ever filmed about alcoholism—something he himself successfully overcame: Days of Wine and Roses is a devastating look at addiction and features perhaps Jack Lemmon’s greatest performance, as well as an equally brilliant one from Lee Remick; the picture is viscerally difficult to watch. He could do crime melodrama as well as anyone, as the noir thriller, Experiment in Terror, conclusively proves. And detective pictures, like Gunn based on the TV series he created, Peter Gunn. Also some of his best work went unnoticed, like the uproariously funny World War II farce, What Did You Do in The War, Daddy? with a classic performance by comic Dick Shawn, or Skin Deep, with a memorable job by dear John Ritter.
Though he began in the waning years of the old studio system, Blake succeeded in making the transition to independent production, but he had been brought up in the golden age when directors didn’t shoot everything in sight, but cut in the camera; knew what they wanted, and knew how to get it. If it could be done in one shot, without cutting, that was the way to do it. I just recently saw again A Shot in the Dark, the second Panther picture, and was amazed at one living room scene with a half dozen actors playing out a complicated series of gags and slapstick bits which required great precision, all done in one long continuous shot; it was breathtaking. As Orson Welles said, when I once asked him what he thought was the difference between cutting up a scene or playing it through in one shot, “Well, we used to say that was what separated the men from the boys.” Blake Edwards was definitely among the men—a really terrific guy— and with him goes one of the final examples of real, classic filmmaking.