Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Easier Said Than Done
I’m still here. I swear that I am.
One thing I never got to do was interview Blake Edwards. Sure, I shook his hand once or twice and got to see the man in person at screenings on a few occasions but that was really it. I wish I’d gotten the chance. Although, to be honest, if given the choice I probably would have preferred the opportunity to simply sit down for a meal with him--Julie Andrews would have been more than welcome to join us, of course. Maybe that way I would have learned even more about the man than simply asking him boilerplate questions, find out his feelings about the finer things in life and in the end possibly would have gleaned more about why his movies are the way they are. I’ve written about my fondness for some of them here before and recently when I posted some photos of him on my Facebook page during what would have been his 90th birthday, I was surprised when his daughter Jennifer (who I’m FB friends with but don’t actually know in real life) left a comment under one of them saying how it wasn’t an easy day. I certainly wasn’t going to click ‘like’ on that so I wrote her a brief note, she wrote back a thank you and that was really it, nothing much at all. But it was something.
Such a connection, however minor, compelled me to watch a film of his that night and for whatever reason I pulled out a VHS (purchased at the Rocket Video closing sale) of one that Jennifer Edwards is actually in, namely THAT’S LIFE! It’s a particularly personal comedy-drama made by the director under unusual circumstances during a period of heavy activity (released in 1986 two months after A FINE MESS, five months before BLIND DATE) but it seems to have disappeared in recent years—even the one DVD release it ever got, now out of print, was full-frame which as anyone familiar with Edwards Scope compositions would know is particularly unfortunate. It had been a while since I’d seen the film—spring of ’94, actually, at a LACMA event that paired it with THE GREAT RACE and featuring a Q&A with none other than Jack Lemmon beforehand. I guess that was a long time ago now, an appropriate thought to have about a movie in which one of the main characters comments at one point on how it all goes by so fast. Looking at the film again with quite a few more years behind me—the fear of mortality that the lead character dotes on actually feels a little tangible to me now, for one thing—I feel all the more aware how this film wasn’t just personal or even autobiographical for Blake Edwards but almost surprisingly private, laying bear his greatest fears and insecurities for anyone to see more than all the pratfalls Dudley Moore took in “10” ever revealed. I’m not sure it ever gets under the skin as some of his more bitingly comical films do maybe because he’s intentionally holding back on certain elements that he does best but, if anything, it feels honest and sincere.
As successful architect Harvey Fairchild (Jack Lemmon) begins the weekend that is to be spent celebrating his 60th birthday longtime wife, famous singer Gillian Fairchild (Julie Andrews), is undergoing her own crisis as she waits for the results of a biopsy in her throat that she has chosen to keep secret from Harvey for the time being. As the countdown to his birthday party progresses he can’t stop acting feverish about his fear of death, fear that he’s a failure and even fear of intimacy but as family and friends converge all around at their Malibu home, some with their own personal romantic issues going on, he’s not sure how he’ll even make it to the end of the weekend while Gillian silently awaits word of her own crisis even as the party begins.
THAT’S LIFE is an unusual film not only because it was shot almost entirely in the actual Malibu residence of its director with various offspring playing onscreen family members but in how it wasn't made with a typical screenplay (Edwards and Milton Wexler, his own psychoanalyst, are credited). “Returning to the Scene: Blake Edwards Volume 2” by William Luhr and Peter Lehman reports that the closest it had to a shooting script was a thirteen page outline followed by thirty-six pages of character analysis and expanded upon through improvisation during rehearsal—the unorthodox production setup of the non-union shoot resulted in problems with the teamsters but the independently financed film still only wound up costing $1.5 million. The approach almost feels all the more out of the ordinary considering how the final film plays--although a few moments seem to linger on what’s being said between the characters a beat or two longer than you might expect there isn’t really anything about it that comes off in a loose, improv style. Except for how it’s clearly made on a small scale with over half the running time taking place in one location the basic look still has the same sort of glossy feel similar to other Edwards films made right around this period.
Using the actual residence of the family in the plush environs of Malibu far away from many of the real troubles of the world and even making Andrews’ character a singer it’s hard not to think that this film looking at mortality is set in a world totally alien to about 99% of the people who would ever see it and it’s hard not to wonder that there is some validity to the criticism that it’s just about rich people’s problems even if this is the reality that Blake Edwards clearly knew. Maybe the one real concession towards trying to make it somewhat relatable is in not only casting one of the most beloved movie stars of all time in a lead role that pushes the boundaries of likability but also how Harvey Fairchild is not a film director but an architect, at least a somewhat down to earth profession. Edwards certainly had set his films within the film industry a few times in the past—if Judd Apatow ever remade this I doubt he would hesitate—so maybe he just wanted to avoid that angle this time out. Still, anything Harvey says in his “Success Breeds Failure” theory could apply to trying to make films in Hollywood as well and when he’s going on endlessly to his wife in all his desperation about how he could have been another Frank Lloyd Wright it’s easy to imagine Edwards himself at a similar low point saying the same things to the very same woman playing this man’s wife about how he never became the next Lubitsch, Sturges, Wilder, take your pick.
THAT’S LIFE! is very obviously wrenchingly personal in terms of what he wants to get across about himself, his wife, his family, his fears, his life done with maybe a tone that comes off as a little scattershot in how it observes everyone. Some of it is completely earnest, some of it makes stabs at being more comedic but as it goes on the best moments are those that feel surprisingly human in an offhand way that I would imagine grew out of the improv approach--Harvey insisting on the correct way a lobster should be cooked, the talkative neighbor played by Sally Kellerman going on about her own kind of sixth sense or when Gillian finally lays into her husband at the party with everything that’s been building up insider her for the entire film in a way that pierces him right at his core. And even in this decidedly loose structure are touches that feel truly like Blake Edwards in how they’re allowed to build—a minor runner about Harvey not shaving results in a joke turns out to be not only funny but also thematically pertinent. If anything, the emotion holds even if much of the film feels ‘nice’ as opposed to particularly funny but while it’s tempting to wish that the film had been made using just a little more of the acidic nature found in the director’s best darkly comic moments it turns out that the weakest section occurs when it does try to broaden things—an extended stretch dealing with Harvey’s, um, virility problem as he visits a Malibu psychic played by Felicia Farr (Lemmon’s own wife, also in films like Wilder’s KISS ME STUPID) followed by a prolonged sequence where he attends Sunday mass presided over by a priest who turns out to be Harvey’s college roommate played by Robert Loggia feels a little too separate from the rest of the film (that said, I like the way the old tensions between the two of them are shown to build up again without making a big deal about it). All this connected to the ambivalent take on (possible) adultery diminishes the more serious stretches as well as the inevitable happy ending.
Instead of a pungent cocktail with the sort of kick that his best films have THAT’S LIFE! winds up feeling more like a pleasant cup of tea. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with a cup of tea, of course, it just needs to be said. Instead of the undeniable anger at all the madness around him conveyed in something like S.O.B. this film has a feeling of genuine desperation as it searches for some kind of acceptance of the way things really are. Maybe it’s appropriate to call it an old man’s movie even if that does sound pretty condescending and it goes down easy enough but the full result never feels as memorable as its best individual moments. Some of these display the razor thin line between comedy and drama that occurs when the Lemmon is portraying his character in near-hysterics over whatever pain he’s in, done in such a way where you could almost imagine an audience not sure how to respond and this isn’t even the only one of Edwards’ films where that happens either (Burt Reynolds plays a very similar scene in THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN) but in this case maybe it needed a little more punch. Once Gillian has her blow up at Harvey and things get resolved the final moments seem to drift away providing final glimpses of the various characters as if Edwards is somehow striving to lend just a shade more meaning to all this but it almost feels like the film’s own attention is wandering when suddenly the credits begin to roll. There is emotion felt, but it’s all maybe a little too neat and tidy since it’s hard not to wonder if Harvey really will be totally changed for the better on Monday morning. After all, that sort of anger and desperation never entirely goes away, at least not that quickly so it feels like something is missing in how the film doesn’t take a moment to acknowledge this. THAT’S LIFE is a nice movie which considering how personal it clearly was for Blake Edwards that may be the cruelest thing to say about it but looking at it again now I feel exposed to the depths of his own psyche in a way that doesn’t happen with his other films. I just wish there was a little more to it than the feel of a pleasant home movie, as valuable as it may be to understanding him both as an artist and a person even a little better. After all, watching it is probably the closest I’ll ever get to sitting down for a meal with him. As a film, it’s far from perfect. But it does remind me that he was human.
As for his onscreen surrogate, there’s not a moment Jack Lemmon has here that isn’t real in some way (“I just sat back and let Jack be me, to some extent,” the director once said) and there’s something brave in how unflinching it is. But as much as the actor’s usual tics feel more grounded than they sometimes do in depicting a character which is essentially the film’s director showing himself as being self-obsessed in the most aggravating way possible it’s a problem that almost every single one of those moments has to be drenched in such flop sweat that it winds up enveloping the whole film a little too much. As a result his strongest moments are when he’s doing something else—I find the climactic close-up of him after Andrews’ big speech almost unbearably moving but there’s also the various lighter moments sprinkled throughout where the character is suddenly finding a way to come to life and forget about all the pain briefly. Presumably playing herself at least to a certain extent Julie Andrews has to spend much of her performance simply listening, gazing at him with all the love in the world, while we know inside she’s agonizing over what she’s keeping secret and she’s wonderful, able to come right to the point when necessary. She’s the heart of the film and clearly a display of how for Edwards she was the heart of his own life as well. Using actual family members of those involved (including Jennifer Edwards, Andrews’ daughter Emma Walton and Chris Lemmon as the Fairchild’s three children) certainly adds to the intimate feel so there’s an undeniable feel of intimacy always present but the entire supporting cast, also including Sally Kellerman, Robert Loggia, Theodore Wilson, Cynthia Sikes and Dana Sparks all do excellent work.
To this day I associate Blake Edwards films and the mood they often capture with summertime. But here I am looking at THAT’S LIFE! which is decidedly autumnal, if not approaching winter, and I think about how this hasn’t been much of a summer at all. Am I more depressed these days when I wake up or when I go to sleep? Am I complaining as much as Harvey Fairchild does? I also think about the film’s plea to cherish the time that is left, how it all goes by so fast and I recall that at the Academy tribute to Blake Edwards just a few months before his death in 2010 he told the crowd how he wasn’t much in the mood for celebrating since his old friend Tony Curtis had just died the day before. That’s life, I suppose, forever trying to celebrate the good while reminders of mortality are always there, even if you are fortunate enough to live in a place like Malibu where the waves crash up to your doorstep all day long. It’s a film that is about insisting on literally stopping and smelling the roses, even giving us a shot where Julie Andrews does just that. “It all goes by so fast,” she tells her daughter (both onscreen and real-life) at one point in THAT’S LIFE! which not only reminds me how both Edwards and Lemmon have now left us but also how the depiction of Gillian’s health crisis in this film managed to predict Andrews’ own later real-life problems as well. It makes me wonder about what I’ve done, why I haven’t accomplished some of the things I wanted to in life. There’s no good reason why I haven’t updated this blog lately. Maybe I’ve just been looking for a reason to keep doing it. Looking for a life. Looking for the inspiration to write something on one of those long and lonely nights in the middle of summer. Sometimes I think that I’ve found it, but it’s easier said than done.