Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Spurious Perhaps, But Not Turgid
Right around cocktail time on the day the world learned of the death of Blake Edwards I suddenly had a reverie of walking into that hotel bar in “10” down in Mexico where Don the bartender, played by Brian Dennehy, pours multiple Brandys for Dudley Moore’s George Webber. After ordering a double for myself from Don (“Another double, Don,” I’ll say) I suppose we’d commiserate over the loss and maybe a few other familiar Edwards characters would turn up as well. George Webber himself would be nearby with his own double Brandy, ignoring Dee Wallace’s Mary Lewis while maybe still gazing wistfully at Bo Derek’s Jenny blithely dancing in the other room with her wide-eyed husband. The characters from S.O.B. played by William Holden, Robert Webber and Robert Preston would be together on the other side of the bar downing considerably stiffer drinks, having just put six dollars worth of Sinatra on the jukebox. Holly Golightly would of course wander through for a quick drink but not stay long, no doubt on the hunt for Rusty Trawler and she’d probably leave without paying. Jack Lemmon’s Joe Clay from DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES might be sitting uncomfortably by himself at a table in the corner, hopefully drinking something non-alcoholic and still missing his wife who he’s long since lost track of. Ellen Barkin as Steve/Amanda Brooks from SWITCH would be brooding by his/herself, drinking a sixth margarita, ready to knock any one of these men in the face if they try anything. That aside, we’d all be having a relaxing time drowning our sorrows with excessively witty dialogue honoring Edwards flowing out of each one of us like champagne until, I suppose, Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau shows up (actually, maybe it would be Hrundi V. Bakshi), trips over something and starts a chain reaction that would cause the entire bar to come crashing down and put an end to this impromptu memorial. Which I suppose would be appropriate.
I’ve been trying to work out in my head just what the death of Blake Edwards at 88 means to me. I just know that I want to celebrate his memory, not mourn him. The span of his career as a filmmaker, as a writer, as a craftsman, as a stylist (After all, how many other directors out there have been the primary creative force of a comedy series that essentially spanned a period of nearly thirty years?), combining his love for silent comedies in the purely visual style he emulated numerous times in his own work—notably, his grandfather was a silent film director—with the sparkling wit and wordplay one might associate with the likes of Lubitsch, Sturges and Wilder. He absolutely deserves mention alongside those names and with his passing, since no one has taken up the mantle of that kind of approach in recent years—frankly, I’m not sure anyone would be allowed to even try—it’s like the concept of the sophisticated comedy has officially ended once and for all.
Edwards hasn’t always been as respected as I think he should be which in a sense is partly his own doing—the commercial and critical failure of the non-Sellers PANTHER films, a number of comedies that haven’t aged well, Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. But all you need to do is look at a list of the titles that matter, both comedies and others with a number starring wife Julie Andrews: the Clouseau films, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, THE GREAT RACE, WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?, THE PARTY, DARLING LILI, THE TAMARIND SEED, “10”, S.O.B., VICTOR/VICTORIA, SWITCH. And, in truth, there are a few I haven’t listed here, ones that got no mention in any of his obits, that I always find myself getting pleasure from on repeated viewings as well. The more I see some of these films the more I respond to just why they work—the elegance, the intricate structuring of the scripts, the forever acidic dialogue, the true understanding of whatever genre he was working in, the visual formality of his anamorphic framing that would let actors play off each other through scenes as much as possible or be used in a way to allow a joke to work just right. The recurring actors, the party scenes (THE PARTY aside, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S probably has the greatest party scene ever), the Henry Mancini source music twinkling away in the background through moments of wanton destruction, that sort of zoned-out Southern California vibe that probably seemed otherworldly to me as a kid, as if L.A. really was the promised land I wanted to find myself in. When I worked a job in Brentwood during my first years here I think secretly deep down I sometimes imagined myself as living in a kind of Blake Edwards film. Even now, I listen to close to an unhealthy amount of Henry Mancini, as if trying to force something of the essence from his films into real life.
And through films that are good and bad, slapstick and serious, some of them feel truly personal, almost startlingly so, in ways that are absolutely undeniable through their drunken insanity, painful hangovers and continual bitterness. They’re about people who go through journeys of self-examination, addressing the nature of relationships between men and women not to mention who is sometimes attracted to who, through their frankness at times making it evident just how much time he must have spent in analysis and quite a few of his characters, even Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus, spend as much time on the couch as possible trying to sort all this out (indeed, Edwards’ own psychoanalyst Dr. Milton Wexler was a co-writer with him on two films). And they’re about how the pain that arises from that anguish, like the desperation of wanting to fuck Bo Derek, sometimes hurts more than any spectacular pratfall ever could.
When it came time for something to watch on that night I was going to go with THE PINK PANTHER, partly because I’ve seen “10” and S.O.B. so many thousands of times by now but at the last minute I decided to go with a more unusual choice, one that represented the sort of Blake Edwards film I was able to experience first hand during that run in the eighties when he worked at an extremely fast clip for any director (A FINE MESS, THAT’S LIFE and BLIND DATE all came out within a seven month time span in ’86-’87, for example). Released in March 1989, SKIN DEEP was near the end of that particularly prolific run, playing now as it did then as a very conscious riff on themes he had certainly explored in the past and if it’s not one of his best films it’s certainly one of his more successful efforts during that period. I think for a while I may have been slightly ashamed by how much I genuinely liked what much of the world probably thought of as a goofy John Ritter comedy but I don’t really feel that way anymore. When I saw it at the time of its release, without knowing how to put it into words I recognized that Edwards was openly exploring some of the same themes as past films and it allowed me to approach it as what I understood was an ongoing body of work. This idea probably opened me up to the concept of a director with a distinctive vision exploring serious themes within the context of a comedy and I think that added to my education of what a personal film really could be, only adding to my continued fondness for it. It’s not perfect for a number of reasons but it has a large amount of genuine laughs, a surprising amount of depth and every frame of it feels completely like a Blake Edwards film right down to its core.
Famed writer Zach Hutton (bearded John Ritter) is being held at gun point by his mistress who has caught him with another woman when his wife Alex (Alyson Reed) walks in on all of them. She immediately kicks him out of the house “lock, stock and typewriter” and divorces him. Zach immediately tries to pick up the pieces of his life, living for a time with Molly (Julianne Phillips) but soon is spending much of his time alternating time between his favorite bar run by friendly but pragmatic Barney (Vincent Gardenia) and sessions with stone-faced psychiatrist Dr. Westford (Michael Kidd) as well as getting involved any number of other women. But he soon finds himself spiraling out of control in doing way too much drinking and absolutely zero writing, eventually coming to the realization that Alex may be the only person who can save him but her bitterness over how things ended means that it may be too late.
Apparently when wife Julie Andrews began to write her autobiography Edwards’ one piece of advice to her was, “Characters are your story,” and even more than his films usually are, SKIN DEEP is all character but it’s also about the very essence of character as well and whether it really is possible to change, a concept impeccably fused through every scene of the story as it explores this theme. Like Edwards, Zach Hutton is a very prosperous creative individual married to a woman who is successful in her own field (Alyson Reed does slightly resemble Julie Andrews, come to think of it) but the conflict he has to face within himself and with his ex-wife is presented as very serious in this movie, one which is of course best known for a certain legendary glow-in-the-dark condom sequence. Very much playing like an attempt at redoing his way-too-low-key version of THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN, itself a remake of a Truffaut film (the Edwards version had a bearded Burt Reynolds as a sculptor), SKIN DEEP has Edwards approaching this material with a great amount of spark and energy through farcical situations of Zach drunkenly bedding (or at least trying to bed) one woman after another, variations on material he’s explored before but the pacing is always fast and sharp, with displays of anguish that have a surprising amount of teeth to them as well.
Of course the film has a terrific lead actor willing to make every pratfall required of him by Edwards-- when someone has to get knocked over by a flailing Ritter she can’t just be carrying a few files, her arms have to be overloaded with them before they all go flying. And as for the infamous condom sequence which part of the ad campaign was based around, while it’s probably not as uproarious to watch at home as it was in the theater it is still pretty damn funny. It’s all presented with impeccable narrative economy such as how the immediate flourishing and destruction of his relationship with Molly is dazzlingly well-executed in just a few deliberately similar shots. The laughs veer into drama in rapid fire ways that sometimes seem genuinely disarming all through the continually literate dialogue (maybe I should just make “Not being able to write is like not being able to screw” my motto once and for all) and any number of beautifully turned phrases from Edwards’ ever-present knack to presumably amuse himself by tossing big words or discussions of such phrasings into conversations. I just love the flow of in recounting one story to his psychiatrist, Ritter tells how he tried “to be alert to the narrative possibilities of the evening.” Not to mention the presence of the oft-used phrase, “Nobody’s perfect”, most associated with Billy Wilder of course, but which also turns up in several of Edwards’ films here and there as if he’s always trying to remember that there’s only so much you can do to save yourself.
And, yes, SKIN DEEP focuses largely on the problems of extremely wealthy white people who live in large homes complete with manservants. The plight of the rich is nothing new with Blake Edwards films, of course, whether we’re talking about how Charles Litton’s big problem in RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER is that he’s bored doing nothing but living the high life in the south of France or characters like Zach Hutton here and Jack Lemmon’s near-suicidal architect in THAT’S LIFE! going through problems considerably more desperate. Edwards clearly understood the self-hatred that lurked within the wealthy Malibu/Bel Air milieu as much as he was always trying to make sense of his own depressions and insecurities, at times seeming to view all that wealth around him as if he wanted nothing more than to bring all these mansions crumbling down, letting waves crash into Malibu to wreck homes and expose every bit of rotting hypocrisy that can be found there. There’s also the latest in the long line of sympathetic and layered gay best friends in Edwards films presented in the most casual manner possible, here represented by the interesting pairing of Peter Donat and Don Gordon (Steve McQueen’s partner in BULLITT) and a key death that occurs stood out at the time because it wasn’t the typical AIDS tragedy. Looking at it now, this plays as something which not only doesn’t date the film but also makes the foibles of the characters in question (never specified, just as Edwards must have known his friends went through as much anguish as he did) that much more identifiable, an element which doesn’t badly date things in this well off west L.A. in a way that the fashions do. To be fair of course, any number of his films from various decades feature fashions and references that lock things into their era as much as that bit player in “10” reading a copy of “Rona Barrett’s Gossip”, with SKIN DEEP displaying lots of big hair and shoulder pads on the women and even some of the men’s suits manage to look oddly dated but if SKIN DEEP is going to be a film about a stylized Blake Edwards world of 1989 I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.
SKIN DEEP has a large number of genuine laughs and the inner conflict of its lead character always feels raw, honest and potent. All this said, the film isn’t perfect, and contains a fair number of the drawbacks people familiar with Edwards’ work would recognize, like my suspicion that only a screenwriter in his 60’s would name a heavy metal band the Moon Rocks, maybe a slight indication that the writer who once identified more with the ‘elevator music’ written by the lead character of “10” was that much more isolated from pop culture by the end of the 80s. Its effectiveness is also somewhat damaged in how surprisingly dingy it looks at times (the Panavision framing as Edwards lets scenes play out in his usual long takes is always impeccable, of course) and there’s a feel around the edges that the budget wasn’t as high as he was sometimes used to. What maybe hurts the film the most is what sometimes hurts any film that amiably drifts along unconcerned about actual plot—by a certain point it realizes that it needs to actually go somewhere and this one slightly fumbles in the home stretch. The occasional presence of what appears to be a false beard on Ritter during the second half—possibly changing from one to the other in the same scene more than once—indicates the possibility of reshoots after principal photography as Edwards was maybe still finding the movie in an attempt to focus more on Zach ultimately choosing to pursue Alex (lengthy aside—examples of severe reediting weren’t all that uncommon with Edwards’ films with several featuring scenes included prominently in publicity that never turned up in the final version, like the sequence in A FINE MESS involving the music box that the entire film was meant to be centered around, but ultimately cut. Trailers for a few other films have tantalizing glimpses of cut scenes forever to be found in the trailers with the occasional remnant still lurking in the actual movies if you know where to look hard enough. For me, I think this has only added to the nature of trying to sort out how character and structure work in Blake Edwards films. End of lengthy aside).
The nonstop speed as it moves towards its conclusion hurts things as well and even when some of the dialogue is surprisingly frank about what the lead character is going through in all the best ways (“I’m so miserable, I want to fucking shoot myself. Only I can’t, because I’m afraid to die,” he desperately reveals to his therapist) that when things are resolved so fast in such a neat way it feels just a little like a reach for a bullshit happy ending. It doesn’t make me dislike the film—the final beats are just fine, actually. But it feels like a case of turning its back on too much of the anguish that propelled Zach’s precarious situation forward and it’s not as effective an ending as it should be. At the movie’s best it’s still the right kind of potent vodka but it still feels like what had the potential to be great just comes off as pretty good. Repeated viewings over the years have only helped to clarify this feeling but I still have a huge admiration for a lot of what the movie achieves and feel it deserves better than it’s gotten. SKIN DEEP is flawed, yes, but it does know to dig deep into its character and is occasionally truly hysterical. Not to mention that with the star and director of this two-decade-old film gone now, listening to the lead character speaking of trying to fix things before it’s too late reminds me how fast time really does move in this forever darkly comic world we live in and makes watching it now all the more wistful an experience.
The cast is just fantastic and every scene demonstrates how much Edwards clearly loved working with his actors, allowing them to continually make a strong impression in front of the camera. John Ritter (who I actually remember seeing a number of times on San Vicente Blvd. in my Brentwood days) does some of his strongest work here in probably the best film role he ever had. As lightweight as his presence might sometimes be he rises to the occasion here totally and completely, tears coming to his eyes while flirting as if just the act of doing this fills him with such indefinable joy he can’t help himself, as well as succeeding in making every inch of his desperation late in the film totally palpable. Plus he pulls off some of the most remarkable physical work of his career and there’s once or twice where I’m a little amazed that they never cut away to let the stuntman take over. He’s also matched well up against Alyson Reed who is more mature looking than the sort of beauty maybe expected to be cast in this film (she seems older than Ritter in every way but if the dates are right she’s actually several years younger) and the film wisely uses her inherently serious nature well, with her character’s bitterness at him in the opening scenes feeling genuine and that carries through the film, always remaining in the back of the mind even as the laughs keep up. Joel Brooks as lawyer/best friend Jake deserves props for the way he says “I gotta get home to the fucking loved ones,” while also standing out in the large cast are Vincent Gardenia as Zach’s loyal bartender, the legendary Michael Kidd as the psychiatrist, Chelsea Field as the brunette in turquoise who Zach makes the mistake of trying to buy a drink for (I once recognized her and blurted out “SKIN DEEP!” to which she responded something like, “Ugh, that was so long ago.” I always had a thing for her), Nina Foch as the angry mother-in-law, Dee Dee Rescher as the wife of Jake who can never stop laughing and Denise Crosby as investment counselor Angela Smith. Herb Tanney, Edwards’ friend and doctor, makes his usual cameo appearance this time playing a Hotel Concierge and credited as ‘Sol Vang Tanney’.
I had the privilege of seeing Blake Edwards at a few events over the years and stood as part of a standing ovation for him several times. The last one was at an Academy tribute only back in September where he spoke in an onstage interview with producer Walter Mirisch before a screening of S.O.B. He was clearly weak but the wit was still sharp and, rather movingly, he managed to rise from his wheelchair to acknowledge the audience after the sold out Academy theater rose for him. Another time I saw him speak was after a screening of WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? at the Aero in Santa Monica, which included a genuinely odd Q&A that he conducted from his seat in the audience, Julie Andrews by his side, and answered one question about his style by simply saying, “I did what I did,” one of those statements that I suppose says both nothing and everything at the same time. But even more cherished than that was his surprise appearance at the same theater after an American Cinematheque screening of THE PARTY a few years back where his presence at the rear of the theater was revealed as soon the end credits finished rolling and the entire audience rose in unison to applaud him for the absolute joy he had just provided for the past 99 minutes. I went to the lobby right after to pay my respects and tried to fumble out words to him of how much I loved his movies, how much they meant to me, but probably didn’t do a very good job of expressing myself. At least I got the chance.
And now I think about how much I love some of these movies, how much they’ve taught me about writing screenplays, their structure, their dialogue, how comedy can be staged, how any kind of genre can possibly be staged and how much I respond to how he tried to explore that indefinable chasm between man and women, madness and sanity, pain and joy, drunk and sober, thoughts that come to mind at times when I meet women like that cocktail waitress I had at the Dresden the other night who was charmingly abrasive in a way that would have made her seem right at home in a Blake Edwards film (maybe I should write my own Edwards-inspired romantic comedy about trying to date her). And I think deep down I emulate some of my favorite films of his more than any other films from any other director. This stuff is a part of me, right down to my core. A number of hours after hearing that he died I sat at my desk and looked at a clip of the quietly touching final scene of THE PARTY, a final scene that bravely allows the hysteria of that remarkable film to die down, coming to a gentle conclusion instead of just going for an obvious final gag. As I watched it and listened to the soothing sound of Mancini’s beautiful “Nothing to Lose” I remembered how those credits rolled the night at the Aero, with Edwards quietly in the back watching unbeknownst to anyone, how much this movie has meant to me every single time I’ve ever seen it and I suddenly found myself crying. I was crying for the loss of this man I never actually knew but who possessed a cockeyed view of the world, and of films, that had come to mean so much to me. And always will. To quote William Holden at the end of S.O.B., “So long, pal.”