The Wild Rover

One lucky S.O.B.: Blake Edwards
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

The winner of this year's Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars, 81-year-old Blake Edwards, has a very specific reputation--one might even call it narrow. A banana-peel funnyman with an eye toward the silent classics, Edwards is responsible for creating the most elegant physical slapstick of the sound era. His 1982 classic Victor/Victoria, for example, observes the comic mayhem that ensues when a cockroach breaks loose in a fancy French restaurant--from across the street. Edwards is known to have planted copious amounts of physical pain into otherwise weightless pratfalls long before Peter and Bobby Farrelly ever said "franks and beans." But above all, he's known for bringing sophistication--trademarked by Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder--into our grotty, post-sophisticated era.

No doubt it's Edwards's link to the Lubitsch-Wilder tradition that occasioned his spot at Billy Crystal's podium on Sunday night. Yet a fresh look at the director's canon reveals a lesser-known thematic strand that crosses over decades and genres. Blake Edwards--arch cosmopolitan, man who will not be fooled--has made a career out of lamenting the sacrifice of innocents on the pyre of experience. His big commercial breadwinners--including the Pink Panther series with its 15 years of Peter Sellers waxing sniffy, then falling down a garbage chute--obscure this motif. But in nearly every one of Edwards's genuine classics--particularly the forgotten ones--the artist returns to the theme of vulnerability and naïveté charred upon the crucible of the Older but Wiser. Basically, Edwards turns the experience of being an artist in Hollywood into a universal--and fatalistic--condition.

The director's Experiment in Terror, a Columbia cheapie batted out in between Breakfast at Tiffany's and Days of Wine and Roses in 1962, is, for its first three-quarters at least, as tight a crime thriller as has ever been made. (It's newly available on DVD.) Following a gurgle of silky-sleazy Henry Mancini music, we dive into a Reseda tract-housing cul-de-sac and into a folksy garage, where bank teller Lee Remick gets grabbed from behind by sweaty, asthmatic sociopath Ross Martin. Edwards has directed the brittle-beautiful, always-posh Remick to play the banker as a painfully ingenuous rube who slowly figures out the facts that even the wised-up G-men (headed by a never-more-sour Glenn Ford) can't bring themselves to acknowledge: that wheezy Martin is going to force her to steal $100,000 from her bank; that he will insist on verifying the cash's authenticity before he releases her; and that he will never let her live.

In Experiment in Terror, it's the open eyes of the arbitrarily captured innocent that perceive real evil. For his part, the progressively disillusioned Ford (who hadn't many illusions in the first place) is sickened to find that capturing the bad guy will mean snuffing out the one ethical aspect of the criminal's life: his fatherly relationship to a dying Asian boy on the poor side of town. The movie is pure crackerjack: Not a single scene fails to push the plot forward. Still, one is left with a creepy feeling of defilement that's closer to Gaspar Noë than Don Siegel.

In recent times, MGM has done us the great service of releasing on videotape Edwards's own 136-minute cut of one of his dream projects: the 1971 Wild Rovers. Of all the Edwards films I've rediscovered, Rovers delivers perhaps the most gratifying shock. The film begins with cowpuncher William Holden asking his younger, lower-IQ buddy Ryan O'Neal the meaning of life. (Late-period Edwards is frosted with boozy Broadway existentialism.) The meaning that they seek to derive from their low-paying, no-security lives is one familiar to most American audiences in 1971 (and 2004): more money, more stuff--more "fallback." Of course, in Rovers' setting, that means robbing banks; but unlike Peckinpah's Wild Bunch, Holden and O'Neal are naïfs--simps, really.

Edwards finally laid his cards on the table in 1981 when, after the huge success of 10, he was able to make a personal film again: a Feydeau-style farce about the studio mutilation of Wild Rovers. In S.O.B., the gentlest and most naive movie-producer character in cinema history is pitted against an array of heartless predators, including the one who unwittingly knifes him in the back: a dim and easily manipulated movie-star wife, played by...uh, Edwards's movie-star wife Julie Andrews.

Among all the filmmaker's duels between lamblike purity and the canniness of the carnivore, S.O.B. unfolds on the broadest canvas: The movie producer (a memorably wild-eyed Richard Mulligan) and three old cynics--a sexually ambiguous hack doctor (Robert Preston), a boozing and whoring hack director (William Holden), and a dyspeptic press agent (Robert Webber)--are assaulted by both sides of the movie colony. Gossip columnists, agents, executives, corporate chiefs, even scheming personal assistants engulf and devour these thin-skinned, childlike old rummies. The framing device is the Mulligan character's transformation of his biggest bomb--a kiddie musical starring his wife--into an Eyes Wide Shut-style Freudian sex nightmare in which America's Sweetheart bares her breasts. In Edwards's jaundiced vision, the cinema itself is a white-panty virgin getting uncorked by Commerce.

S.O.B. ends with the producer's true friends giving him a Viking sendoff in a burning boat while a swami (pricelessly played by Larry Storch--a dead ringer for Experiment's sociopathic Ross Martin) leads all of hypocritical Hollywood in a bogus hymn to the artist's idiosyncrasy and genius. Does that remind you of anything? Like...anything happening on the night of February 29? If you have any love in your heart for Blake Edwards and his work, light your own pint-sized Viking pyre for the man and let it burn between Sofia Coppola's studiedly klutzy acceptance speech and Peter Jackson's first waddle down the aisle.

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