Writer-director Blake Edwards, a latter-day master of slapstick, died Dec. 15 in Santa Monica, Calif., at the age of 88.
Although Edwards was born in Oklahoma, his best-known on-screen alter egos were British: Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series, Dudley Moore besotted by a slo-mo Bo Derek in 10.
People often forget that Edwards was even involved in one of his earliest hits, Breakfast at Tiffany's. It was a sensation, as were Audrey Hepburn and her little black dress. The movie was elegant but bittersweet, a story of a woman paid for love by wealthy patrons.
One scene hints at the man behind the camera: The party in Holly Golightly's cramped New York apartment is pure comic chaos, with Hepburn centered neatly in the middle. People are jammed together more tightly than cigarettes in a pack, though the cigarettes in this case are being smoked in dainty little holders. Champagne corks pop repeatedly as the guests replenish their frequently spilled drinks; a drunken woman has an overwrought conversation with herself in the mirror; Holly's tabby cat goes flying over the tops of people's heads, desperate for space.
The film won two Academy Awards for composer Henry Mancini, who would become Edwards' go-to guy for music. Mancini also provided the theme for Peter Gunn, the hit TV series Edwards created.
That show premiered in 1958, just before Edwards' greatest run as a movie director: Breakfast at Tiffany's, Experiment in Terror, Days of Wine and Roses and The Pink Panther and its first sequel, A Shot in the Dark. Edwards would go on to make several movies starring his wife, Julie Andrews, including Victor/Victoria and S.O.B. The latter had a topless scene designed to free her from her earlier wholesome image as Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp.
Andrews resisted at first, though she eventually decided that the moment wasn't gratuitous, but character-defining. Still, she told NPR's Scott Simon in 1994 that only the presence of her husband in the director's chair allowed her to really let loose and do the scene. And when she watched the film with an audience?
"The whole crowd broke into applause," she told NPR, "and I wasn't sure if it was for my boobs or for my performance."
Sam Wasson, author of A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards, says Edwards used slapstick not just in his scripts but on the set, to keep actors on their toes.
"You get tired take after take; it starts to feel like work," Wasson says. "You've got to keep it fresh. I know on the set of Micki and Maude he had a man in a gorilla suit jump out of the closet and ruin the takes."
But by 1979 Edwards knew he had to get serious about his work. He'd had a string of flops, including Darling Lili, another Julie Andrews vehicle. Although its reputation has improved since its 1970 release, at the time it was one of Hollywood's biggest commercial failures.
Edwards needed to be perfect with 10, which started with finding an actress who was "a perfect 10." Derek looked the part, though it was Moore's pratfalls that carried the movie; scenes like the one where Moore slides nose first down a canyon had audiences roaring.
But Wasson says such physical humor can obscure the intellect Edwards brought to his work.
"He gets credit for the movies that we all know, but the body of work is so huge, so complicated and so inventive and funny," Wasson says. "He really ought to be considered in the line of great Hollywood directors that goes all the way back to Chaplin."
In 2004, the actor Jim Carrey presented Edwards with an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. The director was waiting in the wings, and when his name was announced, he zoomed by Carrey in a motorized wheelchair, snagged the Oscar out of his hands, and then proceeded to crash his wheelchair into a wall.
It was just another display of perfect comic timing. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.