May 4, 2012

Sunset is a moribund movie made by a collection of people who have an abundance of talent. How does a movie like this go wrong?

The most immediate answer is that the writer-director, Blake Edwards, has run out of gas. Edwards’ Hollywood career has been marked by unusual intelligence, which he applies to his favorite forms, slapstick and farce (10, Victor/Victoria). But Edwards seems to have lost his verve. Sunset crawls along with little conviction or life.

It’s a nifty idea for a movie. The conceit is that the cowboy movie star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) would meet the real cowboy Wyatt Earp (James Garner), who’s been hired as a technical advisor for a Mix film. Then the two get involved in a murder mystery set among the golden movie people of 1920s Hollywood.

The crucial failing of the film is not that the murder plot is bad. It is, but that’s not so important. The big problem is that the relationship between Mix and Earp is utterly uninteresting. They hit if off immediately in a bland sort of way, and they remain in that mode for the entire film. There’s no development, no change, no interest.

Garner, the smooth old pro, is the most appealing element in the movie; his Earp is courtly, civilized, but takes no guff from anybody. Willis, however, is completely lost (and quite secondary to Garner). But it’s not so much his fault; the film simply gives him no character to play, so he walks around smirking and looking outrageous in his sequined cowboy suits and 20-gallon hats.

The supporting roles are played by good people who don’t have a lot to do: Mariel Hemingway is the owner of a brothel where the murder takes place; Malcolm McDowell is in nasty form as a sadistic studio head who used to be a baggy-pants clown known as the Happy Hobo; Patricia Hodge (the fine British actress from Betrayal) is his wife, Earl’s old flame; Kathleen Quinlan is a public relations person and the film’s liveliest performer.

It’s a puzzling film. One could believe that the movie was damagingly cut at some point, but even heavy cuts couldn’t excuse all of the lameness here. Unfortunately, Sunset sounds like an all-too-appropriate title for this stage in Edwards’ career.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

I seem to remember some talk about a writer’s strike that may have rushed this one into production, or maybe that’s just an excuse. A complete miscalculation, anyway, this movie. And, after Blind Date, a definitive botch of what should have been a useful collaboration between actor and director.


December 17, 2010

Andrew Sarris, in his landmark The American Cinema, said that Blake Edwards’ movies “manage to be funny in spite of repeated violations of the axioms of classical slapstick….A Shot in the Dark lurches from improbability to improbability without losing its comic balance…only the most captious critic has to raise the question of logic.” Apparently Sarris doesn’t count himself as one of those logic-questioning critics: he is generally pro-Edwards. And I think Edwards is to be admired for putting his faith in cinematic logic above and beyond physical realities, when called for (some of the more outlandish Pink Panther gags surely qualify, and there are some jokes in this new movie, like a bit with lightning, or some shrunken clothes—an echo of Robert Wagner’s impossibly elongated sweater in The Pink Panther?—that lack rational probability; however, those unlikely shrunken clothes do have their cinematic logic, as they lead to the discovery of Victor/Victoria‘s chief plot device).

Sarris’s comments have other interesting suggestions in them; the hint that Edwards will violate whatever conventions will suit him may be instructive when considering some of the more curious aspects of his new Victor/Victoria. Edwards is both old-fashioned (rightly considered one of the few classicists remaining in Hollywood; and one thinks of the mildly indulgent moment in S.O.B. when two old-school filmmakers discuss their dislike and non-comprehension of Last Tango in Paris—which could serve as an alternate title for Victor/Victoria!) and he is receptive to modern sensibility and language (the bedtime bickering over the word “broad” airs a number of concerns which will be taken up by the rest of the story in 10). In Victor/Victoria he has a period film—Paris, 1934—to which a very accommodating, modern outlook is applied. In fact, there’s a bed scene between Julie Andrews and James Garner that recalls the one in 10, with two lovers discussing sexual chauvinism and emancipation—but in 1934? Period violation? Perhaps, and Sarris seems to be right in saying that Edwards doesn’t necessarily work most logically in getting what he wants. It should be noted that the two characters in this scene occasionally make fun of the clichés they step into, which makes the whole thing more palatable.

Period is nicely created in the opening scenes of Paris during a snowfall—I can’t think of another movie recently that has looked this handsome, in an old-fashioned studio sense. And it’s in these early scenes, with a starving Julie Andrews trudging the streets in search of a singing job or a hot meal, in which Edwards tips his interest in stylization over earthly reality—particularly, there’s this apparently sourceless reddish light that plays on Andrews’ hair…but it’s not a stylization that Edwards applies for his own amusement merely—Victor/Victoria is about people and situations that are stylized. Everyone is either pretending to be what they’re not, or exaggerating what they are.

This is really the only way to survive: Andrews’ character Victoria is broke but imaginative; she invents a scenario involving a cockroach to get a restaurant to pay for her first meal in four days. While dining, she meets the even more inventive Toddy (Robert Preston), an unemployed gay entertainer who stumbles on an idea which could make them both rich: have Victoria pretend to be a man pretending to be a woman—that is, impersonate a female impersonator. This ruse leads to financial gain but sexual confusion, especially for Victoria and a visiting Chicago gangster (James Garner) who digs Victoria’s stage show and then has to worry about his own inclinations when Victoria reveals that she—or he—is actually Victor.

There may be one too many spoken defenses of alternative lifestyles (the film’s benevolent attitude may be summed up best in an early exchange between Victoria and Toddy: “How long have you been a homosexual?” she asks him, and he shrugs, “How long have you been a soprano?”), but mostly the quicksilver permutations and multiple confusions are handled wittily. Edwards’ sense of slapstick is seen in best light when dealing with classic situations—like the aforementioned trying-to-get-out-a-restaurant-without-paying scheme, complete with hilariously surly waiter (Graham Stark); or a good hotel sequence wherein Garner and his bodyguard (Alex Karras) must delicately avoid getting caught snooping in Victoria and Toddy’s room, while the poor schmuck who lives across the hall becomes more and more bewildered.

Victor/Victoria is enjoyable just in terms of production values and art design; and every once in a while the narrative stops for a moment of delicious elegance like the one when Toddy and Victor do an impromptu softshoe in a small nightclub, dressed to the teeth in white tie and tails. Like the shiny surfaces of Edwards’ movies, this scene may seem less important than the ultimate coming-to-terms-with-self that his movies lead up to. But if this moment of effortless classiness isn’t quite the stuff that dreams are made of, it is at least an example of the stuff that dreams can make. And that, Blake Edwards seems to insist in film after film, is still worth something.

First published in The Informer, April 1982

RIP, Blake Edwards, died Dec. 15, 2010. I can’t say this is an impressive piece of writing, but I am fond of the work of this director, from a childhood experience with The Great Race (“Leslie escaped with a chicken?”) to the absolutely splendid physical gag that accompanied his acceptance of a special Oscar in 2004. He was prolific in the 1980s, as though he’d stored up a lot of stuff while getting through the rocky previous decade in his career. Someday I’ll actually re-watch some of these movies again.