Interview by Raffaele Caputo
This interview was originally published in Cinema Papers no. 85, November 1991.
Leslie Halliwell once wrote of Blake Edwards, “a man of many talents, all of them minor.” This is perhaps the standard view of Edwards among many critics, particularly Anglo-American. He has been described as one who showed a great deal of promise early in his career but mid-way through had somehow run out of creative energy. But considering his film career goes as far back as 1947, well within the studio-era of Hollywood, and that he has dealt with an industry that at best can be described as volatile, Edwards proved to be a most durable filmmaker. This is made evermore sharper given the near-catastrophic result studio intervention on Darling Lili and The Wild Rovers had on his career in the early 1970s.
Edwards certainly represents the generation of old-school auteurists, yet is still working in today’s Hollywood with relative independence and integrity. His latest film, Switch, starring Ellen Barkin and Jimmy Smits, is the story of a man who becomes a woman, but not by his own volition. However it may be received, publicly and critically, there is enough evidence to show his career is not about to end. But even if it were, as though Edwards could be analogous to a blazing comet on the verge of burning out, then it is apt to quote from S.O.B., “But ah my foes, and oh my friends, it gives a lovely light.”
Role reversals and confusion of sexual identity are not uncommon features in your films. Do you think you have exhausted the possibilities with Switch ?
I probably have in terms of emphasis, of doing a whole film about [role reversals]. These kinds of things might crop up again, but only incidentally, and not as the major portion of a film. In my early ones they turn up as well, so maybe they’re evolutionary. But I am not really a student of my own films. People tell me these sorts of things are there, and I say, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I suppose they do crop up to some degree, if I can rely on the critics. There has been a couple of books written but I can’t remember the names of the authors off-hand.
To use the title of the song from Darling Lili —“Whistling in the Dark”—your characters in Switch emerge from the darkness, literally, and metaphorically, given they are ‘in the dark’ about their sexual identities. What is Steve Brooks [Perry King] in the dark about, or, for that matter, Amanda [Ellen Barkin]?
That’s a very interesting question. I don’t know that they are in the dark before the transition is made. He doesn’t have any problems initially and knows pretty much who he is. But when he becomes her, she is certainly in the dark about a lot of feminine things. He/she has to learn.
Because it is convoluted, I guess you could say that he is very much ‘in the dark’ throughout the whole film, to one degree or another, as to what women want. It takes becoming a woman to find that out. That’s the way I would describe it.
One really isn’t sure where to draw the line, but a key moment in Switch is when Amanda is about to make love to Sheila Faxton [Lorraine Bracco], but doesn’t. It’s pointed out that she might be homophobic, but actually it’s Steve Brooks who is homophobic?
Yes, I think Brooks is very much homophobic before the change happens. He is an insensitive womanizer and as unpleasant as I could make him, short of turning him into a serial killer. He is a man who suddenly becomes a woman and has to struggle with that situation. He is homophobic to the degree that, even though he is in a woman’s body and is faced with the possibility of having an affair with Sheila, which at first is interesting to him because he regards it as a kind of masculine prerogative, he’s saying, “What the hell, I have a woman’s body [but] I’m still a man in my head, so I’ll have no problem. I’ll just lay her and that will be that.” But when he gets right down to it, the homophobia that he suffers from is so great that he can’t manage it.
And the curious thing about Switch is the unlikely combination of a “high-energy feel” (like in Blind Date), and then probing a dark mood (as in That’s Life). In your later films, dark elements creep in at unexpected moments.
What you’re saying is absolutely true. It has that probing element, but it’s neither the high-content nor high-energy type, it’s a little of both. I can’t talk too much about it, but I like to feel that people think not whether they’re good or bad but that they evolve.
Again, whatever I do has some evolution to it and it’s moving ahead. I don’t know whether “ahead” is correct, but it doesn’t stay static, anyway. There is a dark side to this film, no doubt about it.
Could it be related to the fact that, although your films always have a central figure, you’re not so much interested with establishing the [character’s] individualism as with the relationships of a group of people? The individual is important for you but not as a beacon of the group; rather as someone who sets off relations to see what is the social embroidery.
As you are making these observations, I’m trying to adjust to them and ask myself, “How true is that?” I know you have a point, definitely, because there is a very strong social point-of-view in my films, and maybe to the exclusion of the characters somewhat. I have been trying to think of other films, and something like Victor/Victoria , which certainly talks a lot about role-playing and things to do with social-sexual roles, is a very strong character-driven piece. Since then, however, the character-driven aspect is maybe less discernible. I don’t know.
It’s hard to respond because, while I recognize what you are saying, I don’t recognize it so strongly that I can really address myself to it without a lot of thought. It’s so fucking hard trying to. I mean, I enjoy an interview like this because it provokes me a little.
Let’s look back to some pivotal films in your career: I think Experiment in Terror  and Days of Wine and Roses  represent two radical departures from the type of films you were making previously.
It’s interesting because I always believed for quite a while that one didn’t necessarily have to be typecast as a director. I probably predicated that opinion on the fact that I did get for those films you’ve mentioned, and certainly for Wine and Roses, some high degree of praise as a “serious” filmmaker. That’s just to use a word. Not that I believe comedy can’t be serious, because it is very serious at times. Strangely enough, and I don’t know whose fault it is, whether mine or the industry’s, I seemed to be pushed into the mould of being a comedy director. And it’s a very, very rough industry at times for a filmmaker to try something else.
I have just finished a script which is a very dark piece. I was quite excited about it, naively so. I gave it to my agent and he didn’t care for it; and he sort of suggested what I should do next or can do next. In other words, if he were to go out and sell me in the marketplace, he wouldn’t have a chance of selling me for one of those films. I felt myself getting really pissed off. I always believe, as Billy Wilder said, “You’re as good as the best thing you’ve ever done.” And I think some of the best things I’ve ever done have been, if not a whole film, then moments of very serious stuff. I hope so, anyway.
So, I resent the fact that what my agent said might be true. It makes me really irritable, if not angry, because right now in my career I’m infinitely more important in Europe than I am in the United States. I can undoubtedly go to any number of European countries and make films until I can’t get out of my wheelchair.
Why do you think that might be?
I don’t know. You naturally tend to say, “Well, it’s because Europeans are less smarter or more discerning that us.” You find yourself playing that little game, which is not good. The only thing I have been able to come with is that it seems Europeans are more interested in filmmaking. They are more interested in the process of making a film, and in the people who make them, the auteurists. When I am interviewed by the European press, as opposed to the American, or even when I talk to people in Europe who may not have anything to do with the industry, but are film-goers, they really seem to know so much more about it. They don’t just go and sit there. I’m sure some do, but there is an awful lot who seem to b interested in film and the people who make them. They can be just as discering about something they don’t like as what entertains them.
In the States, there is a kind of spoon-full-of-sugar mentality. People go to be entertained. How the film got there, and what is behind it, is really of no consequence to them.
I really can’t figure it out, unless somehow I’ve become European by osmosis. I’ve spent so much time living in Europe and I’m married to an English lady [Julie Andrews], so maybe I am unconsciously more European. It’s possible.
Gunn  is another pivotal film, more than anything else because of the dialogue. Take the exchanges between Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens) adnd Jacobi (Ed Asner), the dialogue there is sublime …
I don’t remember the sequence that well. What I can say is that I came out of radio, where all you had was dialogue. I also grew up on Sam Spade and the Dashiell Hammett genre, which I truly love. I don’t know how but somehow I gleaned a little of that for myself.
Although these days we are able to tell very good stories and make some wonderful films without much dialogue, we’re forgetting that there are theatrics in what we do. I enjoy the theatrics. But with such an emphasis on naturalism — and there’s nothing wrong with that — somehow the theatricality is lost.
I’m delighted that you feel that way about Gunn. It was not a film I had intended to do. It was a kind of low-budget movie my company was supposed to do, and I had written the script, but then I had to step in and replace the director. It turned out to be great fun.
Of all your other films, Darling Lili is probably the most intricately devised in terms of the way the appearance of the characters keep switching — is this a mask or the real person?
That’s very interesting. Darling Lili is one of those films that drives me crazy because it came to represent a major turning point in my personal life and my career working for a major studio. Unfortunately, I didn’t have final cut, and my prerogatives were usurped by a new regime that moved in. It’s an old story by now and people around are kind of tired of hearing it. I tried to do certain things with that film which I think would have made it a much, much better movie. So, for me anyway, there is a part of it that is a wonderfully disfigured beast. It has such “interesting” mood changes, the things you were talking about. But on of that it’s hard for me to even describe. If it had been done today, it would have won, or certainly been nominated for, any number of Academy Awards. Like the cinematography, look at the original print of that film and show me somebody from that year that even came close to that kind of cinematography. We worked so hard to get such wonderful things from a great cast, the sound recording and particularly the art direction and costumes. There is no doubt in mind that film deserved half a dozen Academy Awards, leaving me aside. If they had allowed me to do certain things that I wanted to do, I am absolutely positive it would have been a commercial success. But they just destroyed it.
Yet there still seems to be enough left there to make me sad, so it seems they really didn’t destroy it completely. But I wish they had gutted it totally.
S.O.B.  is a most damning and dark film. No one or nothing gets away unscathed, except the dog …
That was a result of Darling Lili and another film I felt was the best I had ever done and which I had to let the studio completely destroy. It was called Wild Rovers , a film I loved dearly. If you have to see that film, please get a hold of the long version; it’s closer to the version I wanted. And if people do see it, I’d love to hear from them just to hear what they think about it. I truly mean that.
The slapstick tradition is very strong in your films. Possibly because of that, a good deal of critics tend to slot you into a light-weight category. But much of your comedy is also highly sophisticated. Take for example in Victor/Victoria when King Marchand [James Garner] discovers that Victor [Julie Andrews] is actually a woman, and even though he seems secure in his heterosexuality, he is actually hiding inside a closet. It’s a subtle kind of humour that makes us laugh at ourselves, at our fears …
I don’t think that was my intention. I don’t set out to say, “Okay, I’m going to make my audience laugh at things.” What I set out to do is exercise my own demons, to make myself laugh at things which, to one degree or another, represent other people. That’s the way I approach it, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
You just don’t use a gag and throw it away, you really milk it. The Party , for instance, even though it has been described as episodic, is really one continuous gag from the moment Hrundi V. Baksi [Peter Sellers] comes through the door with mud on his shoe.
I’d love to talk about that. I learned that technique through a very famous director named Leo McCarey. I was a writer then working for him and he taught me a lot. We’d sit and he would talk about how filmmakers had lost the art of the visual joke. One time he was describing to me a scene in one of his early two-reelers where a young man sees a girl off on a street car, and in those days in Los Angeles the street cars had fixed steps. So, anyway, she’s up in the car and he’s standing in the road talking to her. The street car begins to move and he begins to walk along with it. The street car gets faster and he’s walking faster and faster. Eventually he begins to run alongside the streetcar and it is going so fast that the steps flip him 180 degrees and he lands on the street.
Now that would be the joke today. But not then, however, because now he has the problem of getting out of the way of traffic, and when he landed his hat flew off and all of his things fell out of his pocket. So he has to not only dodge the traffic, he also has to retrieve various things. The best way to do that, he figures, is to put everything in his hat. When he’s done that, dodging traffic all of the time, he gets to the side of the road and sits down on the kerb. A lady then comes by and drops a quarter in his hat. That’s the end of the joke.
I’ve always remembered that story and, whenever I do a joke, I always investigate to see if there is a topper, and, if there is, a topper to the topper. That was what we did with The Party. It is a very innovative film and I love it.