Blake Edwards, 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' director, dead at 88

Comic genius who created the ''Pink Panther'' and directed ''Breakfast at Tiffany's'' was 88.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010; 10:57 AM

Blake Edwards, a prolific filmmaker who kept alive the tradition of slapstick comedy in his Pink Panther franchise and nimbly showcased his dramatic range with "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Days of Wine and Roses," died Dec. 15 of pneumonia at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 88.

In a six-decade career that rejected easy categorization, Mr. Edwards received an honorary Academy Award in 2004 for "writing, directing and producing an extraordinary body of work."

Some of his best-known films included the sophisticated romance "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) with Audrey Hepburn, the bleak story of a couple in an alcoholic spiral in "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962) starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, and the taut manhunt story "Experiment in Terror" (1962) with Remick and Glenn Ford.

There also was "10" (1979), featuring Dudley Moore as a pop composer going through male menopause and Bo Derek as the object of his fantasies; "S.O.B." (1981), a scathing portrait of Hollywood personalities; and "Victor/Victoria" (1982), a cross-dressing farce starring Mr. Edwards's real-life wife, Julie Andrews.

The non-competitive Oscar was more a tribute to his craftsmanship, versatility and endurance as a filmmaker than consistent appreciation by audiences and reviewers. Few directors have worked so long with such checkered results commercially and critically, and yet have revived their fortunes with bursts of astonishing creative energy.

Film scholar Jeanine Basinger called Mr. Edwards a "major figure in modern filmmaking" and a "bold interpreter of traditional genres who wanted to treat film as a more sensitive and malleable medium, one that can in its running time can take you through a range of moods."

To that end, he crossbred all kinds of genres with wildly varied results. There was the espionage musical ("Darling Lili," 1970), the comic combat film ("What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?," 1966) and a chase movie ("The Great Race," 1965) that paid simultaneous homage to westerns, silent comedies and the adventure yarn "The Prisoner of Zenda."

Mr. Edwards, the descendant of a silent-film director, developed an audacious and risque comic style as a producer, director and writer that was rooted in the pratfalls, sight gags and otherwise preposterous sensibilities of pre-sound movie comedy.

Yet even in his most exuberant fare, Mr. Edwards was often drawn to material that led him to explore the anxieties of love, marriage, work and sexual stereotypes. In the first of the Pink Panther outings, a detective is on the trail of a jewel thief who is cuckolding him.The Panther series, which began in 1964 with "The Pink Panther" and "A Shot in the Dark," brought Mr. Edwards his most devoted following. The films' inspired lunacy owed a great deal to actor Peter Sellers, who played the unbearably snobbish, pompous and incompetent French police inspector Jacques Clouseau.

"We decided to try to make Clouseau a real clumsy, accident-prone, well-intentioned, but idiotic character," Mr. Edwards said, according to Sam Wasson's admiring study of Mr. Edwards's films, "A Splurch in the Kisser." "We decided that the one thing about Clouseau that could make him succeed was that he embodied what I considered to be the eleventh commandment, which is 'Thou Shalt Not Give Up.' He never figured he could lose, never figured that he could fail."

Over the course of the series, Clouseau gets his hands snapped in doorways, chain mail and floor-standing globes. Disguises involving putty noses, fake parrots and hunchbacks go ludicrously awry. "Undercover" visits to nudist colonies are masterful orchestrations of sight and sound.

In all, Mr. Edwards wrote and directed seven of the "Pink Panther" films - five of which starred Sellers until his death in 1980. Their relationship was tense.

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