May 29, 2012

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John Ritter’s spastic freak-out in a parking garage in Skin Deep is an archetypal Blake Edwards image. What characters repress or ignore will always be expressed through their bodies, with or without their consent.  The Warner Archive recently re-issued three Edwards comedies on DVD: S.O.B. (1981), Victor/Victoria (1982) and Skin Deep (1989). While new transfers of these visually elegant works would have been welcome, they gave me an excuse to watch them for the first time, so I’ll keep my complaining to a minimum. All three films involve varying levels of performance, and bodies that either accept or reject the facades imposed upon them. The most furious rejection occurs in S.O.B., a flesh-eating virus coated letter to Hollywood.

The origin of S.O.B. lies in the failure of Edwards’ 1970 Darling Lili, a WWI spy movie musical that went over budget and then under performed. A common occurrence, but one that Edwards was virulently attacked for due to some extenuating circumstances. In his critical study A Splurch in the Kisser, Sam Wasson writes that the Commonwealth United Corporation lent Paramount parent Gulf + Western “a certain humongous sum” to complete production that G +W were unable to pay back, so the studio was especially incensed. Wasson writes that head of production at Paramount Bob Evans said that Edwards was responsible “for the most flagrant misappropriation of funds I’ve seen in my career.” Licking his wounds, but still ambitious, Edwards followed it up with the epic Western Wild Rovers (1971), another big budget disappointment that was cut down by nearly 40 minutes by new MGM head James Aubrey, whom John Houseman had nicknamed “The Smiling Cobra”. After battling with Aubrey again over the medical thriller The Carey Treatment (1972), from which he tried to get his name removed, Edwards was a frustrated man. He moved to Switzerland, only to return to filmmaking two years later for The Tamarind Seed (1974), three Pink Panther sequels, and the enormous hit Ten (1979).

With Inspector Clouseau and Bo Derek’s slow-motion trot restoring him to studios’ good graces, he was finally able to get his savage satire, Hollywood S.O.B. funded. Something of a “secret legend” in town, according to Wasson, it was picked up and then ditched by Orion, before upstart Lorimar, transitioning from TV to film, agreed to back the title-shortened S.O.B., Victor/Victoria, and a sci-fi comedy Far Out that was never made. In an appropriate irony, Lorimar had recently made a deal with Paramount to distribute their films, the studio that S.O.B.is targeted at.

The film is set in motion by the attempted suicide of director Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan), whose family friendly musical Night Wind tanks horribly. Left in a catatonic funk, his image conscious wife Sally (Julie Andrews, playing off her Mary Poppins persona) abandons him as he wanders his beachfront home clutching the trades, blaring headlines like, “NY CRITICS BREAK WIND”. Rings of PR maneuverings circle around him, from his assistants, to Sally’s team (led by a brassy Shelly Winters) outward to the studio’s, who sends out cynical fixer Tim Cully (William Holden) to corral Farmer and get him to re-edit the film. It’s three circles of self-obsessed hells, with Felix the ignored center. All three are oblivious to Farmer’s depression, and he wanders off to the garage to give himself a carbon monoxide cocktail. But his body betrays him, and he survives. Edwards frames him in backgrounds and corners early on, a wraith irrelevant to his life as an image. The entire film industry is out to defend or destroy his image, while the flesh and blood Farmer is out to polish himself off.

This is mirrored in another unobserved death, as an anonymous runner collapses on the beach outside his home – his body laying in plain sight of sun-bathers for days before he is identified as a corpse. The most sympathetic character in the movie is the dog who yelps for his fallen master (who turns out to be a character actor). Image trumps reality, and Farmer cracks under its pressure. Edwards arranges an ace menagerie of gargoyles to feast off of him, including Robert Vaughan as the cross-dressing vampire of a studio head, Robert Preston as an acidic drugged-up doctor, and Holden as the infernal ring leader, a grizzled vet so jaded he’s cynical about his cynicism.

When Farmer cracks through this PR babble, he changes roles from tortured artist to crackpot prophet, one he acts out with brio, preaching to the lowest common denominator: “We sold them schmaltz – they want sadomasochism!” He proposes re-shooting Night Wind and turning it into soft-core pornography, which Sally agrees to only after weighing the PR hit of a long lawsuit. No matter how much Farmer panders to the audience’s basest impulses, in the end the system returns him to the background, incinerated in a Viking funeral as that sympathetic dog yelps once more.

Victor/Victoria represents the inverse of S.O.B., Edwards’ ideal of performance, one in which identities can be perfected on stage, and the image and the man (or woman in drag), can become one. It is a remake of the Weimar musical comedy Viktor und Viktoria, directed by Reinhold Schünzel, about a down on her luck opera singer who becomes a star as a male drag queen, pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. In Edwards’ version, it is one Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) on poverty row, plucked from obscurity from recently fired nightclub singer Toddy (Robert Preston). Chicago gangster King Marchand (James Garner) is hot to book her at his club and into his bed – convinced she’s a woman.

The movie buzzes on a colliding series of contradictions, of which the gender bending is the most obvious. Victoria is an opera singer who makes money at burlesque; King is homophobic and in love with Victor; Toddy is gay but has to pretend to sleep with Victoria. Constructing the Paris of 1934 entirely on a backlot, Edwards has a controlled environment to run these experiments in the expansive 2.40:1 frame, chaotic in café and bar fights, a mess of arms and legs, and only unified on stage, in which Victor/Victoria and Toddy each get their moments of self-actualization. Victoria, after her scandalous debut in which she ripped off a wig to become a “man”, returns to womanhood and cedes the stage to Toddy, who becomes an unselfconscious queen in the raucously funny finale, more woman than Victoria could ever hope to be.

Skin Deep finds Edwards in more heterosexual terrain, as womanizing Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Zach (John Ritter) loses his wife, his career and his sanity. He is introduced as a torso leaning back on a barber’s chair, his head off-screen behind the entryway, as a blonde hairdresser undresses and mounts him in a very unprofessional manner. This is all seen in long shot, from the perspective of the first of many spurned lovers, who will soon have him in bed with a gun to his head. In these brisk opening minutes Edwards establishes images that show Zach as literally brainless, a human pleasure receptor and not much else.

Edwards will use off-screen space, as well as elliptical editing, to indicate Zach’s short attention span and disconnection from the world. In a rapid montage Zach will hear his wife’s divorce demands, and a few shots later, they will be enforced by the judge, his defense invisible, and his force of will indicated by Ritter’s slackjawed stare. Zach becomes more and more self-obsessed and debilitatingly horny, unable to write or maintain any emotional connections (except with an exceedingly understanding bartender, Barney (Vincent Gardenia)). The jokes play off of Zach’s spiraling disconnection, from waking up bleary eyed in a women’s aerobics class to wandering into a black tie party in an Aladdin costume. He even can’t get shocked into self-awareness: the top image shows him recovering from a session with her electric massaging machine. The most notorious joke is one in which Zach entirely disappears except for his erection – a glow in the dark condom provides for a new definition of sword fight. These tame gross-out moments seem to anticipate the Farrelly Brothers  – there’s even an unconscious dog gag that re-appears in There’s Something About Mary.

The ending of the film is disappointingly traditional, coming in the form of a deux ex machina tidal wave that sets Zach on the straight and monogamous path. The natural end for the repeated imagery of a mind-body split would be a beheading of one form or another, but I think it’s safe to say that wouldn’t get past the producers. In any case it is still a tightly shot and structured comedy whose laughs spin organically from Edwards’ mise-en-scene, of a man divided against himself. Maybe if he just watched Victor and Victoria he wouldn’t have had to go through all that trouble.