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MOVIES : His Pain, His Gain : Despite a string of comedy classics, life has never been a laughing matter for Blake Edwards--but he's working on it

May 05, 1991|KIRK HONEYCUTT | Kirk Honeycutt is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

In Blake Edwards' comedies there is pain in every pratfall.

Dudley Moore, in "10," hiding amid a floral display in a church during a wedding, gets stung by a bee. Herbert Lom, Inspector Clouseau's neurotic boss in "A Shot in the Dark," stabs himself in the stomach with a letter opener. Richard Mulligan, the failed movie producer in "S.O.B.," attempts to hang himself on the second floor of his house only to have the rope break, sending him crashing through to the first floor, severely maiming a Hollywood gossip columnist.

The pain, Edwards makes clear, is autobiographical.

"I would not be able to get through life had I not been able to view its painfulness in a comedic way," he says. "So when I put (life) up there on the screen, quite often it resembles things that happen to me or at least comic metaphors for those things.

"Leo McCarey (the late comedy writer-producer-director) used to talk about breaking the pain barrier, where you're faced with so much pain it compounds itself and you can't take it anymore. So you laugh."

In his bungalow on the Culver Studios lot, relaxing on a recent afternoon in a sofa with his feet on a coffee table, the 68-year-old director gave the appearance of a man at ease with himself and his film career, which spans six decades.

The appearance can be deceiving. It belies a life of continual physical and emotional pain. That pain inevitably turns up in his films' dark humor.

Friday, Warner Bros. will release "Switch," Edwards' 48th film as a writer, director, producer or a combination of all three.

In "Switch," a womanizing ad executive (Perry King) is murdered by a trio of furious ex-lovers and is reincarnated as a woman (Ellen Barkin). With his male soul--and libido--trapped inside a woman's body, he finds himself flirting with a lesbian cosmetics magnate (Lorraine Bracco) while fending off the advances of his best friend (Jimmy Smits). Familiar Blake Edwardian themes all--mortality, role playing and sexual confusion.

The world Edwards portrays is often a heartless, chaotic place, with potential for destruction as well as creation. It falls to his characters to straighten out the chaos and make sense of the nonsense.

"What Blake does is comedy, but there's so much sadness in his characters," says John Ritter, who starred in Edwards' "Skin Deep." "The man who gave you 'The Pink Panther' is mixed with the man who gave you 'Days of Wine and Roses.' "

Edwards' physical pain can be traced to a dive he took into a swimming pool while serving in the Coast Guard during World War II. Too much alcohol and his unfamiliarity with the pool resulted in a fractured skull and broken neck. What happened as he lay in a traction cast for five months at Long Beach Naval Hospital perfectly illustrates his theory about the pain barrier.

"I nearly died. Lying in that hospital, I watched them bring these poor bastards out of the Pacific, shot to hell in sea battles, and I looked worse than anybody. 'Jesus,' they'd say, 'what happened to you?' I couldn't say that I dove into a Beverly Hills swimming pool. I'd groan and turn away.

"It was hell, right to the day I woke up and saw Eleanor Roosevelt, standing at the foot of my bed, where she said those terrifying words: 'What happened to you? Where were you wounded?' The whole ward erupted in laughter.

"Stories like that I've somehow been able to turn into life's funny moments."

That particular funny moment has resulted in a chronic bad back that, according to his close friend, composer Henry Mancini, who has scored 26 Edwards features, can act up "when things get tense."

His emotional pain, though, began much earlier. Edwards grew up with parents he terms "dysfunctional." There was not much love "because they didn't know how (to love). I don't blame them although I did for a long time."

Edwards' natural father left his mother before he was born. After his birth, in Tulsa, Okla., his mother turned him over to an aunt and uncle. When he was 3, he moved to Los Angeles, where his mother had remarried. For several years, he shuttled between Tulsa and L.A.

"I was raised by a flock of women--all very well intentioned--and a Pennsylvania Dutch uncle who was secretly very generous and kind but couldn't express it. My stepfather was not much different."

As an only child with parents who could communicate neither with him nor themselves, Edwards felt "the only way I could communicate was by throwing a tantrum."

He escaped his unhappiness at the Saturday movie matinees. "I naturally embraced the Laurel and Hardys, the Keatons and the great comics. I laughed and made my hours there happy. I could take a certain residual of that home with me."

Edwards says he didn't meet his biological father until he was 40. "I thought he was dead. He'd been a phantom through my life. It was a very interesting experience--an unfortunate experience. I never should have opened that Pandora's Box.

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