Bright Lights Film Journal

Blake Edwards vs. Hollywood: Sunset and the Myth of Hollywood’s Golden Age

Screenshot from Sunset

A tour of Edwards’ curious 1988 film, with side trips to variations by James Ivory, John Schlesinger, and others

Director Blake Edwards’ career is most often defined by his Peter Sellers collaborations; pitch-perfect early farces The Party (1968), the original The Pink Panther (1964) and Operation Petticoat (1959); groundbreakingly naughty sex comedies 10 (1979), S.O.B. (1981) and Victor/Victoria (1982); and an over-celebrated, dated “classic,” Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). His five Pink Panther films with Sellers – six if you count the 1982 Trail of the Pink Panther, a crude assemblage of unused outtakes and awkward cameo appearances made after Sellers died – were both a synergy of comic brilliance and a compromise as the films got increasingly more tired and uninspired but were hugely profitable. It is questionable whether Sellers used Edwards to continually revive his faltering career, or if Edwards continued to milk Sellers’ exhausted comic abilities the way Ed Wood infamously suckered Bela Lugosi into making a handful of “comeback” features.

Edwards hasn’t directed a film since the ill-fated Son of the Pink Panther in 1993, in which Roberto Benigni, then unknown in the U.S., was unsuccessfully cast as the new Inspector Clouseau. The films he made after 10, his highest grosser, and the acclaimed Victor/Victoria, have been mostly dismissed, and some of them justifiably so. However, if you look beyond the uninspired Pink Panther sequels, uneven star vehicles, The Man Who Loved Women (1983), Blind Date (1986) and Switch (1991), and unwatchable yuk-fests like A Fine Mess! (1986), you’ll find his nakedly autobiographical, touching That’s Life! (1986); the underrated Skin Deep (1989), a John Ritter sex comedy that plays even better now than it did in 1989; and the thoughtful, fiendishly clever Micki and Maude (1984). Following Blind Date, a slapstick farce and box office hit that marked the starring role debut of Bruce Willis, Edwards made Sunset; it proved to be one of his biggest box office turkeys but is a fascinating, revealing, playful, and nasty curiosity worthy of rediscovery.

Released in 1988, Sunset stars Willis as silent era film star Tom Mix and depicts his friendship with real layman Wyatt Earp, played by horse opera favorite James Garner. Earp is hired as a technical consultant on Mix’s films, and the two quickly become friends and the mirror image of one another — Mix imitates Earp’s mannerisms and folksy sayings in the hopes of authentic impersonation on film. Without a Clue (1988), a Sherlock Holmes comedy starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley, was released the same year and offers the similar premise of a famous, young, public figure whose credibility comes from a wiser, older, more talented and authentic side man. Willis may have been top-billed, but it’s the effortlessly charismatic Garner who is clearly running the show.

The opening scene, a full-fledged recreation of a saddle epic, with Mix saving a damsel in distress trapped in an out-of-control wagon, feels like a put-on; after saving the fair maiden, Mix grabs her backside, making him appear to be every bit the rascal as Dudley Moore’s male protagonists 10 or Micki and Maude. The tone is initially light and cheerful, but that quickly fades as Earp observes Mix on the set of a movie re-creation of the gunfight at O.K. Corral: Earp flashes back to what really occurred that day, and Edwards cuts between the phony mock-up Mix is partaking in with the harsh recollection Earp has of that fateful day. It’s a great scene and the first cue that this isn’t a comedy.

Following some exposition-building scenes involving Hollywood insiders, hush-hush adults- only clubs, and whisperings of the presence of gangsters and perverts in the film industry, Sunset abruptly becomes a gritty murder mystery. Its imaginable that at this point, audiences realized with a shock that, despite another round of Edwards and Willis, this isn’t another Blind Date. While there are some funny lines here and there, Sunset ultimately reveals itself as a dark depiction of Hollywood, not unlike Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), which shares the concept of prostitutes made to resemble movie stars. Edwards, who wrote the screenplay based on a story by Rodney Amateau, seems to be suggesting that not only is his story a sham, but so is the façade of The Golden Age of Hollywood. Corruption, concealed sexual immorality, and murder are cloaked by glitter, celebrity, and cinematic escapism, with even the crowning figures of the time being culprits to the poison in the air.

Malcolm McDowell was cast as a character clearly based on Charlie Chaplin: McDowell’s “Alfie Alperin” oversees “Alperin Studios”; is famous for portraying “The Happy Hobo,” a thinly veiled take on Chaplin’s “Little Tramp”; and, like Chaplin, is said onscreen to be a highly gossiped-about artist. Thankfully, nothing in Chaplin’s real life seems to suggest the abusive, incestuous monster that McDowell portrays, though a subplot implying the unsolved murder that occurred on William Randolph Heart’s yacht in 1924, on which Chaplin was a passenger, makes it way into the busy screenplay. Unlike Richard Attenborough in Chaplin (1992), released four years later, Edwards, whether fictionalizing Chaplin or Hollywood as a whole, is going for the throat; his Chaplin, or “Alperin,” is a figure whose artistic brilliance and sinister perversion co-exist. Playing Alperin’s sister is Jennifer Edwards, the director’s talented daughter, a character actress who appeared in a number of her father’s films. Unlike the unfairly reviled Sophia Coppola, whose awkward manner drew critical scorn for her performance in The Godfather Part III (1990), Jennifer Edwards was neither singled out by critics as an asset or a detraction in her father’s films, but gave memorable appearances, particularly in S.O.B. as a free-spirited partygoer and especially in Sunset. Her relationship with McDowell, as her brother, is the film’s most fascinating and complex: she’s appalled by the frightening, downright evil creature her brother is, yet she’s in awe of his talent and wants to protect his reputation, which coincides with Edwards’ portrayal of Hollywood as a town flush with secrets that conceal a much darker legacy. Her closing line is a killer: “Sometimes bad people, like Alfie and me, only have each other.”

Edwards’ attempt to pull down the curtain and reveal there is no Wizard is even more bitter than his stunningly vengeful S.O.B., in which he parodied his experience of making Darling Lili (1970) and simultaneously “soiled” wife and star Julie Andrews’ image forever by giving her a bawdy role and a showy nude scene. Edwards is saying that Hollywood is overrun with artistic whores, professional liars, and pseudo-talents who will compromise everything for fame. In many of Edwards’ other films, the men are self-loathing, self-destructive dopes driven by lust and hopes of romance and personal fulfillment.  Here, everyone is living a lie and existing under the delusional guise of lavish living and wealth, in hopes of perfuming the stench of foul reality under the surface.

James Ivory’s The Wild Party (1975) is a similarly bleak, though altogether uglier and more unpleasant attack on the illusion of glamour in Hollywood’s early years, as it depicts a Fatty Arbuckle stand-in, played by James Coco as an abusive lout, in a sorry bid at a comeback over a long night of debauchery that erupts into violence. Ivory’s film is even more mean-spirited than Sunset, though it does at least have the alluring Raquel Welch and a typically handsome Merchant/Ivory production to tease the eye. Arbuckle is fictionalized as “Jolly Grimm” and the makings of a great film are in place but the film overall is more sordid, melodramatic, and bitter than honest or authentic.

It was reported that David Mamet was in talks to write a film bio on Arbuckle that was intended as a dramatic vehicle and career change of pace for the late Saturday Night Live comic, Chris Farley.1 The project was aborted after Farley’s passing, which is a shame, as it might have shed more light on the now nearly forgotten silent era movie star than The Wild Party, with its cinematic mouthful of sour grapes, comes close to providing. Robert Mulligan’s Inside Daisy Clover (1965) is another missed opportunity, a fictional telling of the rise of Judy Garland, embodied by a game, if overly mannered Natalie Wood. Mulligan’s re-creations of Technicolor Hollywood musicals and strong support from Christopher Plummer keep it watchable, but the oddly unmoving film climaxes with an outrageous, literally explosive punch line that feels vaguely campy. Far better is John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust (1975), a spectacular, cruel depiction of Hollywood as a playground of personal destruction, lies, and moral decay. Schlesinger’s film, an angry, passionate, and truthful tale of Hollywood’s cinematic epics and human car wrecks being equal spectacles headed for a figurative and literal apocalyptic inferno, is clearly coming from personal experience.2 There isn’t a more spot-on symbol of Hollywood nonchalance, blasé evil, and privilege than the sight of a dead horse in a wealthy man’s swimming pool; unlike the deceased equine in The Godfather (1972), the carcass in Schlesinger’s film has been placed there as a decoration. The equally disturbing and surprising directions Schlesinger’s film eventually takes makes one relieved by the less heavy-handed, if no less cantankerous assaults on movie moguls and empty extravagance in Edward’s more relaxed film.

The dialogue in Sunset frequently reminds us not to believe any of what we’re seeing, with the film’s most oft-repeated line : “And it was all true, give or take a lie or two.” There’s also Earp’s proclaiming “don’t believe fiction” and Mix’s “if it’s in print, it’s gotta be true.” The sets are similarly expressive in their fakery: they’re highly decorated but artificial looking.

The casting says a lot about the actors, both who they were in 1988 and even more so who they are today. Willis, then a TV -star, seemed an unlikely choice for Mix, and his dubious acting ability didn’t convince audiences or critics otherwise. His New Jersey accent continuously sneaks out from beneath his flawed cowboy twang, and his low-key performance, for which Edwards requested he invoke his own persona rather than Mix’s, is passable at best.3

Later the same year, Willis would overcome the flop of Sunset and star in Die Hard (1988), another image-altering career gamble that paid off and launched his film career.

Today, Willis is a bigger movie star than Mix ever was and has since proven numerous times, in a wide variety of films, to be a versatile, risk-taking actor. Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her (1992) is of particular interest to this discussion for its depiction of Hollywood’s Golden Age leftovers seeking timelessness in the glossy ’90s and for Willis’ winningly farcical performance, which is more successful than the two comedic turns he provided in two Edwards “comedy” vehicles. Edwards’ casting of Willis as an iconic movie star may have been head-scratching in 1988, but now seems like a coup. Interestingly, at one point, Willis’s Mix encounters violent gangster Dwight Schultz but escapes: Willis wouldn’t be so lucky, three years later, playing Bo Weinberg, a criminal who is murdered by Schultz, in Billy Bathgate (1991).

On the other hand, Garner, already a well-known television and film star, as well as an Academy Award nominated actor, had nothing to prove and was ideally cast as Earp — it’s one of his best, most underappreciated film performances. Garner is playing Earp post- TV’s Maverick but before starring in the film version, directed by Richard Donner in 1994: however old Garner is, he, like Sam Elliot, has an automatic authenticity and authority in any western.

In co-starring roles, Mariel Hemingway appears as Garner’s love interest; Hemingway, like Jennifer Edwards, is a talented actress better known for her family  heritage than her acting abilities but more than holds her own with Garner, just as Ms. Edwards’ evident acting talents suggests not nepotism but a gifted character actress. Patricia Hodge, playing Alperin’s long-suffering wife, has an uncanny physical and vocal resemblance to Julie Andrews; Hodge is stunning and looks like a real 1920’s movie star, but her resemblance to Andrews is both dazzling and distracting. Playing her son is Dermot Mulroney, who, interestingly enough, co-starred the same year in Young Guns (1988), a full-fledged and popular reboot of the western genre.

While Sunset was promoted as a comedy, complete with a TV spot featuring Willis and Garner, in a tight, chummy close-up, good-naturedly arguing who flew the plane in the movie, it’s actually a meshing of genres: the Hollywood behind-the-scenes period piece, buddy comedy, exploitative crime drama, sordid whodunit, western throwback — all wrapped in a convoluted, Chandler-esque mystery. While the film seems like it wants to be a farce, it can’t, because the material is so dour and serious. There are a handful of fight scenes that offer the glass-smashing, furniture-bashing, door-crashing feel of an Edwards slapstick set piece akin to S.O.B., The Party, or the Pink Panther films. Except here, the scenes the brawls take place in are deadly serious, and we’re not meant to laugh. Minus the yuks, Edwards’ bang-’em-up showstoppers are, in fact, quite violent.

The duplicity of the tone and subject matter extend to the film’s climax, depicting the First Annual Academy Awards: on the one hand, it feels too small, yet, as depicted by Edwards as an on-the-cuff, Vaudevillian affair, it also feels just right.

Edwards’ frequent collaborator composer Henry Mancini offers a score as schizophrenic as the movie’s tone: Mancini’s work evokes grand, John Fordian westerns and hardboiled gumshoe thrillers. Critics have remarked that the closing scene is a final come-on: as Earp and Mix go their separate ways, we see the sun set . . . in the East.

Sunset barely lasted in theaters and actually has accidental ties to an even more notorious box office bomb: one of the opening credits states that we’re watching “A Hudson Hawk Production,” suggesting that Willis may have pitched his vanity project to Edwards years earlier as a possible collaboration.4 Tellingly, some of Hudson Hawk (1991), released three years later and directed by Michael Lehmann, has many scenes of slapstick and mayhem that suggest an Edwards influence. Curiously, Sunset was Oscar-nominated for Best Costume Design, an unusual gesture, as the Academy rarely gives nominations, let alone to awards, to films that suffered from bad word of mouth, or were financial failures, though Garner was more deserving of an award for his work.

Sunset is certainly flawed, but, as arguably the most unexpected work in Edwards’ oeuvre, it is as essential as it is unusual. In declaring the image of a glamorous Hollywood as a fraud, Edwards is both venting his anger and celebrating a time that, according to him, never existed in the first place . . . and it’s all true. Give or take a lie or two.

  1. Farley Jr., Tom, and Tanner Colby, The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2009). []
  2. For a detailed reading of the film’s complex ideology see Robert von Dassanowsky’s “‘You Wouldn’t Even Believe What Your Eyes Can See:’ Hollywood’s Messianism and Fascistic Reflection in Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust.Senses of Cinema 39 (2006) online. Accessed 6 June 2009. []
  3. Lehman Peter and William Luhr, Blake Edwards (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1988). []
  4. Internet Movie Database. Accessed 6 June 2009. []