A good test for sorting film buffs into relatively low- or high-brow categories might be to assess their reactions to the title “10” – does it evoke Bo Derek, or Abbas Kiarostami? (For anyone born in the last twenty years, both names might evoke equally blank stares.) Usually, I suppose I would be on the more culturally obscure side of that contest, but not here. For on watching Blake Edwards’ 1979 movie 10 again recently, I once again found it completely scintillating and mysterious, easily achieving my basic pantheon litmus test of yielding new subtleties and complexities each time I see it.
My Life with "10"
Some background is necessary here. I probably first saw the film in Wales in the early to mid 80’s, when Dudley Moore was at the peak of the success that followed the breakthrough 10 allowed him (he received an Oscar nomination for Arthur, kept his name above the title for ten or so more films of inexorably declining quality, and came to a massively sad end). He’d been around forever in the UK, and his mainstream Hollywood success was covered there with particular proud intensity. The film also had Julie Andrews doing “adult” things, the immediately iconic Bo Derek, and the long-established Edwards seeming to tap his own middle-aged anxieties with a frankness that seemed mildly surprising at the time. It was a period when the notion of a sophisticated adult comedy was still somewhat thrilling. As a teenager, that put it pretty high up in the roster of X-rated movies you had to get to, and I think I was more than satisfied by the experience, for I returned to it many times.
In the film, Moore agonizes about turning 42, and through all my earlier viewings this was a pretty abstract concept to me. I read a line somewhere that the film’s object lesson is that “possibilities are never lost, only the sense of them,” and since I liked the sound of that (regardless of its applicability to this particular film) it stuck in my mind as a reference point. Taking that as the key, the film’s liberating qualities are more striking than its repressive ones. And indeed, this chronicle of a wealthy Beverly Hills songwriter is dripping with conspicuous consumption, a sense of easy privilege, and rampant hedonism (embodied in particular by the telescope on Moore’s patio through which he watches the endless stream of naked women in a facing house).
If you see it that way, the very fact that he gets into bed with Derek is more significant than the fact that he sours on her free and easy attitude and returns to his more “mature” relationship with Andrews – this ending perhaps being merely a bow to convention. Similarly, one of the things that tends to be “remembered” about the film is that he rates women on a scale of 1 to 10, although this is an extremely minor part of the film, to the extent that it’s not even clear whether this is a contrivance of Moore himself or of his psychiatrist.
Dudley and Julie
Well, at least five years went by until I watched it again the other week, and now the prospect of being 42, although not quite at the doorstep yet, is certainly more tangible than it used to be. And it struck me this time that the movie is nothing to do with having lost and recovering the sense of existing possibilities. Actually it might be closer to say the polar opposite – that it’s about the necessary relinquishment of possibilities for the sake of the stability of conformity. At its heart it’s about defeat, surrender and self-belittlement, all rooted in the indoctrinated consensus of age-appropriate behaviour.
The casting of Moore and Andrews is key to this impression. The central role was originally meant for George Segal, whom I love, but who would clearly have delivered a more conventionally preoccupied portrayal. Moore on the other hand plays the part with enormous individuality, in a way that must surely have carried some risks – stuffed with Britishisms, whininess, obnoxiousness, homophobia and sheer oddity. His lack of height almost makes the point too obvious – the man is a spoilt child, who nevertheless happens to be a millionaire genius (and winner of four Oscars!). At the same time, he’s restless for stability even if he doesn’t know it, but the fact that the film finally comes down on that side of the dilemma can’t overturn the feeling that this is a man who would be better off going with his own tune.
The use of Andrews is even more fascinating. I nearly fell off my seat this time round on realizing she’s meant to be 38. Maybe I’m exaggerating my own youthfulness, but I can’t in any way assimilate the idea of Julie Andrews here as being younger than I am now. She’s self-righteous, hectoring, not sexy, not spontaneous, and their final reunion has the distinct undertone of a man embarking on making love to his own mother. This actually comes across as a terrific undermining of the film’s supposed happy ending, rendering matters utterly perverse and ambiguous. But at this point one has to remember that Edwards is married to Andrews, a woman thirteen years younger than he is, and presumably doesn’t view her in the same way I’ve described (one clue: although playing 38, she was actually 43 when the film was shot). These are the ambiguities of which one’s guilty pleasures are formed.
In the wake of my enthusiasm for 10, I developed a real enthusiasm for Edwards for a time, and regarded both S.O.B. and Victor Victoria as among the best films of the 80’s. After I saw S.O.B. again recently, I felt obliged to revise that opinion down drastically, although William Holden (in his last film, and looking like he might have known it) always gets to me. I now think that Edwards was somewhat messy and over-impulsive, and yet in possession of a deadpan style and sensibility that at least sometimes achieved truly intriguing results. The Party and the early Pink Panther films for example have many sublime moments, but always surrounded by a certain slackness.
10 is crammed with slapstick and knowing low comedy contrivances, and I think a young viewer coming across the film for the first time – without any sense of Edwards or of the principals – might find it merely weird, arbitrary and unwieldy. If you come to it with some background though you can see the real wryness in which it’s all based – how the endless stream of physical discomforts heaped on Moore seems to embody the futility of anything other than conforming, grindingly pushing him back into the place he resists.
I can’t really see the film objectively any more. Clearly it is not one of the ten best pictures ever made, but if I were compiling a list for a desert island, I might have to be honest and put it on there. On a scale of 1 to 10, it grabs me as though it were an 11.