Commerce concealing an artist

Conversations with Billy Wilder
June 30, 2000

Hollywood, August 1958. The director of Pather Panchali is visiting the set of Some Like It Hot . "You won a prize at Cannes?" Billy Wilder says to Satyajit Ray. "Well, I guess you're an artist. But I'm not. I'm just a commercial man, and I like it that way."

In retrospect, Ray supposed that a genuinely creative and commercially successful Hollywood director, two of whose movies had in fact won prizes at festivals, was wise not to talk about art if he wanted to keep working. (Hitchcock and John Ford would certainly have agreed.) But as a result of too many box-office failures during the 1970s, the commercial man had been unable to keep working for almost 20 years; ironically, he had to settle for artistic recognition after the fact, tributes and honours in the US and Europe, as well as five books about his work and/or life.

The latest of these, Conversations with Wilder , will fascinate not only Wilder's admirers, but anyone interested in the splendours and miseries of Hollywood movie making, although they will have to sift through a good deal of dross while panning for gold. This is not Wilder's fault. At 91, he proves far more astute at answering questions than his interviewer, the 30-year-old writer-director of Singles and Jerry Maguire , at asking them. Cameron Crowe is endearingly long on enthusiasm, less endearingly short of insight. He also lacks a sense of direction, letting the conversations go around in circles, taking up subjects that he drops and returns to 50 pages later, and seldom really explores. There is no overview of Wilder's career, and the layout is equally disorienting. Photographs are arbitrarily cropped, often have no relevance to the text, and almost as often lack captions.

Wilder's comment to Crowe on Marilyn Monroe, "She had a kind of elegant vulgarity about her", is a brilliant oxymoron that conceals a truth - and also applies to himself. The subtext that haunts these conversations is the conflict between an artist who is driven to take risks ( Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes ) and a self-described commercial man who retreats from them. The first hour of A Foreign Affair has a very personal mixture of bitterness and melancholy in its impression of Berlin after the second world war, with Marlene Dietrich's indomitably corrupt nightclub singer at its centre, then falls back on convention when the emphasis shifts to the love story between Jean Arthur's visiting congresswoman and John Lund's American army captain. And until the last 20 minutes of The Apartment , when a similar lapse occurs, Wilder the artist is at his finest with a sharp and touching parable about a minor employee (Jack Lemmon) in a major New York corporation.

Wilder wrote screenplays before becoming a director, and his first long-term writing partner was Charles Brackett. Their two best scripts from this early period both date from 1939: Midnight and Ninotchka , the latter with two additional collaborators, Walter Reisch and the movie's director, Ernst Lubitsch. Discussing Midnight , Wilder is more generous to Mitchell Leisen, its talented director, than in previous interviews; but there was personal animosity involved, and he cannot resist finally putting him down as a "window dresser". Lubitsch he venerates, and provides a shrewd analysis of the Lubitsch touch: "You had a joke and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn't expect."

The early movies that Wilder directed from screenplays by himself and Brackett were no more than superior Hollywood product, adroit and impersonal. It was only with A Foreign Affair (1948) that the partnership moved towards a creative peak, which it reached with Sunset Boulevard (1950). And then it broke up. "The surface of the matchbox had been struck one too many times" is Wilder's explanation, and Crowe leaves it at that. He never asks about Brackett's withdrawal from Wilder's first major work and classic film noir, Double Indemnity (1944). (Raymond Chandler replaced Brackett, who found the material repellent.) No mention either of the disagreements on Sunset Boulevard , which Brackett had conceived as a light comedy about an ageing actress who makes a successful comeback, but became progressively darker as Wilder reworked the actress as a half-crazed relic of the silent era, and brought in another writer, D. J. Marshman, who created the character played by William Holden.

Wilder's next film, written with Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, was Ace in the Hole (1951), a corrosive melodrama about a journalist's inhuman exploitation of a "human interest" story. Now that the media have become even more ruthless and corrupt, the movie seems even more powerful, but it was too disturbingly prophetic at the time and became Wilder's first commercial flop. This seems to have affected him strongly. Until then, he tells Crowe, he had thought that "if you do something very fine, they (the audience) will get to the core of the thing. But they never, at the time, they never gave it a chance."

Over the next few years, when Wilder's movies included Stalag 17, Sabrina and The Seven Year Itch , written in collaboration with various writers, he was undeniably "just a commercial man", although a superior one. And the partnership with his second long-term writing partner, I. A. L. Diamond, began unpromisingly with a heavy-handed attempt to imitate Lubitsch, Love in the Afternoon (1957). Then, as with Brackett, it reached a creative peak with two films in succession, Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960).

Like the failure of Ace in the Hole , the success of The Apartment had a crucial impact on Wilder. "Billy, it's time to stop," Moss Hart told him after the movie won five Oscars. Looking back, Wilder tells Crowe that he never reached the same level of achievement again: "I tried, but I failed in that."

In fact he succeeded brilliantly one more time, with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). Recut by its distributors after an unfavourable preview, the result according to Wilder was "an absolute disaster... I had tears in my eyes as I looked at that thing". Yet it remains in many ways his most surprising and intriguing work. At times the structure seems uncertain, but not the very personal tone of the comedy, with its undercurrent of romantic melancholy. "The most elegant picture I've ever shot," as Wilder rightly describes it, also contains an unusually complex central character. Secretly passionate (and sexually ambiguous) behind the facade of an acerbic thinking machine, this Holmes for once fails to solve a mystery, betrayed by emotions he claims not to feel.

Unfortunately the movie was a commercial failure as great as the commercial success of the notably inferior Irma La Douce , another product of the Wilder-Diamond final period. Among its anti-climaxes: One Two Three , a stridently unfunny desperate-for-laughs comedy, Kiss Me Stupid , that Wilder himself describes as "very bad", The Fortune Cookie ("the beginning of my downfall"), and Fedora, a variation on Sunset Boulevard that "just did not work". Crowe, incidentally, does Wilder a disservice with his relentless hype of the later movies. "There's visionary stuff there," he comments on One Two Three , he calls The Front Page "an authentic and top-notch period comedy", and quotes as an example of the "great speeches" in Fedora an unwisecrack by the former assistant director (William Holden) on the movie business in the late 1970s: "The kids with beards are running the studios." In an earlier conversation, after describing himself as an entertainer who never developed a personal style, Wilder relented. "Of course it (a movie) takes on your personality," he allows. "You bring your sensibility and hope that people will show up." But that is as far as he will go - and as a director with self-imposed limits, maybe Wilder went as far as he could. At one point in these conversations, the closet artist singles out for admiration two ignoble box-office hits, Schindler's List and Forrest Gump . At another he says that the only Kubrick film he didn't like was Barry Lyndon ("What is the story? Where are the jokes?") and that "Fellini lost his way in some very fancy ways" after La Dolce Vita . It seems more than coincidental that not enough people showed up to make Satyricon and And the Ship Sails On , or Kubrick's period piece, commercial successes. And that you cannot talk about poetic, witty and daring movies like these without using the word art.

Gavin Lambert is a novelist, screen-writer and former editor of Sight and Sound .

Conversations with Billy Wilder

Author - Cameron Crowe
ISBN - 0 571 20162 8
Publisher - Faber
Price - £20.00
Pages - 373

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