Stepping out with Wilder

Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot
April 5, 2002

Mamoun Hassan delights in a most uncrazy but quirky dance partner.

To those who believe that talent and craziness always go together, Billy Wilder, who died last week, must be a real disappointment. Even in Los Angeles, where dishing dirt is a daily workout, he emerges with few spots. Hardly any of his collaborators have an unkind word to say about him. Actors, particularly, speak as much of his wit and humour as his tough discipline. When he himself talks about the starry pantheon - and he worked with most of the offenders, including, or especially, Marilyn Monroe - he seems only to relish their shenanigans. Of course there were the usual mind games, bullying and posing on his sets; but not, apparently, much practised by him. The masquerade and pretence that is the subject of many of his films was mostly played out in his work. In his 90s, he resembled Yoda from Star Wars, only with large black heavy-rimmed glasses. In his heyday, production stills show a face of energy, intelligence, patience, even kindness, but most of all amusement, as if an ironical thought has just occurred to him and he wants to pass it on.

You can see some of these stills in Benedikt Taschen's massive publication of the script of Wilder's (and I. A. L. Diamond's) Some Like It Hot . This is not so much a coffee-table book as a coffee table. It costs a hundred pounds and seems to weigh nearly as much. It comes in a bulky orange takeaway box with space for enough pizza to satisfy a New Yorker (or a family of four anywhere else). In the margins of facsimiles of the original final draft of the screenplay are translations in French and German and enlargements of some of the relevant frames from the scenes described. Anything and everything to do with the film is covered: interviews with key figures, posters, press and publicity handouts, reviews and a small library of stills. There is even a touching reproduction of Marilyn Monroe's working script with faint spiky (intelligent) notes in pencil and ballpoint. OK, we quickly get the point; Taschen loves Some Like It Hot . But there is more than the film here. There is Hollywood: how it thinks, how it creates, how it sells.

In spite of futile attempts to define it, a film script defies capture. This particular script is a wondrous creation. It is not your conventional script: a description of action and dialogue that will be covered from many angles and assembled, one way and another, later in the cutting room. It is more like a precision manual for a piece of field artillery, which, if not assembled just so, will misfire or blow up. Scripts with accompanying shots have been published many times before. But Taschen has raised the standard. Despite Wilder's own warning to him that he would lose money on the project (recorded in a brief afterword from the publisher), Taschen knew what he was doing in choosing the most famous work of a writer-director: what Hollywood calls a "hyphenate".

Wilder started as a journalist in Vienna. He moved to Berlin, where he later became a ghost-writer and screenwriter before joining the brain drain to Hollywood in 1933 as the Nazis took control. When he embarked on Some Like It Hot in 1958, he had already directed and co-written - mostly with Charles Brackett or Diamond - 14 films, including The Major and the Minor , Double Indemnity , The Lost Weekend , A Foreign Affair , Sunset Boulevard , Ace in the Hole , Stalag 17 , Sabrina , Love in the Afternoon and Witness for the Prosecution . In short, some enduring Hollywood classics. It has been argued that these films, together with The Apartment , show the underbelly of American society. A large claim, perhaps justified in the case of Ace in the Hole , where Kirk Douglas plays a corrupt journalist who wrecks lives in creating a news story, and The Lost Weekend , about Ray Milland fighting alcoholism. Otherwise, the films do not show a strong interest in social life. The focus is on the failure and shortcomings of individuals rather than of society. The so-called underbelly is probably to be found in Wilder's images of urban America: its skyscrapers, townscapes, stadiums, highways, streets, apartments, offices, bars, diners, mansions, boardrooms, swimming pools, trains and restaurant cars. For instance, who can forget, in Sabrina, the sparkling and elegant Larrabee ballroom, the enchanted indoor tennis court, the garage lined with a fleet of limousines like a string of thoroughbreds, Audrey Hepburn's small apartment above, Humphrey Bogart's clinical and lifeless office and the Larrabee boardroom? They are as memorable as the (fairy) story and as seductive and beguiling as Hepburn.

Wilder was of course not the first to make us look at America, but he had an eye for the quirky and quintessential that defines a place - as in the opening travelling ground-level shot of Sunset Boulevard , showing the street name painted on the kerbstones. This is pure Wilder. It is not that he is trying to impress us with an extreme angle. On one level the shot is quite straightforward, in telling us where we are and in which kind of street. But on another, by choosing the snake's point of view, it is ironic. This irony is emphasised when, a little later, we discover that the narrator is actually dead. Much has been made of Wilder's wit and verbal prestidigitation. In fact all of his work is shot through with irony: the images, the words, the plots and, perhaps most of all, the array of characters who pose, pretend and play games. David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone with the Wind , reacted with horror to the idea of Some Like It Hot : "Oh my God, you're not going to do a comedy with a murder ? They're going to crucify you. They're going to walk out in droves! It's just going to be embarrassing ." Wilder was not discouraged, on the contrary he says he saw the melding of two such disparate elements as a challenge. And he made what Sandra Warner, Emily in Sweet Sue's Band, rightly calls "the greatest soufflé ever made".

The film was voted "the best comedy of the century" by the American Film Institute, so Wilder must be forgiven for feeling that he rose to the challenge. But did he? I think he neatly side-stepped it. He solved another problem altogether. He did not make a comedy, black or otherwise; instead, he fashioned a farce. The masquerade, on the one hand, and the violence, on the other, are never real. Nobody could possibly take Curtis and Lemmon for women; and there is neither gore nor bloodstains on the screen. The only real stain we ever see is from the coffee that is spilt on Spats's (George Raft's) spats by a drunk at the speakeasy. The gangsters are vivid caricatures whose deaths do not touch us. Spats expires with the words "Big joke!" as he slides under the table towards Curtis and Lemmon. Ironical, certainly, but not more than that. The film is full of farcical devices such as the overflowing petrol nozzle at the scene of the massacre, Monroe's hip flask that falls on the floor between her legs, Curtis and Lemmon seen through a hotel window climbing down the drainpipe behind the gangsters and the constant to and fro of entrances and exits as our heroes barely avoid disclosure.

It is when one strokes Taschen's book - appropriately bound in cream-coloured, soft, silky moleskin-lookalike - that one finally appreciates what most of Wilder's films are about. Money and sex - in that order. Sex complicates the pursuit, the getting of money. (Wilder's mentor, the incomparable Ernst Lubitsch, did it the other way. Sex, love and desire came first; money - if you had none but also if you had plenty - was the problem.) Wilder took to American values wholeheartedly, even acquiring a passion for baseball. That is not to say he became starry-eyed about it, quite the contrary: he is unsentimental and acerbic. But there is deep affection too. And the same went for Hollywood. He was always proud to be a Company man, although the Company did not always return the embrace. Louis B. Meyer hated Sunset Boulevard and favoured sending Wilder back to Germany. Wilder fully subscribed to Hollywood's commercial values. Or at least that is what he said: "I don't do cinema. I make movies." A shade more aggressively, he told Satyajit Ray, who visited him on the set of Some Like It Hot , "You won a prize at Cannes? Well, I guess you're an artist. But I'm not. I'm just a commercial man, and I like it that way." Which of course begs the question: just what is a commercial man? A director whose films make money, or a director who makes films to make money?

In any case, as a European emigre, he was aware that studio bosses would scrutinise him for any signs of weakness or subversion. He had to play the game like the rest of them and disavow Art. He did however confess, with reference to A Foreign Affair , to providing "chocolate-coated philosophy". I can certainly taste the chocolate in his films.

Wilder's life was not wholly charmed. His mother and many other relatives died in concentration camps. But he did what he wanted to and on his own terms; he was commercially successful and won six Oscars; and he was happily married to his second wife for more than five decades. Even his outside pursuits gave him a return. Part of his art collection fetched $32.6 million at auction in 1989 - far more than he ever earned making movies. When he was a journalist in Berlin, he posed as a dancing gigolo to get the background to a story. He must have been a good at it. There are stills of him dancing with Gloria Swanson, with her head on his shoulder, and a number with Audrey Hepburn, stepping out lightly. He also danced with us: at different times, slow, fast, romantic and frenetic. He always amused and charmed, and sometimes he made us think.

Invest in Taschen's book - but make sure the bookshop is not too far from the bus stop or the car. And also get Cameron Crowe's Conversations with Wilder (1999). Together they define Hollywood's most nimble-footed movie-maker.

Mamoun Hassan is a director of Alchemist Films, a film investment group, and dean of editing, International Film and Television School, Cuba.

Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot

Editor - Alison Castle
ISBN - 3 8228 6056 5
Publisher - Taschen
Price - £100.00
Pages - 384

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