Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography
by Charlotte Chandler
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|A Life in Hollywood
by Nancy Wigston
Rather than taking the standard biographical route to the life of film genius Billy Wilder, Charlotte Chandler has culled the myriad interviews she taped over twenty-odd years with Wilder, and made them the centrepiece for this portrait of his life. The result is a readable, charming visit to the Wilder oeuvre¨a word that the down-to-earth Viennese would doubtlessly loathe. The book resembles a conversation more than anything else, as Wilder recounts memories from a very long life. Although not an incisive biography, Chandler's work makes us feel we know Wilder well enough to say that he'd hate arty words like oeuvre.
First meeting Wilder as she walked in Beverly Hills with Groucho Marx, in the 70s, (she was writing her Groucho book, Hello, I Must Be Going), she describes the encounter. Groucho says he's glad he doesn't have to insult his old pal; everyone else expects it, so he's been doing it all morning. Wilder says much the same, complaining he has to be a "jokester" to sell and promote his pictures. He was nearing the end of his successful run in movies, and this kvetch becomes a motif in Chandler's book. A man who was happiest when he was working finds he has come to the end of meaningful work. Despite his claim that he's tired of performing in comic style to impress the latest generation of Hollywood suits, many of his answers to Chandler's questions sound like well-honed spiels.
For instance, when Chandler raises the subject of Marilyn Monroe and asks Wilder if he ever had an affair with her, he first claims he was only ever faithful to the film he was making, so couldn't have an affair with a leading lady, "only the stand-in." He riffs on like a comic: "My wife would have forgiven me if I'd had an affair with Marilyn Monroe¨more than forgiven me! She would have gone to her beauty salon and proclaimed to all the women there that her husband was having an affair with Marilyn Monroe. It would have enhanced her statusÓ." This continues for a while until Chandler asks, seriously, what was the "secret of [Monroe's] great appeal? Wilder too turns serious. "When I met her, she did not impress me. When I saw what the camera saw, I knew she was special. She was Cinderella, without the happy ending." If it still sounds as if he has said it before, it could be that a man in the last decades of a long life (born in 1906,Wilder died aged ninety-five) has already asked himself all the important questions. And answered them.
Then Chandler embarks on Billy's background, his family's diminishing fortunes in post- WW1 Vienna, and the narrative finds its grip. The genuine Wilder emerges as he talks¨not so much about his family¨but about the emerging career of an energetic, ambitious young man who finds his mTtier in Vienna and Berlin between the wars. He walks in on a tryst between an editor and a secretary at a newspaper and gets his first reporting job; he walks in on Freud while the doctor is eating his lunch and is shown the door. Later on, when Wilder recalls writing his many "meet-cutes"¨Hollywood lingo for the scene where hero and heroine first bump into each other¨these scenes from his life seem oddly similar, as if his version of "The Billy Wilder Story" had itself become a movie script¨but what a movie! He escaped Berlin and fled to Hollywood, where he made hit after hit: Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Sabrina, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, One, Two, Three, to name only a few.
A constant note-taker, he was always working, writing down ideas. Nothing in Wilder's life or work went to waste. As a child he saw the poignant white roses that the dead Emperor's mistress had placed on his casket; he would later use roses the same way in his films, just as he used his tense meeting with a consular official in Mexico who agreed to let him enter the States on the condition that he "make good movies." When he figured out that the look of a film was determined in the editing room, he shot as tightly as possible, so he could maintain control. Always working in collaboration, he wrote first with Charles Brackett and later with I.A.L. Diamond; he used actors like William Holden, Audrey Hepburn ("God kissed her on the cheek" said Wilder of Hepburn), and Jack Lemmon over and over. Asked who wrote the famous line that ends Some Like it Hot, he credits Izzy Diamond, while Diamond himself credits Wilder.
During the making of Sabrina, Humphrey Bogart and Wilder didn't get along. Bogart thought Wilder was friendlier with Holden and Hepburn than with him. He was right, says Wilder. "Bill and Audrey and I had fun together, and you can't beat a bond of fun." That speaks volumes about both Wilder the man and Wilder the filmmaker. From the first, he worked with friends, eagerly joining a group of young Berliners in a shoestring production. Their film, People on Sunday, using amateur actors, became a surprise hit, enabling all but one of the young filmmakers¨including fellow Austrian Fred Zinnemann¨to escape Nazi Europe.
Mixed joys like this underline Wilder's life. After the war he returned to Europe as part of the US army, documenting what the Americans had found. Nothing remained of the Berlin he adored; he was unable even to find his father's grave. (Max Wilder had succumbed to a heart attack there during a visit to his son.) "It is a terrible thing not to be able to show your success to your parents," Wilder told Chandler. "I could have given them anything they wanted. I don't know what my mother wanted, but I would have given my father money to go and lose at the races." Unable to locate his mother (who died in Auschwitz), Wilder made a documentary out of Nazi footage taken of the extermination camps, and gave a 'surprise' showing to a German audience. All but a handful walked out. His only regret, Wilder says after his last movie (Buddy Buddy) was a flop, was that he never made the picture he wanted to make. "My last picture would have been Schindler's List. But maybe mine wouldn't have been as great as Steven's." Ever generous, ever a gentleman, Wilder emerges in his own words-and those of his myriad friends in the business-as a man we can love as much as we do the timeless movies he made. ˛