For a while in the mid-eighties, United Artists paid Billy Wilder a big salary and set him up in an office at its Beverly Hills headquarters. He was supposed to advise the studio’s executives and to give his opinion on the productions they were planning. I asked him at the time how the arrangement was working out. He told me, “Every script, I tell them the same thing: Don’t do it.”
“Do they listen?”
“They do it anyway. Nine times out of ten, the picture flops. Then it’s ‘We should have listened to Billy.’ When there’s a hit, they’re so happy they forget what I said.”
Billy Wilder is the youngest of the generation of directors who dominated Hollywood in the period that shaped American movies and consequently America’s view of itself. They were the princes of the cinema: Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, George Stevens, George Cukor, and William Wyler. Wilder’s immediate contemporaries were Joseph L. Mankiewicz and John Huston. Only Wilder remains.
Wilder’s best-known movie, Sunset Boulevard, is about to become an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Wilder says of the composer-impresario, “He’s the Ted Williams of musicals—all hits!” The production, with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, opens at the Adelphi Theatre in London on July 12th. Patti LuPone plays Norma Desmond, the silent movie queen who has outlived her era.
Sunset Boulevard has become a sort of rallying point for movie buffs. In Gloria Swanson’s performance as Norma they seem to see a camp diva, along the lines of Callas. The initiates recite the film’s dialogue, chanting such famous Norma Desmond lines as “We had faces” and “I’m ready for my closeup.” “You used to be big,” William Holden says to her. “I am big,” Swanson replies. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
After sixty years in Southern California, Wilder looks like a libidinous owl and is almost as famous as a raconteur as he is for his movies. He uses a highly personal international syntax, which doesn’t always include transitions. Wilder has a tendency to mumble and then to explode into his point, which is often a punch line. His stories of the Hollywood that was are enthralling in ways that go beyond such subjective matters as truth. He may repeat a story, but never the same way twice. Wilder’s remarks circulate in Hollywood, savored and retold for years. Before her marriage, his wife, Audrey, lived with her mother in modest circumstances. Wilder told her, “I’d worship the ground you walk on, if you lived in a better neighborhood.”
Billy Wilder’s first neighborhood was the town of Sucha, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was born on June 22, 1906, during the reign of the Emperor Franz-Josef. Wilder’s mother, Eugenia, who had visited America, named her second son Samuel but called him Billy, possibly for Buffalo Bill. (Billy’s brother, Wilhelm, was born in 1904. He, too, wound up in Hollywood, as W. Lee Wilder, a producer-director in the forties and fifties.) Billy’s father, Max, was in and out of businesses, including hotels and railroad-station cafes, and in and out of money. As a child in Vienna, Billy took up a pool cue, stood on a chair in one of his father’s hotels, and shot billiards for pocket kronen. He lasted a few months at the University of Vienna, then quit to become a reporter on Die Stunde, a paper he recalls as the Viennese equivalent of a tabloid. “It was a revolver paper,” he says. “They came at you with a gun.” When the paper was putting together a special edition on the subject of Fascism, in 1925, Wilder was assigned to interview Richard Strauss, Arthur Schnitzler, Alfred Adler, and Sigmund Freud. He took the trolley around Vienna, pursuing the great men. “My question was ‘What do you think of Fascism and the future?’ With Freud, I got to ‘Good afternoon, Professor.’ He said, ‘What paper?’ ‘Die Stunde,’ I answered. ‘Out!’ he said.”
In the spirit of Lubitsch, Wilder’s cinema is one of exquisitely constructed scripts rather than ravishing images.
In 1926, Wilder went to Berlin and began to write scenarios. To earn money, he worked as a dancer at the thés dansants at the Eden Hotel, twirling older women around the floor. When the Reichstag burned, Wilder, feeling that career possibilities for twenty-six-year-old Jewish scenario writers might be limited, fled to Paris, leaving behind his family and his native language. By 1934, he was in Hollywood, with no money, no English, and no work. He has always said that he lived for a while in the ladies’ room of the Chateau Marmont Hotel. It has become part of Hollywood’s mythology, and it may even be true.
Ernst Lubitsch, a Berliner, was the head of production at Paramount for about a year in the mid-thirties—the only first-rank director ever to run a Hollywood studio. Wilder was in awe of him then and still is. “I was taught by Lubitsch you should not notice the director. He should be invisible. You should notice the characters,” Wilder said recently, reminiscing about his mentor. On being asked if such restraint wasn’t contradicted by the self-conscious style of German Expressionism, in which Lubitsch had dabbled, Wilder said, “Yeah, sure. They did all those angles and that lighting because they couldn’t afford sets. When they got money, in Hollywood, they dropped all that stuff.” Wilder has often said, “Lubitsch could do more with a closed door than most directors can with an open fly.”
Wilder got his chance with Lubitsch in 1936, when Paramount assigned him to work with Charles Brackett, a more experienced writer, on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Brackett, fourteen years Wilder’s senior, was a novelist and a gent. He was Harvard Law, class of 1920, and had been a drama critic for The New Yorker. When Lubitsch moved to M-G-M, he hired the pair to work on Ninotchka. Seven Brackett-Wilder scripts were shot before Wilder started directing; later, Brackett produced the pictures that he and Wilder wrote together.
During the Brackett era, Wilder’s scriptwriting methods were established. While Brackett, like all Wilder’s partners to come, jotted notes, Wilder paced the room, gesturing with a swagger stick or a baton, slicing the air. Brackett’s boozy Republican gentility was often at odds with Wilder’s brash ambition. Wilder was the junior man but the more forceful personality. The partners were known for their screaming matches as well as for their scripts. “We were opposites, from different parts of the world,” Wilder recalls. “Our temperaments had to be held in check. We fought a lot. Brackett and I were like a box of matches. We kept striking till it lights up. He would sometimes throw a telephone book at me.” They walked out on each other several times, each vowing to go it alone. But, like a couple in a marriage that doesn’t quite work but won’t quite end, they kept at it, locked in productivity and combat, and came to be known as Brackettandwilder.
For Wilder, a third colleague may have been as significant as Lubitsch and Brackett. Mitchell Leisen, a staff director at Paramount, directed three Brackett-Wilder scripts, and was unwittingly responsible for making Wilder a director. Wilder couldn’t bear him and often said so, believing that Leisen, who had started as a designer, knew nothing about storytelling and cared only for the drape of a skirt or the way a shadow fell. Wilder accused Leisen of tearing up carefully written scenes on the whim of an actor or just to demonstrate his authority. “He hated writers,” Wilder says. “I would come on the set and stop him. ‘What happened to that line?’ I would say. He would say, ‘I cut it. You’re bothering me.’ He came from set dressing.” The idea of Wilder’s mellowing is unlikely, and he still finds the subject of Leisen distasteful, but he acknowledges that Midnight and Arise, My Love, directed by Leisen from Bracken-Wilder scripts, are “good pictures.” Then he mutters, “I could have done them better.”
In the spirit of Lubitsch, Wilder’s cinema is one of exquisitely constructed scripts rather than ravishing images. It is also a cinema of frequently unsympathetic leading characters and of jokes and gags, the more topical, self-referential, or exuberantly vulgar the better. There are no Fordian horsemen plowing down snowy mountains; it is a writer’s cinema. Wilder became a director to protect what he had written. He always mapped out his story with a partner, then stuck to it on the set, often shooting in sequence and allowing for only minor changes. He frequently began production with an uncompleted script, writing as he shot, and this made him hard to fire. It was his way of giving immediacy to what he had written. Contemporary directors routinely talk about “finding their film” in the cutting room. Even directors working from their own scripts often encourage actors to improvise. They’re in search of spontaneity. “Unfortunately, they often find it,” Wilder says. Of the complicated camera angles now so much in vogue he says, “Down the chimney, through the fireplace: point of view, Santa Claus. Who else would be up there?”
In 1943, Wilder collaborated with Raymond Chandler on the adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity. “Brackett did not like to deal in risqué stories like that,” Wilder says. Although the movie is an enduring work, one of the best and most popular examples of film noir, Chandler had a rough time. He loathed Wilder’s strutting ways in the office. In a letter to Harnish Hamilton, his British publisher, he wrote, “Working with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life.” Brackett was a picture man, though, and knew the value of the alliance. He and Wilder were soon back together for The Lost Weekend, which won Oscars in 1945 for best picture, script, and director, and for Ray Milland as best actor.
Brackett and Wilder had patched things up, but Wilder’s marriage was coming apart. His wife, Judith, whom he had married in 1936, was the step-daughter of the French artist Paul Iribe, who was also an art director for Cecil B. De Mille. The Wilders’ daughter, Victoria, was born in 1939. (Her twin brother, Vincent, died when he was four months old.) By 1942, Wilder had become involved with the actress Doris Dowling, who would later play the prostitute in The Lost Weekend. The affair was the subject of a great deal of gossip. Their friends assumed that Wilder would marry Dowling. Then he met Audrey Young, a singer, who was a bit player in The Lost Weekend. Wilder found himself separating from his wife, cheating on his mistress, and pursuing Audrey. She got the man, but her part in The Lost Weekend wound up on the cutting-room floor.
After the war, Wilder served with the Psychological Warfare Division of the United States Army in Germany. Among Colonel Wilder’s tasks was helping to rebuild the German film industry. To that end, he interviewed ex-Nazis, trying to decide which ones were the least undesirable. He was asked by the director of the Oberammergau Passion play to pass judgment on Anton Lang, who had played Christ before the war and had been in the S.S. Now the director wanted him back.
“On one condition,” Wilder said.
“And what is that?” he was asked.
“That in the Crucifixion scene you use real nails.”
During his tour of duty, Wilder got a look at what was left of Berlin, the city where he had served his ad-hoc apprenticeship in the movies. He had not heard from his family during the war. Now he confirmed what he had suspected: his mother, his stepfather, and his grandmother had died in Auschwitz. What ever pain he endured privately, his response was to make a comedy, A Foreign Affair, written with Brackett and Richard L. Breen. It is serious without being in the least earnest, and it brought Wilder’s reputation for vulgarity to an early peak. Maybe no one was in a mood to make fun of postwar Berlin—no one but Wilder, anyway.
The film opens with shots of bombed-out Berlin, seen from a plane carrying a dim-bulb congressional delegation to look into the morale of the occupation troops. The team includes Jean Arthur as a representative from Iowa who brings a constituent’s chocolate cake for an Army captain (John Lund). He trades it on the black market for a mattress, tosses the mattress in his jeep, then drives through the ashen hell of Berlin while the soundtrack plays “Isn’t It Romantic?” It’s Berlin, all right, but the real locale is Billy Wilder Land. Of the choice of music Wilder says, “Paramount owned it. You were obliged to use what they didn’t have to pay for. They thought I was a good soldier.”
Lund takes the mattress to Marlene Dietrich. In some casual love play, she calls him her Führer (“Heil Johnny”), and he says, “Why don’t I choke you a little. Break you in two. Build a fire under you, you blond witch.” There’s not a lot of kitchy-kitchy-coo in the dialogue. Richard Corliss called the movie “Wilder at his most vile.” James Agee said, “A good bit of it is in rotten taste.”
During Holden and Swanson’s first big scene, with the exchange that begins, “You’re Norma Desmond…You used to be big,” Wilder looked as if he were watching a take and deciding whether to ask for another.
The question of “taste” has plagued Wilder. It is as if the critics, confronted with his bawdy rudeness, became Rotarians. Wilder is an ironist—that was the point of using “Isn’t It Romantic?” Movies usually trade in more readily understood situations and characters. In A Foreign Affair. Dietrich is a not quite former Nazi, mostly because a girl’s got to eat. Wilder keeps it broad enough for the groundlings, but underneath there’s a dark, anarchic vision.
For Wilder, it has always been jokes above all. He has the true satirist’s compulsion: he mocks everyone, and speaks his mind in wisecracks. Of the writers and directors who refused to testify before huac, the so-called “unfriendly witnesses,” Wilder said, “Two of them have talent. The rest are just unfriendly.” But, like all satirists, he has a moralist’s heart. For every swindler, there’s a patsy; for every corrupted bimbo, there’s a venal, self-serving fool of a man. His movies, like Wilder himself, are often mordant and relentlessly unsentimental.
Wilder doesn’t own prints or cassettes of his films, and says he has no interest in watching them again He’s seen clips from Sunset Boulevard over the years. “The same clips!” he mutters. “ ‘We had faces,’ ‘pictures got small.’ Who needs it?” The last time he had seen the entire movie was at the Paramount studio theatre in the summer of 1950.
As he walked across the Paramount lot on a recent morning, Wilder recalled that earlier screening, which was just prior to the release of the picture. Sunset Boulevard had suffered an unsuccessful preview in Evanston, Illinois, causing Brackett and Wilder to shoot a new opening. The movie begins, famously, with William Holden as Joe Gillis, the murdered screenwriter, narrating the action from the dead, his body floating in a swimming pool The rejected version began in the Los Angeles morgue, with corpses chatting about how they got there. After Paramount showed the re-shot version, the industry crowd milled about in the alley outside the studio theatre. Louis B. Mayer, who had not cared for the portrait of Hollywood, was heard to say, “Billy Wilder should be run out of town.” Wilder took that for the challenge it was, and told the head of M-G-M, “Go shit in your hat.”
Now, in that same alley, Wilder said, “That’s what I’ll be remembered for, a stupid insult to Louis B. Mayer.”
“Isn’t what people remember that you wouldn’t let him insult you?”
“They remember shit in the hat.”
Screening Room No. 5, where Wilder was about to have his first look at Sunset Boulevard since the run-in with Mayer, is in a tangle of editing rooms, offices, and projection booths above the theatre. It has been repainted, and the equipment is newer, but otherwise the room is unchanged since the days when Brackett and Wilder watched rushes there. Paramount is where Sunset Boulevard was written, shot, and edited; several of the locations in the film were only steps away.
“Is this going to be like the opera?” Wilder asked. When I looked puzzled, he said, “I went to see Götterdämmerung. It started at eight. At midnight, when I looked at my watch, it was eight-fifteen.” Assured that Sunset Boulevard played faster than that, he sat down, ready to see just what it was that he and Brackett had made forty-four years ago. We were seated on either side of the console, which permitted us to control the volume or speak to the projectionist. Earlier, I had reminded him that if he couldn’t bear it he could tell the projectionist to skip a reel or two. Now he had his eye on the console.
As Franz Waxman’s score boomed out and William Holden’s narration began, Wilder, who is usually animated, grew still. His mouth tightened and his lips twitched. He didn’t perk up until Holden, bemoaning his lack of work, says, “I talked to a couple of yes-men at Metro. To me they said no.”
When Erich von Stroheim, as Max von Mayerling, the butler and chauffeur, mistakes Holden for someone else and says, “If you need any help with the coffin, call me,” Wilder nodded approval and said, “You get those little hooks into the audience. ‘Coffin’ out of nowhere.”
During Holden and Swanson’s first big scene, with the exchange that begins, “You’re Norma Desmond…You used to be big,” Wilder looked as if he were watching a take and deciding whether to ask for another. When he called out “Good!” I half expected the film to stop and the actors to take a break.
Not until he’d had a taste of Swanson’s performance did he seem to relax. The picture depends on her. It was made twenty years after the end of the silent era, when audiences had a sense of the transition to sound. But would any of it come through now? When Norma plays bridge with Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner, her contemporaries, Holden calls them “the waxworks.” Wilder seemed to be looking hard to see whether the film itself now belonged in that category.
“He’s watching her,” Wilder said, meaning that Holden was watching Swanson, trying to decide what to make of this strange, pop-eyed wonder from another world. Through Holden’s eyes, the audience understands that every move and gesture Norma Desmond makes, every extravagant claim and demand, is real to her. Wilder saw that it was working, and began to enjoy himself. “That’s silent-picture acting. You can’t teach somebody. Unless you grew up with it, you can’t do it.”
In von Stroheim’s first big scene, when he explains to Holden just who Norma Desmond is, he says, “There was a maharaja who came all the way from India to beg for one of her silk stockings. Later, he strangled himself with it.” Wilder laughed, and said, “So preposterous.” But when the scene was over he said of von Stroheim, “He’s like a light bulb that suddenly shines on in that scene—even with that strangling stuff.” Von Stroheim was himself a legendary director of the silent era—the film that Norma runs for Joe is his unfinished Queen Kelly, which starred Swanson. He brought a director’s sensibility to his role. “It was his idea that Max wrote all the fan letters Norma got,” Wilder explained. “He had an idea about Max washing her underwear. ‘I can do a lot with that,’ he said. It was too much, I didn’t use it.” Of von Stroheim as chauffeur, Wilder said later, “He didn’t know how to drive. We had to tow the car when he comes onto the lot. He still crashed it into the Bronson Gate.”
After Wilder was sure that the central performances held up, he occasionally hummed along with Waxman’s score. He was amused by the various sums of money mentioned: five hundred dollars a week for a screenwriter, and twenty-eight thousand dollars as the value of Norma Desmond’s lavish touring car, an Isotta-Fraschini. When Norma says, “I’m richer than all this new Hollywood trash. I’ve got a million dollars,” Wilder repeated the line and laughed.
But it was Swanson who continued to interest him. When she says, “Me, me, Norma Desmond,” in all her nutty megalomania, Wilder said, “Right up to the edge.” He meant that she had the courage to risk looking ridiculous and the skill to keep in character. A moment later, he said, “She was fifty-two. It was old then. Holden was about thirty. The chasm between silent pictures and talkies, you think there’s three hundred years between them.”
Because Billy Wilder is a screenwriter, rewriting is in his blood. He can’t resist trying to improve something already written—or, in this case, spoken.
During a scene with Holden and Nancy Olson, the young screenwriter he meets, Wilder’s lips were moving, but I couldn’t follow what he was saying. I lowered the volume, and realized he was approximating the dialogue. But this was no reverie. He was apparently trying to get Holden and Olson to pick up the pace. I guessed he hadn’t liked the line readings in 1949 and didn’t like them now. Near the end of the scene, he said, sharply and loudly, “Then what happened?,” which was Holden’s line—he hadn’t got to it yet. It cued Olson’s “You did,” which ended the scene. Wilder said, “Good short line.”
Wilder took particular delight in the sequences with Cecil B. De Mille, who plays himself “He was shooting Samson and Delilah,” Wilder recalls. “We used his sets when Norma visits. We had him for one day. Ten thousand dollars. Then we required one more close-up. I asked him to come back and do it. He understood. It was the shot outside the stage where he says goodbye. He came back. For another ten thousand dollars.”
When DeMille tells Norma to sit for a moment, Wilder said, “I wanted De Mille to displace Hedy Lamarr and give her chair to Norma. She’d do it—for twenty-five thousand dollars. I said that it would be enough for Norma to sit in a chair with Hedy Lamarr’s name on it. That was ten thousand dollars. So I put her in De Mille’s chair.” While she’s sitting there, a boom microphone passes behind her, disturbing her hat and casting a shadow on her face. “Watch this,” Wilder said, anticipating the end of the shot. “Hah!” he whooped as Norma scowls at the microphone, the very thing that ended her era.
As Norma is about to make her final walk down the staircase, playing Salome to the newsreel cameras, Wilder said, “When I rehearsed this scene, very complex emotions are coming down those stairs. I rehearsed it to music.”
I nodded, and mumbled something about Strauss.
“No, no,” he said. “Strauss for the rehearsal. Then we got better than Strauss. Waxman!” When the music surged and the end credits ran, he nodded in time and hummed with the score as the lights came up. Then he was quiet. He knew that it is on this film that his reputation will rest for future generations. There were Paramount employees waiting with pictures and posters for him to sign, but no one was going to rush Billy Wilder at a time like this. Then, as always, retreating into anecdote, he said, “Willy Wyler made a picture called Hell’s Heroes. Thirty years later, he wanted to look at it again. It took them about a week to find a print. They sent it over to his house—he had a cutting room. He took a chunk out and sent it back. No one would ever see it! He wanted to improve it.”
“Do you want to recut?”
“I’m Wilder, not Wyler. We got mixed up all the time. Willy, Billy.”
“Would you like to go into the editing room with it?”
“Here, there, maybe. Some retakes. But no. There’s not much dust on it.” He was quiet again. Then he said, “Come on. I’ll buy you a cheap lunch.”
Because Billy Wilder is a screenwriter, rewriting is in his blood. He can’t resist trying to improve something already written—or, in this case, spoken. In a restaurant near his office in Beverly Hills, he talked more about Sunset Boulevard. “I dug out from one of the drawers a vague story about a silent-era star,” he said. “More of a comedy. Mae West was a possibility. With a man half her age. As Charlie and I worked on it, I thought, maybe we need some young blood. Maybe we’re sort of pooped out So we got D. M. Marshman. He was a writer for Life magazine.”
“Were you and Brackett not getting along?”
“We had been working together thirteen years. We needed another mind in there. It was our last picture.”
Holden’s role was written for Montgomery Clift, who turned it down at the last minute, probably because it was too close to his own relationship with the singer Libby Holman. At the time, Wilder was furious, but, looking back, he says, “You wouldn’t believe Clift as a ghostwriter, even if he was hungry.”
Did he think Clift might have given a more complex performance? One could imagine him having an ambiguous reaction to his degradation.
“Holden is closer to a Hollywood writer. Not a poet of the new muse. The best actor I ever worked with was Charles Laughton—Witness for the Prosecution. He goes to a point where a tenth of an inch more and it would be ludicrous. Very few can do that. Swanson got it.” Then Wilder changed the topic without a pause. “The night shot where Holden and Nancy Olson walk on the lot, she tells how she grew up there, at Paramount. How she wanted to be in movies. That’s my wife’s background we used. Audrey’s mother worked in wardrobe. Aud grew up like that.”
Could he say what he had been thinking while he was watching the movie?
“I was involved in remembering, How did I work it? Did I get the best possible scene I could? Over all, the most comforting feeling was that, yes, I would shoot it this way again. The dialogue was not bad. I didn’t wince. I found it surprisingly believable. Only a few minutes that embarrassed me—if the picture is shown in the hereafter theatre, I’ll speed up the projectionist. Today, I couldn’t drum up such a cast. I needed Swanson, I got her. I needed De Mille, l got him. I needed von Stroheim, I got him. I was lucky. It looked pretty good. I would stand up for it. Now I don’t have to look at it for another forty-five years.”
After Sunset Boulevard, the Brackett-Wilder partnership was dissolved. Brackett went on to a prominent career as a producer and was publicly upbeat about the breakup, but at the end of his life he told Garson Kanin that he’d never understood it. “We were doing so well,” he said. “It was such a blow, such an unexpected blow, I thought I’d never recover from it.” After Brackett, Wilder had a series of partners. Some were distinguished, but none stayed on for a second picture until I. A. L. Diamond, who always claimed his initials stood for Interscholastic Algebra League, turned up. Born Itek Dommnici, in Romania, Diamond arrived in America at nine and grew up in Crown Heights. After Columbia, where he wrote the book for the Varsity Show for each of his four years and edited the Daily Spectator, he kicked around Hollywood writing comedies and musicals. In 1956, he hooked up with Wilder for Love in the Afternoon. Eventually, they made twelve pictures together, including Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, One, Two, Three, Kiss Me, Stupid, and The Fortune Cookie, all black-and-white gems of the American idiom, written by men whose native language was not English.
“If God would send me another Brackett or Diamond…” he said, letting the sentence trail off.
Some Like It Hot was made during Marilyn Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller. She showed up on the set hours after her call, and she had trouble with her lines, requiring forty-seven takes over two days to enter a room and say, “Where’s the bourbon?” After the film was in release, Wilder made some indiscreet remarks about Monroe to the press, saying that after he’d made two pictures with her (The Seven Year Itch was the first) the Directors Guild should award him a Purple Heart. The result was a public squabble. Arthur Miller called Wilder “contemptible.” Today, Wilder takes a more relaxed view of Monroe. “Not all the doctors and chemists and clairvoyants know what makes a star,” he says. “When I would be driving to the studio in the morning, I would think the whole cast would be there, two hundred extras would be there, the crew would be there. And Marilyn? Who knows where? I would stop the car and throw up. My back was always out. Except the footage looked great. I would have preferred fewer takes, but each time she said a line it was the first time it was ever said.”
“Well, nobody’s perfect,” the picture’s famous last line, was considered for an earlier scene:
Jerry: He keeps marrying girls all the time.
Joe: But you’re not a girl. You’re a guy. And why would a guy want to marry a guy?
In 1985, Diamond wrote in California Magazine that he had thought about adding, “Nobody’s perfect,” but was afraid that it “would kill the security joke.” He filed it away in his mind and later thought it might do as the last line of the movie. He remembered Wilder’s being uncertain, and saying, “Maybe we’ll think of something better on the set.”
Reminiscing about Diamond, Wilder said, “The highest compliment you could get from him would be ‘Why not?’ The Reagans once sent an invitation to go to the White House for dinner. I didn’t want it. lzzy said, ‘You’re right. If you go, then you’ll have to invite them to your house. Then back and forth. Who knows what it could lead to?’”
Diamond died of multiple myeloma in 1988, at the age of sixty-seven. “The script that was written was a completely different third act,” Wilder said. “I was fourteen years older. I was supposed to go first. He knew he had that disease four years. He never said a word. Finally, when we were talking about something I thought we could do, he said, ‘I better tell you, I guess.’” Then Wilder waved his hand and shrugged. Friends say he was distraught over Diamond’s death. “Flattened” is the way one put it.
Wilder had already endured a period of commercial flops. Now he had no partner. “If God would send me another Brackett or Diamond…” he said, letting the sentence trail off. The last Wilder-Diamond film was Buddy Buddy, in 1981. It was not well received. Even before Diamond’s death, more movies were doubtful. But the sheer fizz of Wilder’s personality made it unlikely that he would withdraw. He had long collected modern art, and owned works by Picasso, Miró, Giacometti, Balthus, Kirchner, and Cornell. By 1989, his collection had grown so large and the market was so good that he decided to sell. He declared himself Lord of the Tchotchkes and arranged for an auction at Christie’s in New York. The media couldn’t get enough of it. The sale generated thirty-two million six hundred thousand dollars. Wilder had been wealthy for years, but now he was a rich man. More important, he had a hit.
Wilder can’t seem to stop collecting art. The walls of his office feature works by Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella; in one corner there are odd-looking found objects, awaiting sculptural treatment. He has always been fond of objets trouvés, and now, with the help of a friend, he has been turning out highly idiosyncratic pieces of sculpture. “Stallone’s Typewriter” is an old Underwood painted in camouflage green and black, with bullets and toy weaponry attached. The platen is wrapped in a gauzy American flag. Wilder says he’s working on a script but adds, almost plaintively, “I don’t know if anyone will let me direct it.” What he does know is that film directing has become a younger person’s sport. Wilder turns eighty-seven this month. In Beverly Hills, near his office, he’s a familiar sight on the streets, where passersby sometimes point him out, like a civic attraction. The Wilders will be in London for the opening of Sunset Boulevard, as guests of Andrew Lloyd Webber. “It’s going to be expensive,” Wilder says, grinning. “After the Connaught, it’s Paris for the collections and a tiny little stop at Christian Dior.”
Critics have often written disparagingly about Wilder, pointing out the themes of venality and corruption and usually calling them cynicism. But Wilder’s recurring motif is disguise, and his real theme is identity. A young screenwriter allows himself to be dressed like a plutocrat and makes love to a woman who appalls him. A saxophone player puts on drag, then a yachting costume, and starts sounding like Cary Grant. Who are these guys? They, and a gallery of others, reside in an exaggerated world that belongs to the quick-witted and to those who can cut the best deals—a world where everything, and certainly love, is for sale. Taken collectively, Wilder’s raucous, impolite, and often impolitic movies are the record of an exile, a man of the century, made in a medium that was virtually unknown when he was born. Like Hollywood itself, they are a very American achievement. After their alliance was dissolved, Charles Brackett wrote of his former partner, “He was sassy and brash and often unwise, but…he was in love with America as I have seen few people in love with it.”
The critics are now catching up. In 1991, Andrew Sarris published an essay in Film Comment titled “Why Billy Wilder Belongs in the Pantheon.” Twenty-three years earlier, in his influential The American Cinema, Sarris had put Wilder in a category called “Less Than Meets the Eye.” Critical ideas and judgments change all the time, of course, but usually those criticized aren’t around to hear about it. Many of Wilder’s contemporaries, directors who were giants in their time, now seem like Ozymandias. But Wilder’s pictures are watched and studied by film students and professionals trying to figure out how he did it.
When I asked Wilder what he made of the critics’ coming around, he shrugged, apparently uninterested in the issue. A little later, he answered indirectly, saying, “The best insert shot ever made is in Potemkin. The sailors are going to mutiny because the meat is rank. Then there’s the insert of the meat. It’s crawling with maggots. The doctor looks at it and says, ‘The meat’s fine.’” Then Wilder laughed at the absurdity of ever worrying about what anyone says about anything. It reminded him of a story. “I told Sam Goldwyn I wanted to make a movie about Nijinsky. I explained how he was the greatest dancer ever and I told him about his career and how he ended up in a French nuthouse, thinking he was a horse. So Sam says, ‘What kind of picture is that? A man who thinks he’s a horse?’ I told him, ‘Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending. In the final scene, he wins the Kentucky Derby.’”