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Nobody’s Perfect

The world is full of rooms where young men bow before the masters of their profession. The rooms have changed, and so have some of the professions, but can there be anything new in the way unfledged ambition will dance attendance upon geriatric pride? In 1777, James Boswell interviewed David Hume as the great philosopher lay dying in his Edinburgh drawing room. It was the literary journalistic scoop of the eighteenth century: Boswell in fine feather, deploying every ounce of his ruby-cheeked audacity to shame and to flatter the old man into Christianity as the light went from his eyes. In the event Hume hunkered down with his infidelity, but in every respect the meeting is a classic: a gifted, breathless youngster, puffing his hero to the point of exhaustion, and on from there to the edge of the grave.

Such occasions can be pretty theatrical. Amid the flurry of genuflection and counterpuffery, grand lessons are being learned by the fresh of face, while, on the other side, a grizzled memory is placed at the service of an enlarged posterity. Yet the truly great encounters of this kind show the younger party in both cringing and attacking mode: a genteel male usurpation is quickly part of the picture. “I believe that he knew more than any person I had met before, and I knew that he knew I knew less than any person he had ever met before,” wrote Mark Twain after an hour or so with a young Rudyard Kipling. There’s nothing so wonderfully gross as a young man in love with the possibilities of himself; still, the complications of awe might be among the more stable features of a young writer’s self-regard. “All I can say,” said John Berryman on meeting Yeats, “is that my mouth was dry and my heart was in my mouth.”

In some of these encounters a mock-heroic passing of the torch will be discernible, as well as a mock-private dismantling of the anxieties of influence. To say the least, it’s an odd dynamic. The young man likes to think he’s contemplating a version of himself at the end of a long and distinguished career, and the old wizard, more often than not, will find himself as much petrified as pleased, looking into the avid, devouring face of the future. At any rate, imitation is a meager sauce to the former fashion plate: a true master of his profession would sooner consider himself inimitable, and be feared not only for the density of his reputation but for the few tricks remaining up his sleeve.

Billy Wilder is ninety-one years old. A few years ago he began to be visited in his Beverly Hills office by Cameron Crowe, one of the newer breed of Hollywood directors, best known for Jerry Maguire, a likable, Oscar-winning comedy starring Tom Cruise. It soon emerges, in the book resulting from these meetings, that Wilder and the young director are united by a sense of the wonder of the movies, and by and by they come to isolate a definition of good style. Along the way Wilder is a happy king, a man of achievements and disappointments, a gruff potentate, a Lear, a guru of light touches and Hollywood anecdotes. Crowe meanwhile is a plausible rookie, a hungry mind, a Fool, a lapdog with a laptop, and the Next Big Thing. The two men slightly—and not in any sense unfunnily—fall in love with each other.

How would Lubitsch do it?” says a sign that hangs on the door of Wilder’s office. And perhaps it would take Wilder’s great mentor himself, the German director Ernst Lubitsch—from whom lovely, humane jokes could always escape, as light and combustible as the hydrogen in the Hindenburg—to truly appreciate the perfect absurdity of Crowe’s attempt to conduct one of his interviews at Wilder’s home, during the course of which the venerable Wilder’s arms and legs are being manipulated by a trusted physical therapist. Billy Wilder’s wife, Audrey, is also present in the room. Crowe writes it up as if it were a script:

I shake hands with Dr. Marks. Marks is clearly ambivalent about sharing his time with Wilder. These physical-therapy appointments are far from drudgery for either doctor or patient, and I soon find out why. While Jeff Marks works Billy out in the bedroom, they use the time to compare their weekly football picks. My presence has thrown the whole rhythm off. But I too am reluctant to surrender my time with Wilder…. Silently, we agree to work together.

BW: [Directing us:] We will be talking while we’re counting to ten, twenty, and thirty!

AW: You mean you’re going to exercise and talk?

BW: I’m going to the bedroom.

AW: Everybody into the bedroom!…

BW: [Settling on bed:] Okay [as in “Action”]. You ask me the questions in between….

JM: Okay. One knee up to the chest. Grab it with both hands and pull it up.

BW: You can ask me questions, Cameron. Go right ahead.

CC: Did you ever read The Catcher in the Rye?

JM: Both knees.

BW: Both knees? [Wilder is on his back, and the doctor helps with his legs, pressing them into position and straightening them out again.]

AW: This is some kind of scene, but I don’t know what. [Laughs.]

BW: Of course I read The Catcher in the Rye…. This is a nice scene, with the dialogue, and with you wondering whether I’m speaking the dialogue to you or the doctor…. A lot of funny stuff could happen here. Ask me another question!

You can’t help feeling that the man who co-wrote Ninotchka, and who co-wrote and directed Sunset Boulevard and Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, must certainly, in the middle of this crazy setup, have been imagining how Groucho Marx would have worked out as the doctor. The Wilder who emerges from Crowe’s book turns out to be a study in what a great director might do when he stops directing pictures: loudly and comically, with a blazing eye for self-parody, he begins to direct scenes from his own afterlife.

Crowe says at one point that he finds Wilder “brisk and delectable”: that might strike you as a good description of Wilder’s movies, and it would serve further as a nice way of talking about Crowe’s book, though the book, more like Wilder’s mind and less like his movies, is also a bit of a mess. Wilder is first and foremost a joker; at all times he deplores the flatly morose, and he’ll go anywhere in a sentence, or in a scene, to avoid the intellectually fancy. But as with many Hollywood directors of that generation, Wilder’s culpable clarity, his blind-siding simplicity, might actually turn out to mask a dark-bottomed attitude about America and its situations. Part and parcel of Wilder’s invisible style is a visible pessimism about the possibility of goodness. Even when badness doesn’t pay—it pays. Yet Wilder prefers to see himself as a peddler of obvious felicities. “I don’t make cinema, I make movies,” he says, “I make movies for amusement. That’s the difference between a bound book and something to be continued every week in the Saturday Evening Post. You just do it for the moment. It is not to be bound.”

Yet Crowe is a binder. He has a good thing going at the heart of his curiosity: he is too serious-minded to allow Wilder to bury himself under Wilderisms. When Crowe introduces the possibility that Europeans have been better than Americans at understanding America, Wilder says, “I was just a person who lived with Americans.” Crowe enjoys the remark but he won’t settle for it; the young director wants to know what Wilder brought from his Austrian childhood to his newspaper job in Berlin, and after that he wants to know what he brought from Germany (and left there) when he came to California. He wants to know about origins and influences: most of all he wants help in identifying the Wilder touch.

In interviews of this sort published before—Nicholas Roeg with Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut with Alfred Hitchcock—a major part of the rookie’s job involves the chaperoning of his master’s voice, which can mean picking through a morass of self-endearing epithets. Wilder outdoes most of his contemporaries in wishing to make everything sound meaningless or accidental. But he is not like Hitchcock, who in slightly mocking Truffaut’s darker concerns only made himself seem darker. Wilder is a company man. He doesn’t speak as an auteur, or as someone vividly concealing his own magic: in his conversations with Crowe he glides on the belief that it’s possible to make a great movie that makes money and is loved by everybody. It was a young Wilder indeed who wrote, in the script for Scampolo, that the most important words in the English language were “the money.” Roeg and Welles and Truffaut and Hitchcock would no doubt balk at that: Crowe just nods with something like recognition. (As well he might: the line “Show me the money,” spoken by Cuba Gooding Jr., and hollered by Tom Cruise, in Jerry Maguire, has become a Saturday Night Live anthem, and an international catchphrase.)

Movie biographies are seldom free from the assumption that every oeuvre must have its hidden key. We all fall for this sort of thing. Again and again Cameron Crowe journeys through the reels, the streets, and the relationships of Wilder’s past, in an attempt to find the thing that made his career possible and his subjects manifest. For an earlier biographer, Maurice Zolotow, this thing, this Rosebud, this image which might point to the essence of a life spent obsessing about images, lies in Wilder’s once having been in love with a woman in Berlin who turned out to be a hooker.1 For Crowe it is a postcard Wilder once found that revealed his father had an illegitimate child. But Ed Sikov, a recent Wilder biographer, suggests that the images which came to dominate Wilder’s imagination after the war were the pictures from the camps, the aerial shots of the fields of corpses at Belsen and Treblinka.2 Did those terrible images burn a hole in Wilder?

While in London in 1945, Ed Sikov tells us, at the behest of the Office of War Information, to oversee the reconstruction of the German film industry and purge it of Nazism, Wilder sat down with dozens of reels of film footage recorded in and around the extermination camps. “There was an entire field, a whole landscape of corpses,” he later said. “And next to one of the corpses sat a dying man. He is the one who still moves in this totality of death and he glances apathetically into the camera. Hundreds of bodies, and the look of this dying man. Shattering.” It is something Wilder has come back to all his life. “A particularly horrifying image for [him],” notes Sikov, “because he knew that his mother’s and grandmother’s bodies might well have been in those acres of…corpses. Every new frame of raw footage he saw thus held the poten-tial of revealing his mother’s fate.” Wilder’s mother and grandmother died at Auschwitz. “Why didn’t I take my parents with me?” he has continued to ask into his old age.

It would be pointless to imagine that watching the Holocaust footage, and cutting it together for an information film, had failed to deepen Wilder’s pessimism; it seemed to leave him with a strange feeling about the truth, especially about the truths conveyed by moving pictures. Later, in Ace in the Hole and Sunset Boulevard, to name just two, he showed himself, as a moviemaker, to be more interested in cruelty and the terrors of American entertainment and human manipulation than any director of his generation. Yet that will serve as only a partial guide to the Wilder mentality: he also, we must remember, had Marilyn Monroe’s skirt flying over her head in The Seven Year Itch, offering a fresh-aired notion of postwar sex being healthy and good, clean-limbed and smiling, the big white skirt aflutter with optimism.

Yet Crowe’s assiduous, attractively dweebish inquiries bring us toward a notion of how Wilder is what he is. There is no attempt to resolve his inconsistencies, but merely to explain their elegance. Crowe feels that “Wilder’s work stands today as a portrait of the way people are“: he loves his hero above all for his ability to make unpleasantness beautiful. Hindered by his subject’s irascibility, delayed by his own politeness, Crowe is searching for the governing principle in Wilder’s originality. “My goal was to dig beneath those sparkling recitations of his best stories,” Crowe writes. “Some questions would have to be asked a number of times; eluding them was too much fun for Wilder. In a flash, he can turn your earnest question into a straight line.” And that is part of the Wilder aesthetic: the blousy, sarcastic American epigram, born in the face of earnestness, delivered from the side of the mouth. But more often Wilder’s trick is to allow his audience to feel responsible for pulling off the gag: they don’t need to be told too much; he lets them divine the punch line. “Just say two plus two,” says Wilder. “Let them say ‘four.”’

Wilder’s sort of Americanness gains its strength and its character through an opposition to the phony. It’s all that Holden Caulfield kinda crap: the movies are averse to the inauthentic; and like Caulfield himself, Wilder expresses a sweet and personal dislike of all that is superficial and carnival in contemporary American life. Sunset Boulevard (1950) is a kind of horror story really: Norma Desmond being not only a grotesque victim of her own vanity and hunger for adoration, but a distortion of Hollywood itself, and Wilder’s own vocation, which shows how stars and studios and the audience too can be bent out of shape on a wrack of mass delusion. But this is not only a postwar thing. He seems always to have cared about the horrible things that happen to human beings when they get too much of what they want. Double Indemnity (1944) is nasty in all the right places: you know everything you want to know about the two money-grubbing murderers as soon as you see the glimmer of Barbara Stanwyck’s ankle bracelet coming down the stairs. Fred MacMurray’s face is a dazzling picture of American easygoingness and avarice. You can almost smell the cheap perfume mingling with dirty thoughts and floating in the room between the two characters. Meantime, Billy Wilder keeps it crackling in the dark:

My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren’t you?”

Yeah, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.”

There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.”

How fast was I going, officer?”

I’d say around ninety.”

Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.”

Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.”

Suppose it doesn’t take.”

Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.”

Suppose I burst out crying and put my head on your shoulder.”

Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.”

That tears it.”

This was written with Raymond Chandler (they hated each other), but it has Wilder’s sense of the sassy and the rotten about it. In Double Indemnity, though, and in his movie about alcoholism, The Lost Weekend (1945), Wilder kept the rottenness and the despair local to the action. In Sunset Boulevard, and even more so in Ace in the Hole (1951)—the story of a cynical reporter who feeds his readership’s fascination with danger and death at any cost—you begin to see a whole modern society behind the twinkling wordplay. “They [the critics and the audiences] did not believe me,” Wilder says, “that when somebody’s a newspaperman, they are capable of that behavior…. But they never, at the time, they never gave it a chance. Somebody in an editorial, I think, in Life magazine said that ‘Mr. Wilder should be deported.’ …It was an unpleasant picture, I grant you that.”

Wilder’s best films are dominated by characters who know how to make the best use of unpleasantness, or who know how to make a killing out of horrible circumstances. William Holden collects cigarettes he’ll never smoke from his fellow prisoners in Stalag 17 (1953), and trades them for everything he needs; Walter Matthau, in The Fortune Cookie (1966), is merciless in his pursuit of damages from a black football player on the brink of ruin; Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon dress up as women to escape the perpetrators of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Some Like It Hot (1959)—Curtis then passes himself off as yet another somebody else to cop a squeeze at Marilyn Monroe; and Jack Lemmon, in The Apartment (1960), is forced to wander the streets while his creepy boss entertains floozies in his bed. Lemmon’s character, C.C. “Bud” Baxter, bears all this with an Everyman grimace. Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Kane grows accustomed to always ending up with “the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” Matthau’s cynical, greedy shyster lawyer is content to think he can put one over on the whole human race. All Wilder’s characters live in a state of acceptance when it comes to the ghastliness of things. Unpleasantness to him is what pity was to Charlie Chaplin: the wellspring of all the dramatic magic, and the source of all the comedy.

Wilder is also a maestro of dud relationships. One hundred and twenty-eight directors had brought Sherlock Holmes to the screen before Wilder did so, and in each one of those pictures Holmes is a louche and inscrutable thinking machine, and Watson a loyal puppy. To The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Wilder brought more than a half-century’s worth of perceptions about how you dramatize a relationship between two people in a movie, and the result is both melancholy and strange. Wilder’s early career, the German part, was devoted to a light-comical understanding of how people meet and get cute; his middle years, working in the studio system in Hollywood, were devoted, by turns, to scabrous, dark depictions of the hold that one corrupt American heart can hold over another, and to post-Puritan sex comedies, the kind that might follow the lush, Technicolor daydreams of a middle manager, making room (and how) for the kind of delightful girl upstairs who keeps her panties in the ice box.

Sherlock Holmes has all of this: it is about everything the director knows or assumes he knows. Wilder’s last interesting movie is also his most personal; it is another one of those infuriating keys to his career, which can’t be entirely good news, since Wilder’s Sherlock Holmes is a misogynist, a cocaine addict, a closet homosexual, an intellectual bully, and a great failure in his own eyes. “A love story between two men,” Wilder called it, and this late-Sixties picture, cut to ribbons by the distributors, has a whiff of the permissive society hanging over it. But as he almost indicates to Cameron Crowe, Sherlock Holmes was supposed to be a movie that traveled to the core of Wilder’s sense of himself as a veteran finesser of the truth. Wilder always had his Watson—his writing partner Charles Brackett, then I.A.L. Diamond, with one or two others in between—each one a partner in veracity and charm through many years of making movies.

How I envy you your mind,” Holmes says to Watson at one point in Wilder’s movie, “it’s placid, imperturbable, prosaic. My mind rebels against stagnation.” And as Holmes reaches for his fix of drugs, Watson shakes his head. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” he asks.

Thoroughly,” Holmes replies, “but this will take care of it.”

Wilder is now a modern American classic: he has long been a wisecracking hero to students of the art of self-loathing. Cameron Crowe proves that the Wilder Touch is a thing in the world now, that the elegant unpleasantness of his better movies has become vastly cool in the minds of yet another generation. In the 1930s Wilder used to go to the Hotel Adlon in Berlin and dance with old ladies for money. Today, in the Potsdamerstrasse, just up the road from the Adlon, under the post-Unification glass and chrome towers and the advertising billboards, there is a brand new restaurant called Billy Wilder’s. Young couples stand in a long line at the door: all they want is American cocktails.

  1. 1

    Billy Wilder in Hollywood (Limelight, third edition, 1987).

  2. 2

    On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (Hyperion, 1998).

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