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,…

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