While on a plane recently I watched Billy Wilder Speaks (2006), a film by Volker Schlöndorff. My intention was to find one of the great director’s films to dedicate a post to in celebration of what would have been his 106th birthday. I am, like millions of others, a huge fan of his work. With the number of wonderful films he directed, however, it wasn’t easy choosing one. As it turned out, instead of choosing a Wilder film I decided to do a write-up on Schlöndorff’s great documentary, or on Wilder himself as presented in the film.
Billy Wilder Speaks is a fascinating look at one of cinema’s greatest directors. It is mesmerizing (for fans) to listen to the stories Wilder tells about the making of his films, filmmaking in general and tidbits about the Hollywood stars he worked with. My impression is that he was a practical man with a great sense of humor who was also very serious about his work, a fact I’m sure no one is surprised by given the quality and lasting appeal of the films he wrote and directed.
Billy Wilder had substantial success as a screenwriter for years after arriving in Hollywood from Germany but got sick of others “butchering” his screenplays so he decided to direct his own films. His feature directorial debut was in 1942 with The Major and the Minor, which stars Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland, a charming film, which was a favorite of mine as a fledgling classic film fan eons ago. By the time Billy Wilder directed this film he’d made or worked on 70 films as a screenwriter and was still “scared sh*tless” about directing his own, something he says he did as a “defense mechanism.”
While watching the documentary, listening to and watching Billy Wilder speak and tell stories of his films one is reminded of the fact genius is not complicated. Or perhaps “reminded” in the wrong word to use. After all, it’s not as if I’d necessarily be familiar enough with genius to recognize it. Better still, the film brings to mind that genius needn’t be pondered. It just is. Indescribably so. Wilder talks of film and filmmaking in its simplest form, the way he seemed to have approached it and his writing. Always bringing it all to its lowest common denominator. There need be no tricks in great filmmaking. You need only a good plot or story – a beginning, a middle and an end. And, I add, someone looking through the camera who knows how to tell a visual story. Simplicity. Plus an extraordinary knowledge of human nature. I add that too because it’s obvious to me he had an innate sense of what would make us laugh and what would make us feel. (By the way, don’t feel betrayed as you venture forth – spoilers lie ahead.)
“There are only two types of movies,” he said, “one for the audience with a simple story, nicely decorated and ornate…or a complicated story that is simply put on film. If you put too many ornaments in there, people won’t be able to follow it.” (He thought, by the way, that one audience member is an idiot. But en masse, an audience is genius.)
An example of the first of the “two types” of movies he refers to is The Lost Weekend (1945) starring Ray Milland. The simple, yet heartbreaking, story of an alcoholic – his appetites and obsessions told so that we can all understand, so that it is relatable. Wilder mentions a particular scene in the film to illustrate “simplicity nicely decorated.” The scene is when Milland’s character, Don Birnam, desperate for a drink, falls on his couch in defeat, in utter despair. He’d hidden his last bottle and can’t remember where he put it. At that moment, when he can go on no longer, he looks up and there it is, a huge shadow cast on the ceiling, in the light fixture. His lord and master from above. A simple resolution to extreme emotion. It’s really a gorgeous shot. One of the many “simple” Wilder touches in the film – an image that says so much about the plight of an addict, in this case. This is his example of a simple story (although not devoid of feeling or depth) that is nicely decorated.
An example of the second, more complex story is his 1950 masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, a film so complicated Wilder worked on the opening alone for over a year after disastrous previews. He describes the famous opening shot of Joe Gillis dead in the pool, detailing how much time and effort it took to get the perfect shot, the perfect image – what he intended – just to find it worked best by simply placing a mirror at the bottom of the pool and shooting the reflection off of that. Sunset Boulevard is replete with complex shots done simply, a complex story told so that the audience can “get it.” After all is said and done, we get it. We buy into the story of a dead man recanting how it came to be that he is floating, face down, in a pool. The saying goes that dead men tell no tales. Don’t believe it. This one tells a doozy!
As comes to light in the Volker Schlöndorff film, trivia that I find interesting, Wilder asked Gloria Swanson to audition for the part of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, something not easily done to an actress of her stature. Even though her “stature” had diminished substantially by the time the film was made, as was the case with her character in the film. The director had initially wanted Mae West for the part but she passed on the role. Ultimately, Swanson was perfect for the part, as Wilder admits, because of her style of acting. “Period acting,” as he calls it, from the silent era, a style no one else could have learned so well. Although, he admits, it was a risk. The “exaggerated” style of acting from the silent era could have easily gone over the top, become the ridiculous. As he describes it, the danger of going too far is like “a beautiful woman bordering on being ugly.”
Some other interesting mentions with regards to Sunset Boulevard: Wilder never considered asking Buster Keaton to play a role in the film, as one of Desmond’s bridge playing former star acquaintances. It was Charlie Chaplin who made the suggestion to Wilder because Keaton was a great bridge player. For the role of Joe Gillis, Wilder had Montgomery Clift in mind from the very start. Clift passed on the part only a couple of weeks prior to shooting began. His agents advised the studio that Clift felt the role would “ruin his reputation in Hollywood.” This is how an unknown contract player at Paramount would become one of Billy Wilder’s favorite actors. William Holden stepped in and made Joe Gillis his own, stating when he read the script that he “had to do it.”
Interestingly, Billy Wilder says he knew on the night of the premier of Sunset Boulevard that he had a sure-fire hit on his hands. He explains it was because the most important man in Hollywood hated the film. Louis B. Mayer came over to him full of insult about the fact that Wilder would dare portray Hollywood and the movie business in such a way, that it could lead to insanity. The nerve! Wilder quickly told Mr. Mayer off, amidst the complete shock of everyone that surrounded them, “as if I had bad-mouthed Queen Victoria.” He replied to the grandest of moguls, “I’m Billy Wilder and you can go f**k yourself.” And there you have it.
For what it’s worth, I not only think Sunset Boulevard is one of Billy Wilder’s best films but one of the greatest films ever made. Beautiful. Memorable. Disturbing. Absurd. Heartwrenching. I might add it also features one of the best endings of any film from any time, a Wilder signature. There are but a handful of films mentioned in this post and three of them have endings that rank among the best ever. This is one of them. “Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Of his experience of working with Marilyn Monroe on The Seven Year Itch Wilder said, “we never had a bad day together.” The line about the underwear in the refrigerator was hers, something she actually did, which amused him tremendously. So Wilder put it in the script and added many more jokes and innuendos about temperature. It all worked. She is great in the movie, “very sexual.”
Unfortunately, Some Like it Hot was another matter altogether. As Wilder explains, it took take after take after take with Marilyn in this film for the simplest of scenes. Rarely remembering her lines, famously late while Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon waited around in heels. Wilder makes a statement explaining the differences in the experience between this film and The Seven Year Itch, “this film was after the Kennedys,” which I found interesting. Clearly, he states, Marilyn had many more worries and troubles during this shoot. But he’s not bitter and liked her very much. In the end he admitts no one could have played the role of Sugar but her. When she got it right, she got it perfect. She had a gift, was born with the talent. She got the jokes and had great timing. She never stressed about the multiple takes. Everyone else did, but she didn’t. He “put up with it” because it was Marilyn, the star of the decade. He regretted nothing about it.
Of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot, Billy Wilder thanked God for them and comments on the fact they were so different. Even walking in to the commissary each day, he said, Lemmon would strut in “like Mae West” while Curtis would “slither in against the walls.” The shyer of the two, Curtis would have to be coaxed by Lemmon to come out of his dressing room. I never would have guessed it.
While speaking of Some Like it Hot, Billy Wilder enthusiastically reads a scene from the script of the film – the one where Daphne is playing the maracas in celebration of having been proposed to by Osgood. As he reads the repartee between Daphne and Joe (Lemmon and Curtis), Wilder’s joy is evident. Clearly, he loves this material. He is asked if he enjoyed writing it. “Yes,” he said, “it was like being a kid in a candy store.” How wonderful is that?! I thought, despite the fact he must have been asked the question a million times, seen the film, performances numerous times, written those words himself, there is still joy in what he created. How lucky.
A final, interesting commentary on Some Like it Hot. Wilder always felt that if a film was a comedy, it should start off as a comedy and remain true to the genre throughout. Conversely, if the film was a drama, start it off as a drama and maintain it, etc. Yet, for this particular film, considered his greatest comedy, he begins with a scene of a massacre. When asked why he explains, matter-of-factly, that in order to make the two stars’ ruse believable for the entire picture, it had to be a matter of life or death. The audience has to believe the gangsters would really shoot these guys. We do. George Raft is no laughing matter!
Then there’s the wonderful ending. The second favorite of mine in this group, the Wilder signature – we laugh but wonder a bit – will they or won’t they? “You don’t understand, Osgood…I’m a man. / Well, nobody’s perfect.”
On to The Apartment (1960), the 1961 Academy Award winner for Best Picture and a film for which Wilder won the Best Screenplay and Best Director Oscars (he also won both for the other Best Picture winner in his repetoir, The Lost Weekend and was nominated a total of 9 times for Director and 11 times for writing of a Screenplay). In regards to The Apartment he said of Jack Lemmon “You could ask me about him in every film and my answer would always be the same. He is a complete and professional purist. There is no actor who takes his job more seriously.” I will probably repeat that quote whenever time and topic allow. Jack Lemmon is my favorite actor. What a gift he had – he could make you laugh while breaking your heart and vice versa.
After working with Lemmon in Some Like it Hot, their first picture together, Wilder looked for material so that they could work together again. He remembered a short story about a man who had to lend his apartment to his bosses…or something like that. The wonderful, The Apartment is what we got. And here we have the third great ending in a Wilder film included in this group.
“I love you, Miss Kubelik. Did you hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you. / Shut up and deal.”
Billy Wilder never made a picture in which he was ashamed of the content, a film where he sold out. As a filmmaker he hoped to “create a story as realistic as possible, so that people find it believable. To tell (the audience) something they can take home with them. The kind of film that people see and then go to a drug store to talk about it for half an hour.” That is how he describes success. I wonder how he’d feel about us talking about his films on social media, the world over, almost on a daily basis. There is no bigger, more inclusive drugstore.
25 films bear the signature of “written and directed by Billy Wilder.” They are cinema treasures we are lucky to have to watch over and over again.