Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history
Category: March 29, 2009 - April 4, 2009
Photograph by Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times
Billy Wilder, Dec. 17, 1999, at Louis Stern Fine Arts in West Hollywood.
Note: I had so much fun posting a month's worth of Times stories about Raymond Chandler that I thought I'd continue the feature. Here's the first feature in a month-long look at Billy Wilder--lrh.
BILLY WILDER'S 50-YEAR ITCH IN HOLLYWOODMarch 2, 1986
By PAUL ROSENFIELD,
Billy Wilder was having trouble finding a teaspoon--in his own kitchen yet--so finally, sheepishly, he curled a finger and led a visitor to the Wilder dining room. There, Hollywood's most mischievous immigrant borrowed a spoon from the impeccably set table. That night, Audrey and Billy Wilder were entertaining for 10. ("A nice group of right-wing Democrats," joshed the host.) As Wilder swiped the spoon, he did a double take, making very sure his wife wasn't around. It's no accident that the Wilders' dinner parties are the closest thing Hollywood has to an '80s salon. (Truman Capote's chapter on Hollywood in his unfinished "Answered Prayers" was called "And Audrey Wilder Got Up To Sing." There's a reason. The former Tommy Dorsey band singer, still skinny as a hairpin sideways, still gets up to sing, but she also doubles as the town's most entertaining hostess.)
"But today," Billy Wilder complained, "I wish I was on Sam Spiegel's yacht. In Sardinia. If I wanted all this media attention, I'd have called myself Billy Windex." With that, the writer-director-producer made instant coffee, answered another call and took a seat. There was no more stalling:On Thursday, Billy Wilder is getting the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award, and that's what the shouting's about.
The irony is that for all Wilder's bravura, and credits--"Sunset Boulevard," "Stalag 17," "Sabrina," "Seven Year Itch," "Spirit of St. Louis," "Some Like It Hot" (and those are just the ones starting with S )--Wilder is still very much the loner. For years now, he and collaborator I.A.L. ("Iz") Diamond have spent five of every seven mornings (sans secretaries) at the Writers and Artists Building in Beverly Hills, working on screenplays. (Lately, though, Wilder can be found down the street at United Artists' new headquarters, where he's just signed on as a special consultant. "I'm in the kitchen cabinet, and busy," as he puts it.) So when the home phone rings, as now it must, for autographs and interview requests--Wilder wears a mock look of being put-upon.
The thing is, he doesn't mean it. Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde, as the late wit Harry Kurnitz called him, would never admit it, but he likes the attention. To be 50 years at the top is no accident. In 1944, Alfred Hitchcock said it best:"The two most important words in the motion picture business are Billy Wilder. " Hitchcock was talking about variety . To co-write "Ninotchka" for Garbo, then last long enough to be in Jerry Weintraub's kitchen cabinet at UA, is to go the distance. But unlike director-peers Hitchcock and John Huston, Wilder got the attention on his own terms, in his own private, chameleonic way. No cameo roles for him, onscreen or off.
The Wilder wit--the sweet-and-sour cocktails he delivers on command, the lines like "slipping out of wet clothes into a dry martini"--are always forthcoming. But Wilder, the man with the mind full of razor blades, is behind the scenes, never in front. Until now. (NBC will air a one-hour version of the AFI evening April 26.) One resists the temptation to ask Wilder if, like his quintessential Hollywood character Norma Desmond, he's ready for his close-up.
More to the point: What would the close-up reveal? How much of Billy Wilder is in Billy Wilder's movies? The silver-haired septuagenarian rolled up the sleeves on his gray cashmere sweater and agreed to give the question a whirl. In the '20s, after leaving Vienna to become a journalist in Berlin, in one morning he interviewed Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Arthur Schnitzler and Richard Strauss. So the question-answer process is not unfamiliar.
"Isn't it pieces of yourself, of your life, that you inevitably use?" he asked rhetorically. "You suck art out of your finger in a way." In one way or another. Wilder was a gigolo in Mexico a thousand years ago, and a Mexican gigolo (played by Charles Boyer) turned up, rather impishly, in "Hold Back the Dawn."
"Or let's take 'Sunset Boulevard,' " suggested Wilder. "Maybe you believe it when William Holden's car is repossessed. Because yes, it happened to me, it happened here in Hollywood, and it happened to work in that movie." On a more personal level, isn't Kirk Douglas' cynical reporter in "Ace in the Hole" more than a little bit of Wilder? Maybe and maybe not. "Anyone who knows me," he said slowly, "knows the cynicism hides my sentimentality." It's why Wilder's refugee-freshness about America slipped into Garbo's Russian in Paris in "Ninotchka"--or James Cagney's outsider in Berlin in "One, Two, Three." Before he was 30, Wilder had lived in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Mexico and Hollywood, and what he saw he used.
Clearly one could play 20 questions about Wilder's characters--Sefton in "Stalag 17," Don Birnam in "Lost Weekend," Walter Neff in "Double Indemnity," Linus Larrabee in "Sabrina"--but clearly he'd rather talk about the casting. Wilder is canny enough to know the public is more interested in Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart than in the types they played, and so he deftly moves a conversation from characters to stars.
"Three times in my life I almost got to work with Cary Grant," remembered Wilder with both enthusiasm and disappointment. To realize that Wilder never directed Grant or Katharine Hepburn or Spencer Tracy is to be surprised, but not after listening to Wilder's explanation. "Every movie begins with the dream casting of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Then every movie faces the reality of casting Lyle Keller and Sadie Glutz. Cary (Grant) almost did 'Ninotchka,' in the Melvyn Douglas role;imagine him opposite Garbo! The second time was 'Sabrina,' and then at the last minute it was Bogart." (Bogart as the tycoon was, in fact, such a last-minute replacement that editorial adviser Doane Harrison remembers Wilder asking him to stall a day's shooting while new Bogart dialogue was written;almost no Wilder film begins with a finished script.)
"The third one Cary almost did was 'Love in the Afternoon.' Gary Cooper played it. Not that the replacements were so bad. . . ." Wilder paused long enough that the dream pairing of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in "Love in the Afternoon" could be seen in the mind's eye. "Afternoon" was the first writing partnership of Wilder and Diamond, and it goes without saying that it must have been written with Grant in mind.
"Cary is a good friend of mine, but maybe he was scared of me, I dunno," Wilder mused. "Cooper, I think, had not as much going for him in that role. Say the name Gary Cooper, and people think of a 'High Noon' sheriff kind of guy, not a Ritz Hotel lover with Gypsy music in the background who gets into one-night stands. . . ."
The Hollywood one-night stand of all time, of course, is the one William Holden tripped into in "Sunset Boulevard." It's the film Wilder tends most often to talk about;mention it to him, and certain buttons are pressed. The quintessential movie about Hollywood, it was the last of his collaborations with writer-producer Charles Brackett--but again Wilder wants you to know the accidental nature of its having gotten made.
"Mr. Montgomery Clift changed his mind," Wilder said, shaking his head at the very idiocy of such a move. "A week, maybe 10 days before filming, Mr. Clift's New York agent sends word that maybe his client, the young actor Clift, should be gotten out of it. The feeling was that the younger man/older woman thing could actually ruin his career. (Co-star) Gloria Swanson was 50," Wilder said, making it sound like 15. "Fifty is younger than Audrey Hepburn is now. Is 50 old? I think Mr. Clift was tortured--can you imagine? Suddenly this change of heart I found very peculiar. . . ."
But "Sunset Boulevard" was an inevitability. Budd Schulberg and Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald had already fictionalized Hollywood, but nobody had made the movie. Wilder and Brackett were already in place as the happiest professional couple in Hollywood, and ready to take more risks in exposing their adopted hometown. "Kaufman and Hart could write a terrible play and close it in New Haven before Broadway," said Wilder logically, "but in Hollywood we don't bury our dead. We finish the movies we start, then we find them turning up on TV in the middle of the night. That could be one explanation for an actor's fear."
If Montgomery Clift had cold feet, co-stars Swanson, Erich von Stroheim and Cecil B. DeMille did not--and Wilder is the kind of realist who understands the Hollywood high wire. In other words, the show goes on, understudies emerge. "William Holden was a Paramount man, and he got a script at 3 p.m. on a Monday and said yes by 5. No test, no reading, and he was, you know, perfect." (In her memoir "Swanson on Swanson," the actress made the point that Holden was 31, while the character Joe Gillis was 26, and it was maybe he not she who should be "re-aged" with makeup, but the chemistry worked nevertheless.)
One Wilder trademark has been to get once-in-a-career performances from actors--Gloria Swanson, Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland--but again the director emphasizes serendipity. "It's because I know just how much was accidental. Swanson was not the first choice for Norma Desmond. As it turned out, it worked with her, and it would have collapsed without her. But Pola Negri is the one we thought of first, then we thought she hadn't really been in sound pictures. And then there was--can I tell you a story?" Wilder, with the kind of timing only actors and athletes know, then told it.
"I pitched 'Sunset Boulevard' to Mary Pickford," he said, letting the scene emerge. "I went to Pickfair, to see Mary, with a script under my arm. Imagine me walking into that house with that churchy atmosphere. And then beginning to read 'Sunset Boulevard' aloud to Mary Pickford. It hit me midway through that Mary Pickford was not going to play Norma Desmond. But what do I do? How do I get out of this one?" If you're Billy Wilder you think on your feet. "I suddenly stopped reading, and just said, 'You know, Mary, you can play anything. You really can. You can act rings around any actress. But this is not on your level. It's not up to your caliber.' . . . So you grasp what I mean about accidents."
And casting. Anyone who's seen Wilder's "Double Indemnity" can only imagine Fred MacMurray as insurance salesman Walter Neff. Yet MacMurray, too, was an accident and probably never again as good as he was under Wilder, in "Indemnity" and again in "The Apartment" 15 years later.
"Nobody wanted the part of Neff, nobody. The leading actors said, 'It will be the end of me!' Only Dick Powell said yes, but nobody else. (Co-star Barbara) Stanwyck knew from instinct how sharp the story was, and she knew not only her lines, but everybody else's lines. She's the quickest study I've ever met in my life, by the way. But I remember asking MacMurray to do it, and him saying, 'Billy, you know what I am? I'm not the actor for this. I'm a sax player.' " Was MacMurray maybe worried about the film's possible violence? Wilder practically put up his dukes at the mention. "I'd like you to compare 'Indemnity' to the other James M. Cain book, 'Postman Always Rings Twice'! No comparison. I hope I am not known as the early Austrian Sam Peckinpah! Not only do I hate filming violence, I also hate watching it in other peoples' movies! In my movies, there have only been two or three deaths, unless you count the St. Valentines Day Massacre in 'Some Like It Hot.' "
Point made, Wilder was back on the subject of MacMurray. "It's 1959 and we were all set to go with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine on 'The Apartment.' With Paul Douglas as the boss who's been having an affair with the elevator girl. Again, last-minute casting changes, and Paul Douglas was out. Again I'm on the phone, what is this, 15 years later, to Fred MacMurray. Again he says, 'No, Billy.' He had, at that time, a two-or-three year deal with Disney, because he was doing the 'Absent-Minded Professor' things. So he says, 'Billy, how can I play a family man from Long Island who has an affair with an elevator operator? Disney would get mad! I mean, Billy, are you crazy?"
Like a fox. "The Apartment" left Wilder with the triple crown of Oscars (for writing and directing and producing) in one night. (He has 20 nominations and 6 Oscars.) The other afternoon, he rankled at the label "dirty fairy tale" attached to "The Apartment." The notion being that C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) gets corporately ahead by offering his bachelor pad to executives for after-hours affairs. "I don't understand that 'dirty fairy tale' thing," scowled Wilder. "The character tries to have a nice little career for himself, and he doesn't go after the arrangement--he gets asked for the use of the apartment. So he gets a little promotion? So?
"My father told me once, nobody's an alchemist," added Wilder with a wink. "But if I was, I'd make a thriller. There was never one kind of picture I made. I went from 'Witness for the Prosecution' to 'One, Two, Three.' Mr. Hitchcock, he made only thrillers, and magnificently. But you know what a thriller is to me? It's the movie where the boss chases the secretary around the desk. . . . That's a thriller--and that's alchemy!"
||What appears to be an authentic Deusenberg 8 radiator emblem has been listed on EBay. Bidding starts at $49.99.|
Drinking MenA kindly barkeep named Al, who minds bottles in a downtown snake pit, shut off the juice the other day to an old friend named Mike. In so doing, he deplored Mike's disheveled condition and the evils of drink and said a few nice things about sobriety.
Mike listened impatiently, breaking in, as chided drunks do, with "yeh, yeh, yeh." Then Al made a mistake. Carried away with his own eloquence, he said he was not a drinking man.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Mike Asked.
Al couldn't think what it was, but Mike did. He recalled the time years before when Al had come home drunk and passed out and his wife had undressed him, put him to bed and hidden his clothes.
AWAKENING hours later, suffering horribly, Al had discovered he was locked in the room, his clothes were gone and his wife was at work.
Desperate, he got into one of her dresses, put on one of her hats and climbed out the window. He made it, shoeless, to a Temple Street bar where he gulped a quick restorative and procured a bottle, amid nasty comments from patrons, including Mike, about his lack of foundation garments.
"That was a long time ago," Al said. "You can't shame me." And he remained resolute in his refusal to pour one.
REMEMBER the item here about the gal who got a jaywalking ticket and wondered if they'd take away her pedestrian privileges if she received five in a year? Well, she got another one and is worried. However, the way Frank E. Marlow hears it, they won't revoke your right to walk, they just take away your shoes.
The news from Tibet
Gives us reason once more to
Be glad Russia and China
Aren't what we're next door to
POSSIBLY there's some atavistic (where else can you get words like that for a dime?) meaning in it, Sparks Stringer doesn't know. All he knows is thatSibu, his long-legged acrobatic Burmese cat, disapproves of giklo , the mathematical equation for Einstein's unified field theory, which he has framed and hanging on his wall. For no apparent reason,Sibu keeps jumping at it and has brought it down three times, once breaking the glass.
FURTHER EVIDENCE that things may be unraveling before our very eyes comes from Tom Kennedy, a pressman. On his lunch break he was soaking up the sunshine with some fellow workers near the 2nd Street entrance to this building when an elderly gentleman in a wrinkled suit stopped and asked if he might have a section of the paper Tom had been reading.
When Tom gave it to him he wrapped it around a book and said, "I wouldn't want to be caught carrying a book. Someone might accuse me of being an intellectual. It's a high crime these days, you know."
AT RANDOM -- There was a nice gesture at 7th and Olive on Good Friday. A bus pulled up behind a stalled car and not only the driver but several passengers got out and pushed ... And the Biltmore Coffee Shop menu Saturday listed "Fried San Fernando Easter Rabbit with Country Gravy, $2" ... Bob Boethals, writing in Westward, reveals that Charles Schulz, 36, creator of "Peanuts," now appearing in 380 papers, once flunked all his high school courses ... It's incidental, by the way that Charles Brown, the key character, is also the name of a Hit Parade tune ... GordonMacker , Santa Monica Independent columnist, a candidate for City Council there ... Sudden irrelevant thought: Do you suppose someone will write a song sometime with the title "I Disapprove of You"?
Deep in the Heart of You Know WhereMention Texas to me and I get misty-eyed.
Call me a sentimental slob if you must, but the word stirs images of Davy Crockett and the Alamo, and rawboned giants carving out an empire, and tall blonds inNeiman -Marcus furs. And Texas Rangers. And Texas justice. Swift and sure, but always just. The good guy always wins. The bad guy always ends up choking on a mouthful of dust.
But perhaps I've just been brainwashed. Or maybe Texas ain't Texas any more.
The plain facts are that stalwart lawmen astride noble steeds don't patrol the range these days. They've given way in part, at least, to money-hungry minions who prey on motoring tourists.
And before I'm invited to be guest of honor at a necktie party, let me explain that this isn't my conclusion.
It belongs to James F. Hamilton, a Los Angeles graphic arts executive and member of the motoring public.
And his experience with modern Texas "justice" deserves exposure, if only as a warning to others who consider traveling by car through the Lone Star state.
Mr. Hamilton told me his story yesterday.
He and his wife had just returned from a trip through Central America in what he calls his "camping vehicle," a converted Army truck. People south of the border, he assured me, had greeted him and Mrs. Hamilton with open arms.
"They were very hospitable," he said. "But despite that fact, we were congratulating ourselves on being back in our own country -- saying it right out loud -- when it happened."
"When what happened?" I prompted.
"It was right outside El Paso," he continued. "This guy with a siren on his car, a deputy sheriff, pulled me over. He told me my California license plates had expired.
"I admitted the charge and explained that I sent a check to Sacramento for the plates before we left on the trip. But I told him I was in the wrong and I'd accept a ticket gladly.
"He said that wouldn't do. That I would have to appear before a judge, who, conveniently, was located less than 200 feet away."
Mr. Hamilton was ordered to back his vehicle a short distance to reach a dilapidated shack, a Texas "court."
Once inside, Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton waited while the judge was summoned. He turned out to be a fragrant old-timer, disheveled and unshaven. A real Roy Bean.
The victim was apprised again of his offense, then notified that the court had decided to be lenient. The fine would be $1.
Getting the Business
However, added the justice of the peace, court costs would amount to $19.50.
Mr. Hamilton sputtered, but, at his wife's insistence, pulled out a $20 Travelers check.
"I don't have the 50 cents," he explained.
"Oh, that's all right," the deputy interjected. "I'll just make it up out of my own pocket."
The story isn't new. Until the very recent past, such kangaroo courts were a common threat to the motoring public.
They've been stamped out in many parts of the country. Fortunately, California is one of those parts.
But, apparently, they still exist in Texas.
Which is kind of sad.
I'd much rather remember the Alamo.
A historic passion
* Author Judith Freeman researched Raymond Chandler's marriage.November 7, 2007
By Graham Fuller, Special to The Times
Twenty years ago, Judith Freeman became "obsessed," as she puts it, with Raymond Chandler, whose novels featuring the private detective Philip Marlowe still make up the most iconic literary portrait of Los Angeles. When, in 2003, Freeman began writing "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved," she found herself on a quest leading in many different directions.
The author of a short-story collection and four novels, Freeman was raised in Utah. She had moved to Los Angeles in the late '70s and was living in one of Chandler's old neighborhoods when she began reading his letters. She became captivated by Chandler's wife Cissy. A fey, ethereally beautiful sophisticate with a past as a nude model in New York, Cissy was living with her second husband on South Vendome when she and Chandler met around 1913. Their affair began after he'd returned from the Great War, and they married in 1924. At the time, Chandler was 35 and thought his bride was 43. Only gradually did he learn she was 18 years his senior.
It was the absence of information in Chandler's letters and Frank McShane's 1976 biography that made Cissy an enigma in Freeman's eyes and prompted her decision to "possibly bring her to life." As she tried to fathom the nature of the Chandlers' 30-year marriage -- which incorporated elements of courtly love and withstood his alcoholism, philandering, and her long decline into invalidism -- she was confronted with the couple's itinerant lifestyle.
They changed addresses over 30 times in Los Angeles and Southern California. They lived downtown and in Hollywood, in Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, San Bernardino, Monrovia, Idyllwild and Cathedral City, in the mountains and the desert, sometimes changing residences twice a year. They were as restless as an alley cat on a velvet cushion.
Why they couldn't stay put is a mystery that might have baffled Marlowe, at least temporarily. Without donning a trench coat, Freeman had a crack at solving it.
"I think Ray was constantly searching," she said, "but they also liked this idea of mobility, the fact that you could get a new car and go to Big Bear for the summers, to the desert for the winters, and if, you didn't like it, to Santa Monica or Arcadia, Brentwood or Silver Lake. This possibility was introduced not just by the automobile, but by their sense of general detachment from any kind of past family."
Asked if she feels there was a neurotic element in the Chandlers' nomadism, Freeman said "there is something deeply unsettled about it. In A.A. meetings they use the term 'going geographic' of an alcoholic personality to describe that idea of constantly moving, running, probably trying to escape and find at the same time."
"I don't know if Chandler was running from something," said David Thomson, who wrote a monograph on Howard Hawks' film of Chandler's "The Big Sleep." "Maybe he was a kind of hotel writer -- a little like Nabokov -- in that he never had much need to be 'at home.' He had a hero who seems to live in a very plain room and waits to be invited out by fate. I think of him as someone who found his dream and so inhabited it as much as he could."
The Chandlers nearly parted in 1932 when Ray's persistent drunkenness and workplace affairs cost him his executive job at Dabney Oil.
"This was the major disruption in his life," said Alain Silver, the co-author of "Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles." "His peripatetic lifestyle became more urgent. The simplest reason he was constantly moving was that the rent would go up. By the time he could support himself and Cissy with his writing, the moving had become a habit. It maintained the displacement he'd known as a youth." He and his mother had been abandoned by his father when he was 7.
The marriage was threatened again when Chandler was lured to Hollywood in 1943 to write "Double Indemnity" with Billy Wilder. But over the long course, Freeman said, husband and wife sustained each other. Freeman says Chandler was "very conscious" of his knightly code. "I think it was forcibly instilled in him at Dulwich College in England. Then Cissy gave him the wonderfully strange nickname of Gallibeoth" -- redolent of Galahad-- "when they were still having an affair. This was a persona he adopted and that she completely embraced and reaffirmed, 12 years before he wrote his first short story. She became the enabler of his vision of the private eye who functions as a rescuer of humanity."
Freeman asserts that Cissy provided Chandler with a haven from the corruption, vice and brutality he considered endemic to Los Angeles -- and which fueled his finest writing. "They created this little island of civility within this wacky crackpot capital of the world, as Chandler called it. I think he must have been seduced by the city at first, but by the time he got through the studio system he was sick of it.
"There was a kind of banal quality to life that he detested, a lowbrow feeling, and he wanted to get out, and they did. But then, of course, he began to hate the place he found himself in, La Jolla, because of its Cadillac-and-chauffeur atmosphere. Like every other place he had run to, it wasn't going to be the answer to anything, and he began to regret that he ever left L.A."
Freeman visited all of the Chandlers' homes that were still standing. Particularly moving are her descriptions of Ray's study and Cissy's bedroom in their ocean-side house in La Jolla, where they lived from 1946 to 1954, when Cissy died.
It was there he wrote "The Long Goodbye," in which Marlowe's isolation, echoing Chandler's, becomes palpable. He rejects the humdrum existence of his hometown, Santa Rosa, and the decadence of the gated community in "Idle Valley." "I'll take the big sordid dirty crooked city," he says. "A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness."
Freeman's passion for her material can be off-putting for some. Ben Tarnoff in the San Francisco Chronicle writes that she "spends too much time reflecting on her own encounter with the material to offer a vivid portrait of the Chandlers' life together." But Richard Rayner, writing in The Times, sees her quest as more poignant, making the book "ache with emotion and loneliness -- her loneliness and Chandler's, the loneliness of following a trail, of a marriage, of writing itself."
Chandler died of pneumonia, brought on by his drinking, in La Jolla in 1959. A wanderer to the end, he spent his last years seemingly looking for another Cissy to protect -- and to protect him.
"Their marriage gave him meaning and kept him together," Freeman said. "He romanticized it as almost perfect. But I do think they were happy."
Note: To mark the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler's death, the Daily Mirror is revisiting some of The Times' stories about his life and influence. We invite the Daily Mirror's readers to share their thoughts.
Christine Jorgensen and Howard J. Knox attempted to get married, but could not obtain a license.