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Second Takes -- Billy Wilder

April 1, 2009 | 10:00 am

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.


March 2, 1986


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!"