MEMO TO: Billy Wilder
FROM: Peter Bart
SINCE YOU’RE ABOUT TO CELEBRATE your 90th birthday, Billy, I just wanted to tell you I wish there was a way of turning back the clock some 60 years. What a great shot in the arm it would be for Hollywood if a youthful Billy Wilder hit town armed with your talent and mean-spirited wit.
You and I both know, Billy, that Hollywood has no sense of its past. Even now some young agent is probably asking a colleague, “Who’s Billy Wilder — was he the old guy who made the first ‘Sabrina’?” That’s what it has come to — Hollywood is recycling your old stories without even knowing their source and, to add insult to injury, they’re choosing the wrong movies. Having messed up “Sabrina,” there’s talk now of remaking “Love in the Afternoon,” which would be anequally bad idea, and we all know what happened to “Sunset Boulevard.” If the studios want to plunder the Billy Wilder library, how about picking “One, Two, Three” or “Ace in the Hole,” or even that classic “The Apartment,” all of which embody attitudes and storylines that seem even more pertinent today.
THAT’S WHY, RATHER THAN TRY TO remake Wilder, I wish we could simply reinvent you. I’ve been reading a new biography called “Wilder Times” by Kevin Lally, Billy, and it reminded me that, back in the ’40s and ’50s when you were doing your best work, you managed somehow to give Hollywood an entirely different presence. It was you and your fellow filmmakers, like Alfred Hitchcock, who were creating the “buzz” in town, not the agents or studio functionaries. People were quoting your witticisms, not some CAA deal memo.
Your salon was the social hub, as well, as guests listened in fascination to Marlene Dietrich’s stories of her Berlin days and her affairs with both men and women.
A vivid dinner guest, Dietrich could also be tough to handle on the set. You fought fiercely during the making of “Witness for the Prosecution,” Lally informs us, with the actress claiming that you threw all the good lines at her co-star, Charles Laughton. You freely admitted your unstinting admiration of Laughton, Billy, even praising his obsessive preparation. “You can tell how good an actor is by looking at his script,” you once observed. “If he’s no good, the script will be neat as a pin. Charles Laughton’s was so filthy it looked like a herring had been wrapped in it.”
Your achievements seem all the more remarkable, Billy, when one considers that you arrived in the U.S. in 1934 with no money, no connections and a rather marginal grasp of the language. Surely it was your sense of being the outsider that drove you to push the boundaries of moviemaking.
It took an outsider’s defiance to build a comedy around a guilt-free French hooker, as in “Irma La Douce,” or to invent a farce about the anal corporate mentality, like “The Apartment,” or even to make a corrupt American army captain the ostensible hero of “A Foreign Affair.” Even when you put aside parody and farce, who else would have had the guts to make a serious movie about a drunk, as in “The Lost Weekend.”
HOLLYWOOD HEAPED REWARDS upon you when your films made money — three Oscars alone in 1961. Your gallows humor began to get you in trouble as ’50s America grew affluent and numb. “Kiss Me, Stupid” was a sort of Restoration comedy that dared to advance the notion that a little adultery might be good for a marriage, but it stirred anger rather than accolades.
Oddly enough, even that film holds up pretty well today, though in retrospect , when Peter Sellers suffered his heart attack four weeks into the shoot, you probably should have abandoned the project rather than stick in a badly miscast Ray Walston. A Peter Sellers farce needs Peter Sellers.
What all that taught you, however, was that edgy movies about adultery, politics, prostitution and corporate hypocrisy were no longer the flavor of theday. Having been an outsider to start, Billy, you seemed to adapt remarkably well to yet again assuming that status. You continued to hurl barbs at the power structure: “The entire movie industry is in intensive care,” you once said.
YOU PATIENTLY EXPLAINED to those who asked that you weren’t interested in directing movies about kids or cops, protesting, “I can’t shoot car crashes.” The time will inevitably come, you explained, when studios will show interest yet again in the content of a picture, in the exploration of character. You’re still waiting.
I came upon you during your brief tenure as a consultant to United Artists in 1986. Jerry Weintraub, then chief of UA, had brought you in to view finished cuts and advise on improving them. After seeing his first picture, you told Weintraub, “This picture is a big pile of shit. Perhaps I could tell you how to make it into a smaller pile, but it will still be shit.” You and Weintraub soon parted company.
More recently, I came upon you at the Los Angeles opening of the musical version of “Sunset Boulevard,” when you were holding court for Nancy Reagan and other socialites. Everyone was being very civil and polite until one woman asked you, “Billy, why does the show open with this … this monkey?”
The Billy Wilder of old immediately took hold. “Don’t you understand, the Glenn Close character was fucking the monkey before Joe Gillis came along? That’s the story.” Nancy Reagan looked like she was about to pass out, while the other socialites managed a forced laugh. You quickly turned your attention to other guests. That incident reminded me that we still need you, Billy, we need you more than ever. I realize you are content to stay home with your Picassos, Matisses and Renoirs, but I wish you were back behind the camera.
In his book, Lally tells about the time you were stopped outside Spago by a young autograph hound who handed you a pen and demanded you sign three times.
“Why three?” you asked.
“Because with three Wilders I can trade for one Spielberg,” the kid responded.
Well, Billy, I think Steven would join me in saying that the fair trade would still be one-for-one.