True Wit

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
BILLY WILDER (BORN SAMUEL WILDER ON JUNE 22, 1906) started writing film scenarios in Berlin in 1929. Five decades later he was still at it, an undisputed master of the medium. In the U.S. alone, he wrote and directed 25 films, winning six Academy Awards along the way. Wilder masterpieces like Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Some Like It Hot and The Apartment demonstrate a filmmaking gift that transcends genre. Add screenwriting work on classics like Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka and Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire, coupled with possession of the sharpest wit in Hollywood, and it's easy to see why the man -- make that the god -- is so attractive to biographers.

Among my books, I count seven on the subject of Billy Wilder. Ed Sikov's On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder makes it eight. Wilderphiles can also savor the wonderful 1983 documentary/interview of Wilder by Annie Tresgot and Michel Ciment, and at least point to the existence of an untranslated German tome, Closeup of Billy Wilder, by Hellmuth Karasek, with a companion film shot by Volker Schlondorff. This heap of pre-existing material, of course, begs the question: Do we really need a new 675-page critical biography of this Hollywood legend?

Kevin Lally's 1996 Wilder Times, written with Wilder's cooperation, did a very good job of examining the man and his movies. Ditto Maurice Zolotow's 1987 Billy Wilder in Hollywood, also done with Wilder's participation. In the preface to the new book, Sikov confesses that Wilder declined his repeated requests for "meetings, lunches and tours of art galleries." His work thus had to proceed in an unauthorized capacity. And that's just one of the reasons Sikov's book is so damn good.

The inherent problem in writing about a larger-than-life personage such as Billy Wilder is to find one's way behind the legend. Wilder is a consummate storyteller. He's a genius at it. And this makes the biographer's job nearly impossible (especially if he has a relationship with his subject). How can one resist the seduction of a Billy Wilder story about Billy Wilder? It will build, it will have three acts, and it will have a hilarious payoff. But Sikov appears to have solved the mystery. His solution? Research.

Sikov doesn't just regurgitate famous anecdotes. He digs. For example, both Zolotow and Lally relate how, as a reporter in Vienna, Wilder had, in the course of a single day, to interview composer Richard Strauss, playwright Arthur Schnitzler and psychiatrists Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud. Sikov, however, unearths a 1990 letter to Andreas Hutter wherein Wilder admits that the interviews didn't, in fact, take place on the same day. It's a small detail, obviously, but Sikov's book is rich in them -- and much the better for it. Again and again, Sikov sets the record straight.

Do these revelations deflate Wilder's mythic stature? Hell no. This book is so rife with Wilder's wit and iconoclasm that his Olympian stature is actually enhanced. What's more, Sikov's detective instincts lead to altogether new revelations, such as that long before Andrew Lloyd Webber began caterwauling his way to megastardom, Stephen Sondheim had contemplated a musical based on Sunset Blvd. If only.

ON SUNSET BOULEVARD ALSO PROVIDES INSIGHTS into Wilder's filmography that are not otherwise self-evident. We learn, for example, how Wilder, being the younger, consistently received less money for writing than his longtime collaborator Charles Brackett, whereas in his other major writing "marriage," with screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder took on the role of senior partner. This alpha-male hierarchization figured appreciably in the output: While the work with Brackett, who had preceded Robert Benchley as the drama critic for The New Yorker, had a screwball sophistication (Midnight, The Major and the Minor), with Diamond (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) Wilder didn't have to muzzle his acidic wit or his more risqué impulses.

On Sunset Boulevard also reminds us of just how provocative Wilder's work was in its time. Sikov enumerates endless battles with censors over films as diverse as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Stalag 17. Even The Emperor Waltz -- an innocuous 1948 Bing Crosby comedy -- came under fire. The pugilist Wilder was forever testing Hollywood's standards of "decency," and in light of his ongoing problems with the Hayes Office and its successors, Wilder's penchant for starting production without a finished screenplay takes on new significance. (In other words, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.)

Wilder's clever, innuendo-laden aesthetic was obviously influenced to a great extent by director Ernst Lubitsch. As Wilder observed: "Ernst Lubitsch could do more with a closed door than most directors today could do with an open fly." And Wilder films like Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon are clearly paeans to that most perfect of masters. But in addition to this oft-cited influence, Sikov suggests that Wilder's style was also much beholden to the hard-bitten, unblinking realism found in Erich von Stroheim's work -- for example, von Stroheim's fascination with the Zasu Pitts character in Greed finds its echo in Wilder's own morbid attraction to the Gloria Swanson character in Sunset Blvd. Both directors relish the perversity inherent in human psychology.

My one bone of contention with Sikov is his frequent citing of Wilder's alleged misogyny. Please. Yes, Wilder has created his fair share of loathsome female characters. But they are certainly no more vile than the men who populate Wilder's world. Kirk Douglas' ruthless reporter in Ace in the Hole? Dean Martin's always-on-the-make Las Vegas singer in Kiss Me, Stupid? Wilder's skepticism for the wiles of humankind goes beyond misogyny. Commenting on a childhood spent in and around the family-owned Hotel City in Kraków, Wilder said, "I learned many things about human nature [there] . . . none of them favorable." His films, more frequently than not, are a ledger of that ongoing lesson.

That said, Sikov has penned a compelling and authoritative portrait of the man he believes to be "America's greatest writer-director." No argument from this quarter. On Sunset Boulevard is testament to the fact that gods do indeed walk the earth. Even in Hollywood.

ON SUNSET BOULEVARD: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder | By ED SIKOV | Hyperion | 675 pages $35 hardcover


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