Billy Wilder provided twinkle for Hollywood

April 02, 2002|By Michael Olesker

WE WENT TO the Charles Theatre to see Kissing Jessica Stein, a movie about a young woman who can't find a decent man and so attempts romance with the only gender that's left. The story was pretty good. But it was no Billy Wilder.

When Wilder crossed genders in Some Like It Hot, he created not just a comedy about sexual confusion but a literate movie with adult sensibilities just below the surface. "Well, nobody's perfect," Joe E. Brown declares to Jack Lemmon in the famous closing line when he's told Lemmon's a guy. The heart insists on wanting what it wants.

I interviewed Wilder three decades ago. I was living in London and reviewing movies for a small newspaper there, and Wilder was already the legend behind Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17 and The Apartment and so many other classics that you want to put exclamation points behind the titles.

"I hate being taken too seriously," he said back then.

But, in a time of rampant juvenility in American movies, naturally that's just what everybody had to do when Wilder, at 95, died the other day. Even when he was funny, he kept slipping in cynical little truths beneath the sound of our laughter.

We should have paid more attention. In a culture that values film as the great story-telling mechanism of our time, the movies have gotten watered down by consultants, by focus groups and by fears that the money men bankrolling the project won't approve.

When I talked with Wilder in the winter of 1969, on a rainy day in London, he was already gloomily peering into the future.

"The studios are all being taken over by conglomerates making bicycles and Chinese firecrackers," he said. "We used to have movies made by people who loved making movies. Now we have movies made by people who love balancing checkbooks. They hover around a shot, and they tell you, `Well, I don't think that scene was played right.' This, from men who spent their lives as accountants."

He'd come to London for a project on Sherlock Holmes. Having grown up in Vienna and fled to America just before the Nazis swept across Europe, Wilder had insights into audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. He understood what worked, and what didn't -- and it worried him.

"I'll tell you about clouds," he said. He saw them as a metaphor for impatience. He was a little gnome of a man with a thick Austrian accent. "I'd like to open a movie with nothing but clouds. And European audiences would appreciate the clouds for the sheer beauty and grace.

"But with American audiences, the clouds aren't enough. American audiences want to see a plane in those clouds -- and, in seconds, I've got to blow up that plane."

We have short attention spans and no feel for subtlety. We live in a sound-bite culture, now reduced to an average of seven seconds on the TV evening news. If the sound-bite's boring, we hit the remote control. Wilder saw such a thing coming years ago. Movies would be made for those who imagined a car chase told us something about human nature.

He dealt in small truths that went against the grain. He could have ended The Apartment with Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine falling in love. But love's not easy. They start to play cards. Lemmon turns to MacLaine. "Miss Kubelik," he says, "I love you."

"Shut up and deal," she says.

We leave the theater thinking they've finally got a shot -- but also knowing the odds are long against any two people finding true love.

Wilder said he had "a talent for never looking back at my old pictures. Once it's over, I'm bored with it." But he held onto memories of those with whom he'd worked.

Of Marilyn Monroe, he said: "When we shot Some Like It Hot, you couldn't rely on her knowing her lines. She had a crazy, instinctive genius, but a series of mental blocks. When she remembered, she could light up the neighborhood for miles.

"But, I've got Mr. Tony Curtis and Mr. Jack Lemmon standing there with broken ankles from high heels, and it's the 47th take because Marilyn can't remember her lines. And I'm trying to keep her calm. I say, `Marilyn, don't worry.' And she says, `Worry about what?'"

Directors, he said, "must be part policeman, midwife, psychologist, sycophant and bastard. It's not necessary for them to know how to write. But they should know how to read -- to know what a scene is all about. And they don't. And so you have people who can't read, directing actors who don't know the words."

He mentioned a script he had written, in which one gangster tells another, "You have to kill this guy." The second gangster, suffering an attack of morality, says, "I can't do it." The first guy, sneering, says, "What's the matter? Scruples?'"

The problem, as Wilder related it, was that the final line was read this way: "What's the matter, Scruples?" The actor thought Scruples was his name, not his affliction.

Wilder's eyes twinkled as he told the story. It was a twinkle so brilliant you could see it in the darkness of a theater.

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