Issue 138, Spring 1996
Billy Wilder, one of American cinema’s premiere writer-directors, has always maintained that movies are “authored,” and has always felt that much of a film’s direction ideally should take place in the writing. Like many of the medium’s great filmmakers, Wilder began his career as a writer, yet he is unique in the extent of his involvement in the development of the material he has directed. Indeed, he has cowritten all twenty-four of his films.
Samuel “Billy” Wilder was born June 22, 1906 in Vienna, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After years as a reporter—highlighted by a single day during which he interviewed Richard Straus, Arthur Schnitzler, Alfred Adler, and Sigmund Freud—Wilder gravitated to Berlin. There he worked as a crime reporter, drama critic, and (so he claims) gigolo, before he began to produce scenarios for the booming German film industry, finally writing over two hundred, including the notable precursor of neorealism, People on Sunday (1929). Wilder, driven by Hitler’s ascendancy, left Berlin; his mother, grandmother, and stepfather, who stayed in Vienna, perished later in the Holocaust. He arrived in Hollywood, with only a temporary visa and almost no English, to share a room and a can of soup a day with the actor Peter Lorre. Later he upgraded his quarters to a vestibule near the woman’s restroom at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard.
Wilder began his American career at a moment when studios had begun to let some screenwriters direct their own scripts—or, as one film executive said, let the lunatics take over the asylum—a phenomenon that sparked the careers of a number of remarkable writer-directors (Preston Sturges, John Huston, Joseph Mankiewicz). At the time, Ernst Lubitsch, an émigré from the earlier, silent, period, was head of production at Paramount, where Wilder first flourished, the only time a filmmaker has been in charge of a major studio.
As a contract writer at Paramount, Wilder cowrote a number of films with Charles Brackett, among them Ball of Fire, directed by Howard Hawks, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Ninotchka, both directed by Lubitsch. Although he credits the experience of working with Lubitsch for teaching him much of what he knew about film, Wilder grew increasingly exasperated by the misinterpretation of his work by lesser filmmakers. He resolved to become a director himself.
Wilder’s films show an extraordinary range, from film noir to screwball comedy. Although he claims that as a director he aspired to an unobtrusive style of shooting, all his films, nonetheless are marked by a singular vision—elegant dramatization of character through action, distinctive dialogue, and a sour/sweet, or even misanthropic, view of humanity—qualities that stem, for the most part, from the writing. Wilder’s credits as a director and cowriter include Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, The Lost Weekend, Some Like it Hot, and The Apartment. Four films directed and cowritten by Wilder have been selected by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for recognition and preservation. Only director John Ford, with five, has more.
The office where he goes every weekday is a simple suite on the second floor of a low-rise office building. On the wall across from his desk, in gilt letters eight inches high is the question how would lubitsch do it? A day bed, like an analyst’s couch, is set against one wall. The opposite wall is decorated with personal photos, including a number of him with some of cinema’s other great writer-directors—John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini. Wilder points out a Polaroid collage depicting a paper-strewn desk—“David Hockney’s portrait of my office”—and then, with mercurial amusement, a number of his own creations: a goofy series of plaster casts of a bust of Nefertiti, each painted and decorated with the distinctive features of a number of cultural figures—a Groucho Nefertiti, an Einstein Nefertiti, a Little Tramp Nefertiti. Wilder mentions with some pride the “one-man show” of these figurines that had been presented at a gallery nearby.
Asked about his noted art collection, Wilder says, “I didn’t get rich as a director, I got rich selling art. Thirty-four million dollars to be exact, when it went on sale at Christie’s.” When asked for tips on collecting he says, “Sure, don’t collect. Buy what you like, hold onto it, enjoy it.” Later he would offer a number of other get-rich tips: “Back some pornographic films and then, as a hedge to balance your investment should family values rise, buy stock in Disney.” Also, “Bet consistently against the Los Angeles Rams.”
A restless man, taller than expected, Wilder wears large black-framed glasses, and conducts himself with the air of a benevolent, even exuberant, dictator. When firmly settled in a large chair behind his desk, he says, “Now, you wanted to ask me a question.”
You’re known as a writer and director for your sharp eye. Could that have anything to do with your sense of yourself as an outsider?
Everything was new to me when I arrived in America, so I looked closely. I had arrived in the country on a six-month visitor’s visa, and I had great difficulty obtaining an immigration visa that would allow me to stay on. Also, the status of my English was rather poor. I couldn’t rearrange the furniture in my mouth—the tonsils, the curved palate. I’ve never lost my accent. Ernst Lubitsch, who came in 1922, had a much heavier accent than mine, as did Otto Preminger. Children can get the pronunciation in a few weeks, but English is a tough language because there are so many letters in words that are totally useless. Though and through. And tough!
Coming to the American movie industry at a time when many distinguished German directors were working, did you feel part of a special group?
There were some excellent German directors, led by Mr. Lubitsch, but I simply met him and shook his hand; he had no interest in me when I arrived. In fact, he was very reluctant to give jobs to Germans; it was only four years later that he hired me. I had written some pictures in Germany, usually working alone. But when I came here I had to have a collaborator on account of my unsteady English and my knowledge of only about three hundred words. Later I found that if I had a good collaborator it was very pleasant to talk to somebody and not come into an empty office. The head of the writers’ department at Paramount had the good idea to pair me with Charles Brackett, a distinguished man from the East, who had gone to Harvard Law School and was about fifteen years older than I. I liked working with him. He was a very good man. He was a member of the Algonquin round table. He had been the movie critic or theater critic on The New Yorker in the beginning, the twenties.
One day, Brackett and I were called in to see Lubitsch. He told us he was thinking vaguely about doing an adaptation of a French play about a millionaire—a very straightforward law-abiding guy, who would never have an affair with a woman unless he was married to her. So he married seven times!
That would be Gary Cooper. Claudette Colbert was to be the woman who was in love with him, who’d insist “I’ll marry you, but only to be the final wife.” As the meeting was being adjourned, I said, I have a meet-cute for your story. (A “meet-cute” was a staple of romantic comedies back then, where boy meets girl in a particular way, and sparks fly.) Let’s say your millionaire is an American who is very stingy. He goes to a department store in Nice on the French Riviera where he wants to buy a pajama top, but just the top, because he never wears the pants. She has come to the same counter to buy pajamas for her father, who as it happens only wears the pants. That broke the ice, and we were put to work on that picture, which became Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.
Lubitsch, of course, would always find a way to make something better. He put another twist on that meeting. Brackett and I were at Lubitsch’s house working, when during a break he emerged from the bathroom and said, What if when Gary Cooper comes in to the store to buy the pajama top, the salesman gets the floor manager, and Cooper again explains he only wants to buy the top. The floor manager says, Absolutely not, but when he sees Cooper will not be stopped, the floor manager says, Maybe I could talk to the store manager. The store manager says, That’s unheard of! but ends up calling the department store’s owner, whom he disturbs in bed. We see the owner in a close shot go to get the phone. He says, It’s an outrage! And as the owner goes back to his bed you see that he doesn’t wear pajama pants either.
When you first met Lubitsch over lunch, did you think of that meet-cute on the spot?
No, I already had that. I had been hoping to use it for something, and when he told us the story of the picture I saw how it might fit. I had dozens of meet-cutes. Whenever I thought of one I’d put it in a little notebook. Back then they were de rigeur, a staple of screwball comedies. Every comedy writer was working on his meet-cutes; but of course we don’t do that anymore. Later, I did a version of the meet-cute for The Apartment, where Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, who when they see each other every day have this little routine together. And in Sabrina, where she reappears and the younger Larrabee, William Holden, doesn’t recognize her—him not recognizing her becomes a kind of meet-cute. When Sydney Pollack was remaking that movie, I told him they should make the Larrabee family’s company a bankrupt company, and Sabrina’s competition for the younger Larrabee the daughter of a Japanese prospective-buyer.
You have a gold-framed legend on the wall across from your desk. How Would Lubitsch do it?
When I would write a romantic comedy along the Lubitschian line, if I got stopped in the middle of a scene, I’d think, How would Lubitsch do it?
Well, how did he do it?
One example I can give you of Lubitsch’s thinking was in Ninotchka, a romantic comedy that Brackett and I wrote for him. Ninotchka was to be a really straight Leninist, a strong and immovable Russian commissar, and we were wondering how we could dramatize that she, without wanting to, was falling in love. How could we do it? Charles Brackett and I wrote twenty pages, thirty pages, forty pages! All very laboriously.
Lubitsch didn’t like what we’d done, didn’t like it at all. So he called us in to have another conference at his house. We talked about it, but of course we were still, well . . . blocked. In any case, Lubitsch excused himself to go to the bathroom, and when he came back into the living room he announced, Boys, I’ve got it.
It’s funny, but we noticed that whenever he came up with an idea, I mean a really greatidea, it was after he came out of the can. I started to suspect that he had a little ghostwriter in the bowl of the toilet there.
I’ve got the answer, he said. It’s the hat.
The hat? No, what do you mean the hat?
He explained that when Ninotchka arrives in Paris the porter is about to carry her things from the train. She asks, Why would you want to carry these? Aren’t you ashamed? He says, It depends on the tip. She says, You should be ashamed. It’s undignified for a man to carry someone else’s things. I’ll carry them myself.
At the Ritz Hotel, where the three other commissars are staying, there’s a long corridor of windows showing various objects. Just windows, no store. She passes one window with three crazy hats. She stops in front of it and says, “That is ludicrous. How can a civilization of people that put things like that on their head survive?” Later she plans to see the sights of Paris—the Louvre, the Alexandre III Bridge, the Place de la Concorde. Instead she’ll visit the electricity works, the factories, gathering practical things they can put to use back in Moscow. On the way out of the hotel she passes that window again with the three crazy hats.
Now the story starts to develop between Ninotchka, or Garbo, and Melvyn Douglas, all sorts of little things that add up, but we haven’t seen the change yet. She opens the window of her hotel room overlooking the Place Vendôme. It’s beautiful, and she smiles. The three commissars come to her room. They’re finally prepared to get down to work. But she says, “No, no, no, it’s too beautiful to work. We have the rules, but they have the weather. Why don’t you go to the races. It’s Sunday. It’s beautiful in Longchamps,” and she gives them money to gamble.
As they leave for the track at Longchamps, she locks the door to the suite, then the door to the room. She goes back into the bedroom, opens a drawer, and out of the drawer she takes the craziest of the hats! She picks it up, puts it on, looks at herself in the mirror. That’s it. Not a word. Nothing. But she has fallen into the trap of capitalism, and we know where we’re going from there . . . all from a half page of description and one line of dialogue. “Beautiful weather. Why don’t you go have yourselves a wonderful day?”
He returned from the bathroom with all this?
Yes, and it was like that whenever we were stuck. I guess now I feel he didn’t go often enough.