On Sunset Boulevard, The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, by Ed Sikov, Hyperion, 675 pages, $35.00
When discussing the success of immigrants, the phrase "only in America" often comes to mind. It takes on an added urgency in the case of filmmaker Billy Wilder since, in some ways, his was a choice between America and annihilation.
That stark reality energizes Wilder's immensely entertaining and influential body of work. His appreciation for the glittering surface of pre-Nazi European society and what lay just underneath it–poverty, prejudice, and mass death–helped shape a worldview that created some of the most caustic portraits of humanity ever to come out of Hollywood. As significant, his hand-to-mouth living experiences, first as a Jew in the remains of the Austro-Hungarian empire and later as an immigrant in the American movie business, taught him the need to deliver, to please an audience. Such experiences–and immense talent, of course–helped create arguably the most distinguished career a Hollywood writer-director has ever had.
Ed Sikov's book, On Sunset Boulevard, The Life And Times of Billy Wilder, tells a classic Hollywood tale of rags to riches–and of self-invention. Sikov has unearthed many new facts and dutifully sets the record straight on the false tales Wilder spread about himself. It turns out, for instance, the young journalist Wilder didn't interview Sigmund Freud, Richard Strauss, Arthur Schnitzler, and Alfred Adler all in the same day; nor did he live in the ladies' room at the Chateau Marmont in his early Hollywood life.
But Wilder's true life story, it turns out, is as interesting as anything he might have made up. Wilder was born in 1906 in Poland. Though that society was openly anti-Semitic–after World War I, Wilder's father requested Austrian citizenship but was summarily denied for being a "Polish Jew"–young Billy was a go-getter and before the age of 20 was making a living in Vienna as a journalist. His writing was lively and caustic, a style that would serve him well throughout most of his lengthy career. Working as a guide for Paul Whiteman's jazz band, he traveled to Berlin, the center of German filmmaking, and insinuated himself into the industry, writing numerous screenplays and treatments. By the early '30s, he was one of the top screenwriters in Germany.
But Wilder could read the writing on the wall. He left Germany in 1933, first for Paris, then for New York, and, finally, for Los Angeles. There, director Joe May, another German refugee, helped Wilder get a temporary gig at Columbia. But times were hard, especially for a man whose English was mostly limited to phrases he'd learned from jazz records. When his job ended, immigration law required Wilder to leave the country and enter on a new visa. He went south of the border to Mexicali, and (according to Wilder, anyway–no one can verify this) though he hadn't the proper papers, the American consul asked him what he did. Wilder replied, "I write movies." The official was intrigued, stamped Billy's papers and told him to "write some good ones." (Wilder thanked this unknown man when he received an honorary Oscar in 1988.)
Now a resident alien, Wilder still had trouble getting work until he was teamed with Charles Brackett, a quiet, conservative man 14 years his senior. Though they were temperamental opposites, their styles meshed and they were soon Hollywood's hottest writing team, creating such treats as Midnight (1939), Ninotchka (1939), and Ball of Fire (1941). But now Wilder, unhappy with the lack of respect he and his scripts got, wanted to direct. Writers directing was, at the time, a new and unpleasant idea for the front office. Studios were factories turning out a product; writer and director were separate jobs, not steps on a ladder. But, following a trail blazed by Preston Sturges a few years earlier, Paramount allowed Wilder to direct The Major and the Minor in 1942.
The film was a hit, and Wilder never looked back. In time he'd receive a total of 20 Academy Award nominations, winning six. In 1944 came Double Indemnity, one of the earliest and best films noir. In 1945, The Lost Weekend, about the horrors of alcoholism, won the Best Picture Oscar. Five years later, Wilder made the film he's most celebrated for today, Sunset Blvd. Then, perhaps feeling he didn't need to share his fame, Wilder left Brackett.
Wilder did solid work with various writers through the 1950s until, starting with Love In The Afternoon (1957), he found his second great collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond. In 1959, Wilder made his greatest comedy, Some Like It Hot, and in 1960 released his most honored film, The Apartment, for which he won three Oscars (writing, directing, producing). In 1963 he made Irma La Douce, his biggest grosser.
Wilder's career was at its height. Twelve of the first 18 films he'd directed were hits, and only two had been outright flops. But cracks were starting to show. Critics attacked him for what they considered his cynical protagonists' "unearned" redemption. John Simon said Wilder's work was "cynicism cynically sugarcoated" so as to have "no therapeutic, moral, or artistic validity." Pauline Kael said Wilder "pulls out laughs the way a catheter draws urine." Stanley Kauffmann accused him of having the "second-stage sentimentality of the professional cynic." Dwight Macdonald wrote, "Although Mr. Wilder is considered a very cynical fellow in Hollywood, he seems to me not cynical enough; he uses bitter chocolate for his icing, but underneath is the stale old cake." Most notably, Andrew Sarris, in a ranking of American directors, consigned Wilder to the "Less Than Meets the Eye" category, saying he's "too cynical to believe even his own cynicism."
If some critics felt he didn't go far enough, by 1964, the moviegoing public thought he had gone too far. That's when he made Kiss Me, Stupid, an ugly comedy in which Ray Walston plays a struggling songwriter who pimps Kim Novak, who's pretending to be his wife, to Dean Martin (playing a somewhat more lascivious version of himself) to further his career. Even today the film leaves a bad taste. It was morally condemned nationwide and flopped miserably as well.
Wilder had lost touch with his audience. He would direct six more movies, none of them significant hits, most of them flops. Once on the cutting edge, Wilder suddenly seemed old-fashioned and slow-paced. Not that he stopped doing good work: The Fortune Cookie (1966) is one of his better comedies, and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), though ruthlessly edited down from his original intentions, has attracted a cult following since its original failure. But by his last film, Buddy Buddy (1981), the timing is off, the great wit is mostly gone, and the sex jokes sound like an old man snickering. The film failed, and Hollywood was done with him.
Since then, however, Wilder's critical reputation has done nothing but rise. Andrew Sarris has publicly recanted his position and proclaimed Wilder a master. Leonard Maltin's film guide gives eight of Wilder's 25 films a perfect four stars, and another seven get three and a half. Not unlike Orson Welles in the last decades of his life, Wilder, now in his 90s, has collected one lifetime achievement award after another, even as no studio would let him make another movie.
The trick in a director's biography is establishing a balance between discussing the life and discussing the films. Sikov, to his credit, keeps the story moving but stops long enough to critique the movies, which, after all, are why we're interested. His analysis is generally insightful, and he catches things that most critics get wrong. Consider, for example, this telling moment in Stalag 17 (1953). As hardbitten William Holden is about to escape from a German prisoner camp, he tells his fellow POWs, "If I ever run into you bums on the street corner, let's just pretend we never met before." He ducks down through a trap door but then comes back up, smiles, waves, and ducks back down. In Sarris' original attack on Wilder, he called the moment out of character and a "sentimental waste motion." But Sikov, I think, gets it right when he sees the wave instead as a "sarcastic salute, a final screw you."
On Sunset Boulevard also helps explain the origins of Wilder's worldview, where people are only looking out for themselves and sincerity is for suckers (at least until the final reel). Most significant was his outsider status: As a Polish Jew in Austria and Germany, and then a non-English-speaker in America, Wilder was hardly born a member of Hollywood's inner circle. Through hard work and talent, though, he moved from outsider to the ultimate insider, a top-of-the-line Hollywood director. Perhaps this made him feel a bit of an impostor, a feeling he exploited in his art. The theme of imposture certainly runs rampant in his work, playing a central role in The Major and the Minor, Five Graves to Cairo (1943), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot, Fedora (1978), and many others.
Related to Wilder's outsider status is his most famous trait, cynicism. Growing up in a harsh world, he had to develop a hustler's knack for survival. It figures that when he started making films, he'd create a gallery of protagonists who were hard-shelled, tough-talking, world-weary, and more than a bit misanthropic. And it also figures that some times–as in Kiss Me, Stupid or Ace in the Hole (1951), in which Kirk Douglas plays a reporter who exploits the tragedy of a man stuck in a cave–Wilder would go too far and turn off audiences.
Of course, whatever the reasons for his sensibility, Wilder's films are still being enjoyed because he had immense skill and was lucky enough to get to a place where he could utilize it. He started directing to protect his scripts, an excellent reason when you're as good a writer as he was. His greatest talent, even more important than his way with snappy dialogue, was that he knew how to tell a story. This is why his directorial technique is never flashy–he wants you to become so involved that you forget you're watching a movie. (It's also why he sometimes attacked art house favorites such as Bergman, Godard, and Antonioni; he felt they couldn't tell a story and used artiness to cover up this failing.) He believed in hooking the audience at the outset and never letting them go.
That's evident even in his Hollywood directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, in which Ginger Rogers disguises herself as a 12-year-old to get half-fare on a train and for the rest of the film must keep up the charade for higher and higher stakes. The plot grips Rogers in its vise, and the audience as well.
The same might be said about Wilder's biography as it's laid out in On Sunset Boulevard. In detailing Wilder's exodus from an old world to a new one of possibilities, and his rise from obscurity to accomplishment, Sikov has scripted not only a Hollywood scenario but a quintessentially American one as well.
Steve Kurtz is a Los Angeles-based writer whose favorite Billy Wilder film is Some Like It Hot.