Billy Wilder, two essential documentaries
Watch Billy Wilder speaks
Billy Wilder Speaks is the work of German director Volker Schlöndorff, who in 1989 had already known Wilder for twenty-five years. Difficult to pin down for interviews, Wilder was working with another documentarian in his little writing office in Beverly Hills when Schlöndorff piggybacked his camera for a “rehearsal” for a possible interview. He ended up getting two weeks of excellent on-camera reminiscences from the great director. The only restriction imposed was that the film would not be shown until after Wilder’s death. The 71-minute film is a delight. In most other interviews Wilder does what all Hollywood personalities do when confronted with the same questions about the same movies made 40 and 50 years ago — they repeat the same anecdotes and sometimes apocryphal tales. They want to be entertaining, and sometimes their memories aren’t that good. I also suspect that industry veterans avoid discussing some aspects of old times for fear of betraying the confidences of friends, or bad-mouthing people they haven’t seen for decades. For Schlöndorff Wilder has plenty to say, and a lot of it is in German, which has the beneficial side effect of loosening his tongue. The assurance that nothing he says will come back to bite him does the rest. Schlöndorff tells us that Wilder said, “After I’m gone, who cares?”
Wilder definitely does care about the films he made and the people he knew. Schlöndorff takes him right through his career from Germany to his early days in Hollywood, skipping over ground covered too well by others — there’s no discussion of the unreliable rumors that Wilder was an “Eintanzer” in Berlin, one step away from being a gigolo. The young hustler we meet doesn’t seem the type. He wangled his way to Berlin as a publicist for a big American jazz band and from there sidestepped into newspaper work and screenwriting. Wilder talks about his films and the stars in them more than he does about himself. Although his cynical edge hasn’t diminished he shows hints of a sentimental side. He has nothing bad to say about Humphrey Bogart and talks fondly of Charles Laughton. Wilder obviously adores Marlene Dietrich and recalls their joking acknowledgement that her screen image was only a carefully crafted illusion; he even says that she was “more like a man” in her dealings with people. He’s less critical of Marilyn Monroe, perhaps after decades of mulling over the personality that had been so infuriatingly unreliable during filming. And he’s practically teary-eyed on the subject of his collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, who had passed away not long before the interview. He grins with amusement to recall that the initials I.A.L. stand for “Interscholastic Algebra League.”
Schlöndorff’s camera captures Wilder in his office and another unspecified setting, perhaps the director’s home. We also wander to a podium at I.A.L. Diamond’s funeral service, for Wilder’s farewell to his partner. Schlöndorff keeps the docu at the level of raw footage, not bothering with fancy opticals or even fades. Photographs are filmed at an angle as they are placed on a tabletop, thus not interrupting the interview format. Wilder even takes a phone call (in French) at one point. We hear Schlöndorff and another interviewer (Gisela Grishow?) helping Wilder find words in German and English, without any attempt to edit them out. The natural interview feel adds considerably to the appeal of the show: These are simply great interactions with one of the 20th century’s most entertaining men. Wilder offers a number of observations not heard or read elsewhere, such as his description of Jack Lemmon’s work ethic and Shirley MacLaine’s doubts that The Apartment will be a success. Even the Cameron Crowe book stacks up as a compendium of old stories compared to the freshness of the content heard here. Speaking in German, Wilder praises Raymond Chandler’s knack for dialogue but describes his inability to handle structure. The reasons Wilder based so many of his films on European was to take advantage of their fine construction — he stresses the prime importance of the end of the second act. He’s proud of his original work but also ponders how he was able to start shooting so many films with the final acts only partially written. It sounds like a disastrous practice, but since his films were shot roughly in script order, he and his collaborators often found the inspiration for the ending in what the actors brought to scenes already filmed.
The fun, of course, is in just hearing Wilder tell all those hilarious tales with that wicked smile on his mouth. They’re too good to ruin here by repeating them. —Glenn Erickson
The best extra on the Criterion Collection two-disc DVD set containing Ace in the Hole is the 58-minute interview of Billy Wilder titled “Portrait of a ‘60% Perfect’ Man.” The interview was conducted by film critic Michel Ciment and took place in 1980 when Wilder was about 74 years old. It starts off at Wilder’s cluttered Santa Monica Boulevard office, where he keeps his six Oscar statuettes and a certificate for winning the top prize at Cannes for The Lost Weekend (1945). Wilder then drives to a high-rise building and goes up to his primary residence, where he shows Ciment his valuable art collection, which includes works by Picasso, Chagall, Kandinsky, Kirchner and Jawlensky. Finally, they conclude the interview at Wilder’s beachfront cottage in Malibu.
Wilder talks briefly about his youth in Vienna, the excitement of living in Berlin during the Weimar era and his year in France before settling into a long discussion of his Hollywood years, beginning as a screenwriter, then becoming a director and finally a producer. He was one of the great raconteurs, and he has lots of fascinating things to say about his many movies and the famous stars he worked with, including Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, William Holden, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe.
This is Wilder on Wilder, really, even though he’s intelligently interviewed by Michel Ciment (film critic from Positif), affectionately talked about by Lemmon and Matthau, and the whole is filmed with style by Annie Tresgot. Because the cunning old professional knows exactly where he wants the film to go: he’s as capable of directing, with humour, from in front of as from behind the camera. Lovely stuff.