Top positive review
4 people found this helpful
Engaging Story of an Engaging Man.
on January 11, 2012
In the mid 1980s, with his best films well behind him, pushing eighty, the famous and, some might say, notorious movie director Billy Wilder was midly contemptuous of the current Hollywood milieu.
"In the olden days you went to see an MGM picture. It had its own handwriting. Or you knew it was a Warner Bros. picture -- Cagney and Bogart and the small actors that were under contract there. Now studios are nothing but the Ramada Inn -- you rent space, you shoot, and out you go. . . Nobody talks about the picture, just about what kind of deal: Who presents? Whose picture is it? And all that totally idotic crap! It's a world with ugly, ugly, terrifying words like TURNAROUND and NEGATIVE PICKUP. Although I think the two ugliest words in the world are ROOT CANAL, with the possible exception of HAWAIIAN MUSIC. . . . And only a fool would think that by kissing a** you will make it because you are kissing the a** that will be out on HIS a** a week from today and there's going to be a new a** coming in."
That's Wilder in his later years. He wasn't alone in his disgust. A lot of older directors, like Jack Ford, were voluble about the change in circumstances. The traditional moguls -- the Louis B. Mayers and Harry Cohens -- were dead and gone, and the industry was now run by number crunchers who had graduated from film schools or flourished their MBAs, and the bottom line was money -- period.
Wilder was a Jew born in Galecia in southern Poland who migrated first to Vienna, then to Berlin, and then, like so many other refugees, to Hollywood in the 30s. He'd grown up with the business of film making and had shared some miserable conditions with people like Ernst Lubitsch and Franz Waxman. These names may or may not mean much to today's viewers but they shaped cinema during its florescent period in the 30s and 40s.
Ed Sikov covers Wilder's life in enough detail for everyone except some troglodyte doing a doctoral dissertation -- and even in that case, this book would provide a springboard. The emphasis is on Wilder's working relationships and his career, rather than family gossip. That's all to the good, I think, and anyway Wilder was a private person who hid any sentimentality behind a kind of brutal humor. "I laugh at everything," he once said. "I laugh at Hamlet." He lost many of his family members in the Holocaust and his father's grave in Berlin was lost under a pile of rubble and mud during the war.
Sikov ought to know what he's talking about. He has a BA from small but rather exclusive Haverford College near Philadelphia and a PhD in film studies from Columbia. He's written or made major contributions to half a dozen other books in addition to a couple of casual academic appointments. Not that you'd be able to tell he was a professor from his everyday and mostly matter-of-fact prose. I can't help looking at a work like this -- the number on the last page is 675 -- and thinking about the awesome amount of work that went into it. I wrote a dissertation too, much shorter than this book, and it took me two years of solid effort.
At this point I could go on and summarize Wilder's life and career as we get to know it through this biography but I imagine the subject is covered elsewhere so I think I'll skip it. And I won't bother to pass on any of the better-known examples of his difficulties with co-writers like the patrician Charles Brackett or the more compatible I. A. L. Diamond. Neither does the author dwell on Marilyn Monroe's inability to say, "Where's that bourbon?" Anybody who wants to see Billy Wilder in action -- and he was always in action -- might consider getting hold of the special edition of "On Sunset Boulevard." In one of the "Special Features," Wilder paces about, gabbling away in his German accent, waving his walking stick, sitting down, standing up, emphasizing, a gnome running off at the hands. He was a talented and fascinating man and I enjoyed reading this book about him.