Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Book review: Conversations with Billy Wilder

I just read the book Conversations with Billy Wilder and it reminds me a little of Tuesdays with Morie only the interviewee and the interviewer are both famous. Cameron Crowe, most people know from "Jerry MaGuire" and "Almost Famous," but it's a shame not enough people know about Billy Wilder, because he was one of the greatest film geniuses who ever lived. He made some of the most definitive film noirs in Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity, a great war film in Stalag 17, the first film to feature an alcoholic in the oscar-winning The Lost Weekend, the definitive love story in Sabrina (remade in the 1990s), and some of the funniest comedies ever made in The Apartment and Some Like it Hot. To be able to take such sharp wit and use it to explore such dark moods as well as humor was something no one did better than Wilder. What I knew of Wilder before was that he was a German immigrant (he came in the wave along with Premminger, Lang, Dymitrick, and Lubitsch). I also knew that he always wrote his films as well as directed them and that he wrote with collaborators.

The idea for the film, covered in the introduction, started when Cameron Crowe came to Billy Wilder's office wanting him to play a small part in Jerry MaGuire and Wilder was like "yeah, maybe, give me a call," but he was kind of old and senile at the time and he forgot about it and didn't return his phone calls. So Crowe positions an intern outside his office and Wilder never comes out of his office, and in the meantime, Crowe is bragging to everyone how he got the famous Billy Wilder to be in his movie. Eventually, Wilder answers his phone and is like "leave me alone, go away." So on the first day of production when Wilder doesn't show up, Cameron Crowe explains with dissapointment that Wilder turned him down, and Tom Cruise offers to go with him (Crowe) personally to his house, since his agent kows where it is, to try to convince him to be in the film. They hold up production for like an hour visiting Wilder, and Cruise is trying to charm him and they're explaining that they just want him to be in it for symbolic purposes, and he says "no, i'm not an actor, you've got the wrong guy, pick someone else." He does give them some script advice, and chat with Cruise, answering questions about his films for him. They finally give up and shoot the movie without him. When the movie's successful Wilder gives Crowe a call and congratulates him and a mutual friend suggests a book deal, and slowly Crowe wears Wilder down into revealing the secrets of his life and work.

With Cameron Crowe it's not like an interview, but it's like chatting from one writer-director to another and covers all of his movies, collaborations and writing methods in depth. They don't get too technical about it, so it's not boring at all. Wilder also spouts his views on movies that he thought sucked (he didn't like Titanic), and ones that he thought were awesome, and is pretty funny about it. Wilder had this very refreshing blue collar attitude about his job as a movie director. He absolutely wanted to make a good product out of his films, but he didn't take himself seriously and that was refreshing. He had a very systematic, almost mathematical, mind to writing his screenplays (he was more passionate about the writing than the directing, it seemed) where he treated it like a puzzle and took joy in trying to work his way through the obstacles.

He was a big, big admirer of Lubitsch who he once wrote a script for. It was almost like he worshipped him. I say that because like those WWJD bracelets that Christian youth group members where today, Wilder had a sign in his office that says "What would Lubitsch do?" He explains, that when he's stuck in a writing, he tries to imagine how his mentor would have done it. Personally, I found that odd because I've always felt Lubitsch was an inferior version of Wilder, but that's just me.

My favorite part of the book was when Cameron Crowe, who's a former rock journalist asked Billy Wilder about whether he liked rock and roll and he was like "no, that was all crap, it's all for the young kids" and he didn't even know what MTV was. He was like "back in the day we had Ira Gershwin and Rogers and Hammerstein to chose from, no one's better than they were." That must have been dissapointing to Crowe.


Jeff Duncanson said...

I currently have Ed Sikov's Bio of Wilder on the go right now. He's a fascunating guy, for sure.

Maya said...

Great overview of this book. You've certainly convinced me it's one I should read. Thanks for taking the time to cull some highlights.