The Many Lives of Billy Wilder

A Man in Transit

The many lives of Billy Wilder.


Among the many stories that Billy Wilder liked to tell late in his life was the one he recounted with great gusto the night he received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the 1988 Academy Awards ceremony. Shortly after he arrived in Hollywood in 1934, Wilder had to cross the border into Mexico to renew his visa at the American consulate in Mexicali. He was particularly anxious about the procedure, since he had left behind nearly all supporting documents in his hasty departure from Nazi Germany and feared this might result in his automatic rejection. He explained his situation to the consular official, who seemed more concerned with enforcing US immigration policy than sympathizing with a foreigner’s plight. When asked what he did for a living, Wilder replied sheepishly, “I write movies.” After a tense moment of prolonged pacing, the official punched two stamps in his 
passport: “Write some good ones,” he said.

For the next 50-odd years, Wilder would write, and eventually direct and produce, quite a few good ones—more than 30 in all. In collaboration with his long-time writing partner Charles Brackett, he began with a string of highly successful, innuendo-laden screwball comedy scripts, including Ninotchka for Ernst Lubitsch, Wilder’s lifelong role model, and Ball of Fire for Howard Hawks. But he quickly turned to graver matters, using his experiences in that Mexican border town for the semi-autobiographical screenplay for Hold Back the Dawn, written in 1941, about a Romanian dancer, Georges Iscovescu, languishing in a shabby hotel with other Middle European refugees in the hopes of securing an entrance visa. Like Wilder himself, Iscovescu is “a man perpetually in transit.”

Wilder’s outsize talent for moving freely, almost effortlessly, from stories of joy to those of sorrow, indulging his audience with plenty of clever role play, masquerade, and subterfuge, became hallmarks of his career as a director. Starting in 1942 with The Major and the Minor, a screwball comedy starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland, he covered a dizzying variety of genres, from sex comedies and film noirs to melodramas, buddy movies, and musicals. He made pictures for the major studios and for independent outfits. He directed some of classic Hollywood’s most celebrated stars (Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Gloria Swanson, Shirley MacLaine, Gary Cooper, William Holden, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon) and partnered with writing talents that included, along with Brackett, Raymond Chandler, George Axelrod, and his multi-decade collaborator I.A.L. (“Iz”) Diamond. The impetus to succeed, to entertain and dazzle his audience, to offer stories that were both true to life and brimming with acerbic wit, came early to Wilder. “I did not want to disappoint that dear man in Mexicali,” he explained.

Joseph McBride retells the anecdote from Wilder’s Thalberg Award speech in his absorbing study Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge. The author of several biographies of Hollywood directors, from Frank Capra and Orson Welles to John Ford, McBride offers a trenchant reappraisal of Wilder’s half-century-long career. Rather than present the director’s life and work chronologically, he organizes his book thematically: The first part is titled “The Phantoms of the Past,” the second “‘Write Some Good Ones,’” and the third “‘Isn’t It Romantic?’” (a title borrowed from the Rodgers and Hart song used to great effect in several of the pictures Wilder made at Paramount).

A former screenwriter and journalist who interviewed Wilder repeatedly in the 1970s, McBride has produced a book that “is drawn from more than fifty years of thinking, talking, reading, teaching and writing about Billy Wilder.” This synthetic approach makes for a deeply researched account, long on granular detail and frequently illuminating. Part of what makes McBride’s critical study distinctive is the sustained attention he devotes to the first phase of Wilder’s life and career, well before he arrived in the United States and embarked on a charmed career in Hollywood. Wilder’s European years, when he worked as a journalist and screenwriter in Vienna and Berlin, proved to be just as important for his unique vision and personal voice as his years in America. The intellectual historian Peter Gay famously likened the fragility of the Weimar Republic to “a dance on the edge of a volcano,” and that was how Wilder lived much of his early life—including, at one point, a memorable stint working as a dancer for hire at a posh Berlin hotel. “As a Jew who lived successively in several countries before finding refuge in Hollywood,” McBride observes, Wilder “often resembled a cabaret artist darkly amusing his audience by dancing on the edge of an abyss.”

Wilder was born in late June 1906 in the Galician town of Sucha, roughly 30 miles southwest of Kraków. He was given the name Samuel at birth, but his mother, Eugenia, a German-speaking Jew from a petit bourgeois Austro-Hungarian family, took to calling him “Billie” (the spelling was later Americanized) after Buffalo Bill, whose traveling Wild West show she purportedly saw when she was a young girl living with an uncle in New York City. Billie’s father, Max (né Hersh Mendel), ran a small chain of railway cafés along the Vienna-to-Lemberg line. The family soon relocated to Kraków, where Max managed the Hotel City, and then, during the first years of the Great War, moved on to Vienna, where Billie attended primary and secondary school.

In his teens, Wilder began contributing short pieces to the Viennese tabloid press. He filed crossword puzzles, covered sporting events, and wrote about the city’s night life and entertainment. Shortly before his 20th birthday, in June 1926, he met one of his early idols, the American jazz musician Paul Whiteman, during the Vienna leg of his European tour and followed him and his orchestra to Berlin. There Wilder worked for Whiteman as something of a press agent for the band and ended up staying in the city for the next seven years as a freelance reporter and budding screenwriter. Wilder took his cues as a stringer from the Prague-born veteran journalist Egon Erwin Kisch, whose notion of the “racing” or “roving reporter” he quickly made his own—in McBride’s apt formulation, Wilder was “always going somewhere in a hurry.”

As a young man, Wilder fashioned himself in the image of the American hard-boiled newspaperman with a ubiquitous snap-brim hat and a rhetorical brio, spit, and swagger. He often worked into his screenplays variations of this figure, beginning with Der Teufelsreporter (Hell of a Reporter) in 1929, a yarn that features a hungry journalist on the hunt for a big scoop. The journalist was played by an American actor named Eddie Polo, and Wilder himself has a cameo in a crowd scene with other reporters. “Journalism played a key role in turning Wilder into the incisive, witty social commentator he would become as he moved into the world of screenwriting and directing,” McBride notes. It’s easy to trace the line from Der Teufelsreporter to movies like Ace in the Hole (1951), Wilder’s scathing critique of sensationalism and the American public’s bottomless appetite for it, and The Front Page (1974), his adaptation of the classic Ben Hecht–Charles MacArthur play, cowritten with Diamond.

In February 1933, shortly after the Reichstag fire, Wilder fled Berlin for Paris. There he lived amid an illustrious group of soon-to-be Hollywood transplants that included the actor Peter Lorre, the composer Friedrich Holländer, and the journalist Hans Lustig, all of them stateless refugees residing at the Hotel Ansonia. Wilder continued his work as a screenwriter, collaborating with several of his neighbors from the Ansonia and codirecting his first film, Mauvaise Graine (Bad Seed)—a frenetic picture made “out of sheer necessity,” he later recalled—about a wealthy young cad who gets mixed up with a gang of car thieves. By the time he boarded the S.S. Aquitania bound for America in January 1934, he had a short-term studio contract in hand and a smattering of English words at his command.

From the moment he arrived in North America, Wilder doggedly pursued his career as a screenwriter, mainly working with American-born counterparts as a means of balancing his subpar language skills. He liked to listen to the radio, especially sports broadcasts, to gain a better facility with the local idiom and sensibility. Although in many respects he would become a thoroughly American filmmaker—he was naturalized as a US citizen in August 1940—he never shed his European identity: He frequently returned to sources and to cast and crew members that he knew from the old country, and he also shot quite a few of his films in Europe. As a journalist in Weimar Berlin, he had profiled the Swiss French writer Claude Anet, whose 1920 novel Ariane, Jeune Fille Russe he and Diamond later adapted as Love in the Afternoon, starring Hepburn and Cooper and set in Paris, where Wilder shot exteriors for the film.

Wilder’s love for Berlin, the city in which he came of age professionally and otherwise, likewise never left him. McBride examines what he regards as Wilder’s Berlin trilogy, starting with Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), the highly acclaimed late silent film that was nominally based on an earlier newspaper piece by Wilder, fleshed out on napkins at the Romanisches Café on Kurfürstendamm. He then moves on to A Foreign Affair, Wilder’s 1948 tale of postwar political opportunism starring Marlene Dietrich as a nightclub chanteuse accompanied by Holländer, her standby pianist and Wilder’s former neighbor at the Hotel Ansonia, before concluding with One, Two, Three, a wicked political satire of the divided city and its competing ideologies, made in the fateful summer of 1961. Although not set in Berlin, Stalag 17, the 1953 prisoner-of-war dramedy in which Wilder cast his fellow émigré filmmaker Otto Preminger in the unforgettable role of camp commandant Colonel von Scherbach, similarly wrestled (or at least tangoed) with the past, as did his flashback to Germany after the war—with Dietrich once more cast as a nightclub singer belting out Holländer tunes—in Witness for the Prosecution, made four years later.

The recurrence of such European trappings were explainable in part because Wilder never fully let go of either the pleasure or the pain of his cultural heritage. As McBride notes, he had witnessed firsthand repeated instances of virulent anti-Semitism in Vienna and Berlin in the 1920s and ’30s. Despite Wilder’s repeated attempts to secure safe passage for his mother and other family members, they perished in the Nazi death camps. Immediately after the war, he returned to Germany as a civilian in the US Army to help supervise the documentary Todesmühlen (Death Mills), directed by the Czech filmmaker Hanuš Burger, which aimed at the denazification and reeducation of the German public. But Wilder was less invested in didactic films like this than he was in movies with an explicit intention to entertain and tell good stories. For many years, he continued to be preoccupied with the “phantoms of the past,” as the lyric from Holländer’s “Ruins of Berlin” in A Foreign Affair goes, but he also wanted to make sure his audience was treated to a good laugh. “What I hate most about the Austrians,” he later remarked with his signature wit, “is that I cannot hate the Austrians.”

The ghosts of Wilder’s past occasionally haunt his American films as well. A movie like Double Indemnity, a pitch-perfect noir that luxuriates in its own potent cocktail of fatalism and existential dread, emerged at a moment when Wilder was searching in vain for the relatives he had left behind and was made to feel the hopelessness that defines the tenor of the picture, if not the entire genre. The same is true of The Apartment, the dark comedy in which C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a cog in the corporate machine, embodies a kind of exploitation that Wilder knew all too well from his days as a vulnerable freelancer. Even a raucous sex comedy like Some Like It Hot has hints of undigested trauma—for instance, its scene depicting the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, though portrayed as the Chicago mob hit that it was, recalls the bloody violence inflicted by the Gestapo in the wake of the Nazi takeover.

Among the strengths of Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge are its efforts to brush Wilder against the grain and, in the process, debunk several of the prevailing myths surrounding his reception. McBride is especially keen on retiring the once pervasive idea of Wilder as a cynic. To that end, he recasts him as “a closet romantic beneath his veneer of hard-boiled realism”—an argument that he returns to several times throughout the book—declaring it to be the filmmaker’s dominant narrative tone and existential mode. Likewise, McBride takes umbrage at the idea of Wilder as a sexist or a misogynist, pointing to a long list of strong, noble female characters, from Helen St. James (Jane Wyman) in The Lost Weekend and Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) in Sunset Boulevard to Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) in The Apartment and Irma (MacLaine again) in Irma la Douce. “Wilder’s good women maintain their generosity of spirit,” McBride writes, “despite inhabiting crass worlds in which women are treated with utter contempt.” I’m not sure all readers will buy this argument, but McBride marshals his evidence to fairly 
persuasive effect.

In an industry in which the old adage that you’re only as good as your last picture continued to hold currency, Wilder’s later years were not always kind to him. Quite a few of his films were box office flops, and some, like Kiss Me, Stupid from 1964, a wild romp starring Dean Martin and Kim Novak that pushed (or, really, shoved) the envelope on puritanical social mores concerning sex and infidelity, were widely regarded as offensive, if not downright smutty, by audiences and critics alike. In her outlier review of the film in Vogue, Joan Didion called Wilder “a moralist, a recorder of human venality” and proclaimed Kiss Me, Stupid “a profoundly affecting picture, as witnessed by the number of people who walk out on it.” Wilder rarely responded to his critics, but in the case of Didion, he felt obliged to send her a thank-you note. “I read your piece in the beauty parlor while sitting under the hair dryer,” he wrote with a wink and a nudge, “and it sure did the old pornographer’s heart good.”

In McBride’s own 1974 profile and interview of Wilder during the shooting of The Front Page, he mentioned the filmmaker’s response to a question about “the Wilder touch,” a variation on the famous quality ascribed to his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch: “It’s just all about the writing in the story,” he insisted. Wilder remained a writer and a storyteller until the very end. He outlived nearly all his friends and collaborators and managed to rack up still more lifetime achievement awards until his death, at the ripe old age of 95, in 2002. “Medals, they’re like hemorrhoids,” quipped the six-time Academy Award winner as he neared the end. “Sooner or later every asshole gets one.”

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