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By Billy Wilder
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 1999 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
BILLY WILDER WAS born in 1906 in Sucha (thirty miles south of Kraków) in Polish Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The son of a hotelier and small-time businessman, he grew up in a decadent, corrupt society torn by class conflicts and unstable institutions. As a child he witnessed the collapse of the empire after World War I and acquired a sardonic view of the frailty of personal relations. He briefly studied law at the University of Vienna, then became a newspaper reporter, first in Vienna and later in Berlin, where he supplemented his income by working as a dance partner and gigolo. With Robert Siodmak and Fred Zinnemann he made the documentary People on Sunday (1929) in Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Wilder fled to Paris. There he directed his first feature film, Mauvaise Graine (Bad Seed), with Danielle Darrieux. He reached Hollywood in 1934, and roomed with a fellow exile, Peter Lorre.
Wilder arrived in America with no knowledge of English apart from some obscenities and snatches of popular songs. He learned the new language in the same practical way as the Austrian-born director Fritz Lang. "I read a lot of newspapers," Lang recalled, "and I read comic strips—from which I learned a lot. I said to myself, if an audience—year in, year out—reads so many comic strips, there must be something interesting in them. And I found them very interesting. I got ... an insight into the American character, into American humour; and I learned slang. I drove around in the country and tried to speak with everybody. I spoke with every cab driver, every gas station attendant—and I looked at films."1 Like Vladimir Nabokov, another brilliant exile and outsider, the cosmopolitan and urbane Wilder had a highly idiosyncratic view of the radically different culture of America. Wilder's screenplays, like Nabokov's novels, have a fresh idiom and coruscating style.
During his fifty-year career Wilder has shown astonishing versatility—and real genius—as both coauthor and director (beginning in 1943) of films about war, murder, alcoholism, Hollywood, sensational journalism, prison camps, trials and aviation, as well as of dazzling romantic comedies like Some Like It Hot and bittersweet love stories like The Apartment. His last film was Buddy Buddy (1981). He was also able to inspire great performances from previously undistinguished actors: Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. Three years later, Holden won an Oscar for best actor in Stalag 17. Wilder himself was nominated for twenty-one Academy Awards and won six.
Explaining his need for a coauthor, Wilder said: "I started the idea of collaborating when I first arrived in America, because I could not speak the language. I needed somebody who was responsible, who had some idea of how a picture is constructed. Then I found out that it's nice to have a collaborator—you're not writing into a vacuum, especially if he's sensitive and ambitious to create a product of some value." After several years of screenwriting hackwork—Music in the Air, Lottery Lover, Champagne Waltz—his career took off in 1938 when he began a long and fruitful collaboration with Charles Brackett. They began with witty and intelligent movies like Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, Ninotchka, and Ball of Fire and ended with their greatest film, Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Born in 1892, fourteen years before Wilder, Brackett graduated from Williams College and Harvard Law School, was a vice-consul in France and a lieutenant in World War I. He practiced law, wrote two novels, and was the drama critic for the New Yorker before coming to Hollywood, two years before Wilder. The sophisticated Easterner helped the young émigré master his new language and refine his skills as a screenwriter. Wilder later recalled what he learned from Brackett: "He spoke excellent English. He was a very classy guy, a couple of pegs above the ordinary Hollywood writer. He was very patient with me, but he also insisted on my English becoming less ridiculous than it was then. I went to a good school—it lifted my street English a few pegs." Wilder, with the energy of a hyperactive child, would pace the room and walk out, disappear from the office, and suddenly stroll back in. He was brash and rebellious, cynical and sardonic. Brackett—silver haired, courtly, and reserved—was known for his patrician manners and refined conversation, his elegant style, well-turned epigrams, and conservative suits.
Wilder also explained how they worked—and often quarreled—together and how they complemented each other's personalities: "Two collaborators who think exactly alike is a waste of time. Dialogue or whatever comes from: 'Not quite, but you are close to it. Let's find something that we both like. This is a little bit too cheap, this is too easy. This character is not developed. I am a Roosevelt man and you are a Republican.' Unless there are sparks that fly, it is totally unnecessary to have a collaborator." Brackett disliked some of Wilder's essential qualities—his wildness, misanthropy, cruelty, and sense of the macabre. They had great battles, yelling and screaming at each other. The third screenwriter who collaborated on Sunset Boulevard, D. M. Marshman, Jr., a Life magazine reporter and film critic, was invited to join the team when he suggested that the aging silent screen actress have an affair with a young Midwestern screenwriter.
Brackett described how the essential idea of the screenplay evolved. They could see around them the effects of the revolution that sound technology had brought to the picture-making industry in 1927. At first they conceived their deranged heroine purely in Gothic terms, but ended by seeing the human dimensions of her tragedy. Brackett's account echoes the line ("given the brush") spoken in the film by Cecil B. DeMille:
Wilder, Marshman and I were acutely conscious of the fact that we lived in a town which had been swept by a social change as profound as that brought about in the Old South by the Civil War. Overnight, the coming of sound brushed gods and goddesses into obscurity. We had an idea of a young man stumbling into a great house where one of these ex-goddesses survived. At first we saw her as a kind of horror woman ... an embodiment of vanity and selfishness. But as we went along, our sympathies became deeply involved with the woman who had been given the brush by 30 million fans.
Wilder added, with characteristic energy: "Once we got hold of a character of the silent-picture glamour star who had had it, a kind of female John Gilbert, whose career is finished with the advent of talkies but she still has the oil wells pumping and the house on Sunset Boulevard, then we started rolling."
The cast was assembled in a circuitous fashion. Wilder pursued silent film stars Mae West (who refused to appear as an actress past her prime), Mary Pickford, and Pola Negri before choosing Gloria Swanson to play Norma Desmond. Swanson later recalled her anxiety about playing a character whose life had disturbing parallels with her own: "I grasped with fearful apprehension ... that I would have to use all my past experience for props, and that this picture should be a very revealing one to make, something akin to analysis. Billy Wilder deliberately left us on our own, made us dig into ourselves, knowing full well that such a script, about Hollywood's excesses and neuroses, was bound to give the Hollywood people acting in it healthy doubts about the material or about themselves."
For the hero, Joe Gillis, Wilder tried for Montgomery Clift, who refused to make love to an older woman on screen; Fred MacMurray, who had given a fine performance in Wilder's Double Indemnity; and even Gene Kelly, before turning to William Holden. When Holden seemed uncertain of how to play his role and told Wilder, "I'm having trouble getting a bead on Joe Gillis," the director replied: "That's easy. Do you know Bill Holden? ... Then you know Joe Gillis." In Sunset Boulevard, as in Double Indemnity, the woman manipulates and then murders the man. And the man—dying in Double Indemnity or dead in Sunset Boulevard—narrates the film to explain how his tragedy has occurred.
Casting Erich von Stroheim as Max von Mayerling, Swanson's grim, bull-necked, fanatically devoted manservant, was an inspired choice. His ogreish figure, not only emphasizes the Gothic element ("If you need help with the coffin, call me"), but also harks back to the silent era, when he directed Swanson in the unfinished Queen Kelly. In Sunset Boulevard Norma screens this movie for Joe, revealing her faded glory as well as her obsession with the past. Von Stroheim himself came up with the idea of having his character write all the fan mail that helps prop up Norma's fantasies. He also wanted a scene in which he got fetishistic pleasure from washing her underwear. A hint of this remains when he tells Gillis: "There was a Maharajah who came all the way from Hyderabad to get one of her stockings. Later, he strangled himself with it."
The characters' names foreshadow tragedy. "Norma Desmond" recalls Mabel Normand, a Mack Sennett comedienne whom Norma imitates in her playful performance for Joe, as well as a director with whom Normand was romantically linked, William Desmond Taylor. In 1922 Taylor was murdered under mysterious circumstances. Max von Mayerling bears the name of the hunting lodge outside Vienna where the Archduke Rudolf committed suicide with his lover in 1889. Though von Stroheim was superb, he never liked the role and often referred to it as "that lousy butler part." He thought it exploited his own downfall as a director (after his unrestrained extravagance led to the debacle of Greed in 1925) and mocked the peak of Hollywood filmmaking that coincided with his greatest achievements.
Wilder linked silent and sound pictures, Norma's real past and her imaginary present, by using silent-era actors for her bridge party with the "wax works" figures: Buster Keaton; H. B. Warner, who played Christ in DeMille's King of Kings (1927); and Anna Q. Nilsson, a Swedish-born star. DeMille, who had directed Swanson in silent movies, appears as himself—for a fee of $10,000—when Norma visits him at Paramount (her old studio) while he directs Samson and Delilah—a variant of the Salome script she is writing with Gillis. Kind and sympathetic, the only man Norma defers to, DeMille is completely convincing in the part and, under Wilder's direction, gives a more subtle performance by far than any actor ever did in one of DeMille's own pictures.CHAPTER 2
Sunset Boulevard originally began with a long scene in which Joe's corpse is taken to the morgue. As a tag is tied to his big toe, he talks through voice-overs with the other corpses, who all explain how they got there. Wilder shot the scene in a real morgue and recalled the workers having a morbid breakfast on the metal tables where the corpses were laid out. Preview audiences hated Wilder's black humor, and this section was cut. Instead, the dead Joe's voice-over narration tells his own story. Wilder defended this unusual and unexpected use of the technique by admitting: "Of course it's illogical; but that doesn't matter; it's not boring. And as long as it's riveting, they will swallow it."
For Norma's baroque, overstuffed, hermetic palace, Wilder used a Renaissance-style mansion at the corner of Wilshire and Crenshaw boulevards, built in 1924 for a quarter of a million dollars. J. Paul Getty bought it, but his second wife got it when they divorced, and she rented it to Paramount. Wilder leased Norma's gorgeous Isotta-Fraschini limousine for five-hundred dollars a week, had it upholstered in leopard skin to match her leopard-patterned turban and scarf, and equipped it with the gold telephone that Norma used to communicate with her chauffeur. Von Stroheim, in fact, didn't know how to drive, and the car had to be towed when he was at the wheel.
Joe's 1946 Plymouth convertible, not only provides a striking contrast to Norma's fabulous vehicle, but also propels him into her enchanted castle—and her clutches. To save his modest Plymouth, absolutely essential to the pursuit of his career in far-flung Los Angeles, Joe has first pitched his baseball story to a crass producer called Sheldrake (a name used again in 1960 for the slimy Fred MacMurray character in Wilder's The Apartment), who absurdly suggests they turn it into a movie about a girls' softball team.
As a sign of moral surrender, Joe is driven around in her car when she buys him a lavish wardrobe, complete with a luxurious overcoat ("As long as the lady is paying for it," the salesman sneers, "why not take the Vicuna?"). The great irony of this motif is that when the studio urgently calls Norma it is not, as she thinks, to make her Salome film, but merely to use her car. DeMille manages to suppress this fact and forestall her humiliation, but Gillis, trying to disillusion her at the end of the film, brutally exclaims: "He was trying to spare your feelings. The studio wanted to rent your car."
Brackett made the script of Sunset Boulevard both allusive and literate. The ghoulish manservant, the heroine "still sleepwalking along the giddy heights," the decaying Usher-like mansion, "stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis ... crumbling apart in slow motion," the horrifying rats fighting in the empty swimming pool, and especially the macabre funeral of the chimpanzee, whose childlike yet black and hairy arm flops down from under the shawl, are all grotesque elements in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe. Norma gets a new "pet"—Joe Gillis—as soon as she loses the old one, who, rather suggestively, liked to poke her fire with a stick.
When Joe first approaches the "grandiose Italianate structure, mottled by the years, gloomy, forsaken, the little formal garden completely gone to seed," he humanizes it and compares it to "that old woman in Great Expectations—that Miss Havisham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world because she'd been given the go-by" at the altar. Norma is both Miss Havisham and Estella, manipulator and love object, while the guileless Gillis is Pip. When Pip whispers to Miss Havisham about Estella in Dickens's novel, he precisely suggests Joe's attitude toward Norma: "I think she is very proud ... very pretty ... very insulting.... I think I should like to go home."
The film is structured, in fact, by Joe's gradual Pip-like entrapment, vividly expressed by Norma's grasping, clutching hands. He agrees to work on her script and to stay overnight. He passively allows her to move all his possessions from his apartment to the servant's room over the garage and to pay his three months' back rent. He empties the ashtrays at her bridge party, loses his car, lets her buy his clothes, and finally moves into the palazzo. After she declares her love, he accepts a gold cigarette case and matching lighter. After she slashes her wrists and is saved by a doctor—the latter event an ironic version of her "comeback"—they become lovers and he is doomed. When he tries to leave her, she kills him. In several Wilder films, from Ninotchka (1939) through Sunset Boulevard to Love in the Afternoon (1957), a luxurious setting (often a hotel suite), with caviar and champagne brought in by servants and a private orchestra playing for the lovers, provides the milieu for seductions.
Wilder later recalled their difficulty with the conclusion of the film:
We had the ending of Sunset Boulevard blocked out, we knew this man, who wanted a swimming pool, got a swimming pool, died in a swimming pool. We knew that she was going to shoot him. The script was not yet finalized; the last ten minutes—we had it but it needed work.... Brackett said, "Well, how are you gonna do it?" I said, "She says to him, 'I got myself a gun,' and she lifts the pillow and there's a gun there. How she got it, nobody knows. I don't give a shit.... I'm not going to go into side plots."
Excerpted from Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder. Copyright © 1999 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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