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Scott TobiasIn his memorable Oscar acceptance speech for 1993's Best Foreign Film winner Belle Epoque, Spanish director Fernando Trueba quipped, "I'd like to thank God, but I don't believe in God, so I'd like to thank Billy Wilder." It's a tribute to the venerable comic genius behind Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment that Trueba may have been only half-joking.
Since Wilder's retirement after 1981's Buddy Buddy, many aspiring filmmakers have made a pilgrimage to his office in Beverly Hills, but Cameron Crowe--whose impressive credits include Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Say Anything..., and Jerry Maguire--was intent on sticking around until the elusive 91-year-old answered all his questions. Crowe's persistent visits finally broke down the director's resolve, and their lively sessions are documented in the essential Conversations With Wilder, a candid and frequently hilarious volume on his life and work. Doomed from the start to fall under the shadow of François Truffaut's Hitchcock--for the obvious reason that Crowe is no Truffaut and Wilder is no Hitchcock--their dialogue contains the expected, though still priceless, anecdotes about four decades in Hollywood. But it's also a surprisingly insightful look into Wilder's creative mind. A former writer and associate editor for Rolling Stone, Crowe uses his skill as a journalist to coax Wilder into in-depth discussions about his successes and failures, each recalled with a vividness that belies his age. Wilder's unfailing populist instincts have most of his opinions corresponding with public response--though he's proud of his lacerating media satire Ace In The Hole (a.k.a. The Big Carnival), a box-office disaster--but he claims no higher goal than entertaining the masses. To that end, Conversations makes a solid case for Wilder as one of cinema's supreme entertainers. Just leafing through the book's collection of black-and-white stills is like taking a brief, nostalgic tour through a Golden Age in American comedy.