If you dig Richard Pryor, go get Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor and David and Joe Henry’s Furious Cool. Listen to Pryor’s best albums–”Craps”, “That Nigger’s Crazy”, “Is It Something I Said?” and “Wanted: Live in Concert”. (If you’ve never seen it you should watch “Live in Concert”–perhaps the finest filmed stand up performance of them all–or any number of his better movies: Blue Collar, The Mack, Greased Lightning, Which Way is Up?, Lady Sings the Blues, Stir Crazy.
In the meantime, check out “Richard Pryor Is the Blackest Comic Of Them All” by our pal Mark Jacobson. Originally published in New West, August 30, 1976, it is re-printed here with the author’s permission.
The zooty mobiles are rolling slow and sweet up the Strip. In front of the Roxy there’s style a block long. Hats, satin, dudes with their names rhinestoned on their eyeglass lenses, jumpsuits emblazoned with the word “coke,” denim cut every which way: an impressive preen of edgy cool. Inside his rose-decked dressing room, Richard Pryor feels the electric vibes. His leg is stiffed up like the beginnings of a really good nut, his back creaks, and maybe he’ll throw up. A bad case of the comic’s hazard: fear of not being funny.
Tonight, however, Richard is sweating double; his underwear is a mess. Tonight he’s going to record his new album, “Bicentennial Nigger.” A good title. For Richard, who once was accorded an honorary degree from San Jose State in “black street history,” has an unwavering eye for the doings of the past 200 years. He is also the man who took the word “nigger” — once feared like Godzilla by the liberal black and white communities, but always legal tender in street language — and made it his trademark.
Even so, Richard thinks about the people in line and gets sicker. He knows niggers don’t let you fudge; every space you leave they’re bound to fill it up with some sort of rap to make you cringe. And outside everyone knows the scene, too. They’ll be looking extra hard to see if this Pryor nigger is as crazy as ever.
Crazy. Hustlers who never got to die of natural causes and sharks floating around the pool halls of Peoria, Illinois, screamed, “Nigger, you crazy!” at Richard years ago. It was the old story; Richard couldn’t fight so he was funny. Fell on the floor, did impersonations, a regular ghetto jester. The name stuck. Now you find plenty of housewives bounding into the black middle-class calling Richard Pryor a crazy nigger. Mostly they say it when they hear Richard’s albums. And get an earful of Pryor’s “characters” — crazy niggers all. There are cats like Oilwell: six feet, five inches, 242 pounds of man, a police-punching-type nigger who’d bite a dude’s privates to keep from being fooled with. And the junkie, the kid who used to be the smartest nigger in town — he could book numbers without the aid of paper or pencil — but now he can’t even remember his name. No mistake that Richard’s most famous record is called “That Nigger’s Crazy”: After all, who ever heard a nigger talk like a nigger and get away with it?
“That Nigger’s Crazy,” despite a little X-rated sticker on the cellophane, became the first comedy record in recent years to break into the top twenty on the charts. Sold a million pieces — enough to “go platinum” — a precious metal indeed. Pryor’s next, “Is It Something I Said?” — the one with a picture of Richard being burned at the stake by men in hoods — did as well. Richard now might be sweating in his dressing room, but “Bicentennial Nigger” is already assured of “shipping gold” — $1 million worth. Stats like that make Pryor the largest selling comedy artist in America.
But all that is doodly-squat compared to what’s coming. Sometime last year, Richard decided that being a crazy nigger on vinyl wasn’t enough. He turned down more than a million smackers worth of concert gigs to become a movie star. People around him said, “But Richard, we don’t have any movie offers.” Pryor, one of those vision-seeing niggers, told them to cool it, the pictures would come. He was right, of course. If you spend any time at all watching movies in the next year, you should be able to trace Richard Pryor’s mellow face from memory. Right now, you can see him as a barnstorming baseball player in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. He just wrapped Silver Streak, in which he played opposite Gene Wilder. Before that he was a Reverend Ike type in Car Wash. Now he’s off making Greased Lightning with Michael Schultz in Georgia. At the end of the year he’ll do — get this — the Giancarlo Giannini part in Which Way Is Up? a semi-remake of Lina Wertmüller’s Seduction of Mimi. Next year, Pryor has already blocked time for the lead in Paul Schrader’s new depresso opus, Blue Collar, the story of assembly line workers in Detroit.
Check those names: Schrader, Wertmüller, Wilder. These aren’t Superfly projects. This crazy nigger has broken into the big leagues. And more scripts come in all the time. Not that Richard can accept any for a while. A couple of weeks ago, Universal, tossing around phrases like “uniquely talented” and “bankable,” signed Richard to a six-picture, multi-million-dollar deal. Pryor will offer his services as both screenwriter and actor. Company officials say It is the first such contract in the studio’s history.
All of which makes Richard Pryor one hell of a potential corporate nigger. Being the biggest-selling comedy artist in America and a movie star too is quite a parlay. And Richard’s got the accessories to prove It. A demure Mercedes, a classy brown and gold office for Richard Pryor Productions complete with a fishbowl full of exotic underwater plants, a lawyer who used to be partners with Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, a full staff of frontmen and go-fers to shield him from prying eyes and push his T-shirts, and a brand new house in the Valley. Richard is especially fond of the Northridge house, which he is currently redecorating. After years of hotel rooms and rented cottages, at last he’s got a safe place. Stability is strange to Richard: The first month or so after moving in, he had dreams of men carrying briefcases coming to the door and saying, “You mean you own this house, Mr. Pryor?” But now that dream doesn’t recur. Richard says, “I feel secure, more than ever, maybe for the first time.”
Until tonight, that is. Being a star is terrific, but when you’ve got to go out on stage to face 500 niggers, knees get weak. Especially curious niggers. Tonight they’ll be asking a reasonable question: Can perhaps the hottest personality in Hollywood — white, black, or polka dot, as the old civil rights marcher used to say — be a crazy street nigger, too?
No doubt Richard used to be crazy. It seems as if everyone hoisting a tequila sunrise at Hollywood parties has at least one Richard Pryor horror story. There are tales of how Richard stabbed his landlord with a fork, jeers about Pryor’s supposed predilection for smashing women about his apartment, knowing smiles about his fabled Hoover-suck intake of cocaine. Pryor’s failures to show up for appointments, even dates to tell jokes on the Ed Sullivan Show, are the stuff of showbiz folklore. After all, who could be crazy enough to forget to show up for a Sullivan shot?
But then again, what do you expect of someone who claims to have been born in a Peoria whorehouse, says his father died in the saddle, and speaks of being kicked out of school for hitting teachers? Not to mention knowing all the bad news “characters” that Richard talks about on his records. That kind of background inspires gossip. But a little investigation reveals certain facts. Pryor did indeed miss a few Sullivan shows, once choosing instead to stay home to try out his new 16mm movie equipment. He did snort enough coke to “buy Peru” — sometimes $100 worth a day. He collects guns. He was sued for wife-beating. Also for knocking around a hotel clerk. Did a turn in the slams for not paying taxes on yearly earnings of nearly a quarter of a million.
Last week, however, around the Silver Streak set, you could see the difference a few years make. Pryor sat in an old XKE mounted on a platform and acted a scene with Gene Wilder in front of a process screen. Studio hotshots hovered. All of them seemed to be talking about how Richard hadn’t missed a day of shooting, how he’s never forgotten a line, how he “hasn’t been a problem of any kind.” They sounded relieved. In Hollywood, everyone knows the Pryor legend.
As for Richard himself, the man is looking good. No more dissipation or benders for this cat. Now Pryor is into health foods. Vitamins, too. “I’m through actively messing with my body,” Richard says like a born-again Californian. It’s paying off in many ways; a nice-looking lady in a perfect jumpsuit just told Richard how much weight he’s lost. From the smile on Pryor’s face, you figure lettuce means more to him today than a good freeze. About the old days, Pryor gets a little more solemn. Just thinking about that lunacy makes his body literally quake, like the first jolt from the Quentin death house. Looking at the ceiling, he says, “I was just a kid then. That was before I changed.”
Whether Richard has actually changed is hard to tell, but there was a night when he started to go in another direction. It was an evening in 1970 when Pryor — then 30 — was telling jokes at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Richard was doing a typical show for him in those days: fairytale parodies, army jokes, talk show routines. It was the way Richard had worked since coming out of Peoria in the early sixties, except that he had dropped his second-rate Sammy Davis Jr. impression. That was the way Richard thought he had to work. People who knew told him if you were a black man who liked to play for $5,000 poker pots like Pryor did, then you should tell jokes like Bill Cosby, because the I Spy black man was the kind of Negro white folks wouldn’t mind coming to their door to sell encyclopedias. So it went for Pryor; renowned as the baddest dude in the desert, he played it harmless for the tourists. It helped him pick up a couple of movie roles, like the fifteen-year-old drummer in Chris Jones’s Wild in the Streets rock band, but something told Richard he was heading for insanity.
The craziness built inside of him until that night at the Aladdin when Richard blew it, or so it seemed. What happened is the pith of Pryor legend, a great Richard story, better because it’s true. Someday, after Pryor becomes a major movie star, someone will paint it as part of a series entitled “Showbiz Nightmares.” The picture will have Pryor reeling around the stage in his evening clothes, asking himself aloud, “What the fuck am I doing here?” and then walking off in the wrong direction. The tourists, all wearing corsages in the shape of cabbages, will look confused and horrified. The cigar-chomping owners will be screaming, telling Richard he’ll never work Vegas again.
Pryor missed that six grand a week, sure, but he didn’t care if he ever played Vegas again. He made an artist’s choice, and an artist he was going to be. That meant being “himself” and extending his act past the usual boundaries of stand-up. The last few years in Vegas, Pryor had begun to think in terms of “characters,” or assuming the personas of people he thought made meaningful statements about what it meant to be black in a white world: For Richard, these were winos, preachers, tough guys, and fakers. The typical black street scene, one he knew well. Vegas wasn’t buying that. So Pryor packed his coke spoon and went off to a place where the rules were slightly more bent: Berkeley. He took a little pad by the freeway — a $110 special — and “woodshedded” for nearly a year to bring together his new vision. For Pryor, it was a wonderful time. “It was when I got naked; I just sat in my house and didn’t come out until I was ready.”
When he finally did work again, Richard was a different sort of comic. Not only was he black, but he was real. Also real dirty. His first “new” album, some funky baggage called “Craps After Dark” (still in many ways his funniest), recorded for the fly-by-night Laff label, had Pryor saying things like, “Winos, winos know Jesus Christ…. They say ‘Yeah, nigger runs the elevator down the Jefferson Hotel.’ ” This was weird stuff, no lie. He talked about niggers at police lineups. Niggers who get caught with their pants down by irate fathers. He introduced several “characters,” including Black Bertha, “the 300-pound woman with the 280-pound-ass.” Richard said all the words you weren’t supposed to. No way to hide the teeth of it, either; this was black comedy for a black audience, and Whitey came in for his lumps. Example: “They don’t give a nigger a chance. Jackson Five be singing their ass off, they be talking about The Osmond Brothers… motherfuckin’ Osmond Brothers.” Forget Vegas now; TV too. Pryor burned up all the bridges. Just to make sure, he ended the record with a bit about how he took off all his clothes and ran around the casino, jumping on the gambling tables to scream, “BLACK, JACK!”
Defiance, to be sure. And who would have figured it would have worked out so sweet for Pryor? A few years ago, Richard could have wound up going back to Peoria to sit on the stoop and tell kids about how he was a great rebel who got crushed. Credit the black middle-class with changing the scenario. They had the money to spend and weren’t so deep into bedroom sets that they couldn’t relate to what Richard was putting down. No coincidence that Pryor’s big break came in that all-time great black middle-class movie, Lady Sings the Blues. Ostensibly a screen bio of Billie Holiday, the picture was the phoniest thing to come down the pike since Sal Mineo got addicted to grass in The Gene Krupa Story. But Pryor, in the role of Diana Ross’s hophead piano player and armed with firsthand knowledge, gave perhaps the most convincing portrayal ever of being stoned on the screen. People said he stole the show; you don’t grow up one generation out of the ghetto and not know when someone’s smashed or when they’re just acting silly. Seeing a black man acting real on the screen was so unusual at the time that most audiences pronounced it “crazy.” All of which neatly paved the way for Richard’s “That Nigger’s Crazy” album.
Crazy like a fox, maybe. Because when you compare Pryor’s success to that of the other big-time black comics, it tells an interesting story. Cosby, Pryor’s old idol-adversary, is cuter than ever; even if he’s got a hokey variety show coming up this fall, he seems to have reached his natural metier doing peachy-keen Del Monte commercials. Redd Foxx, the classic black X-rated comic, has made his big killing. But now he’s more Fred Sanford than Redd Foxx, and people say Foxx gets pissed when they won’t let him get dirty in Vegas. Dick Gregory did the honorable thing by running back and forth for peace, but it makes you wonder if he wouldn’t have more effect had he stood up on television more often. As for Godfrey Cambridge and Slappy White, where are they?
There was probably just a small opening for all that talent anyway. Pryor found it. And most likely it all comes back to Richard’s willingness to call a spade a spade, so to speak. While the TV dials have been full of watered-down black street life since the “ethnic shows” got on the air, Pryor has remained hard. Too hard for TV, a medium he doesn’t do well anyhow, except for rare shots like Lily Tomlin specials. Using the word “nigger” was the masterstroke. It aced him out of the mainstream, plus it made it quite clear where his racial allegiance lay. Everyone knows white people are not allowed to say that word. But, mostly, he was good. His “characters” are the essence of hanging-out humor. They’re languid, more improvisatory, with more emphasis on performance than the punch line. And in the characters, Pryor found a basic difference between black humor and Jewish humor. Which is why he is the first comic to make meaningful strides past the humor of Lenny Bruce.
* * * * *
Add all that up. The legend and the success. And it prints out into one dynamite image: the crazy nigger who had the courage to say no to bullcrap and come back bigger than ever on his own terms. It should be bottled and sold to politicians.
All the ingredients for a hero. And the other night at the Comedy Store, the showcase for young ha-ha merchants on Sunset, you could witness the worship. Not one of the several black comics didn’t use the word nigger. Every comic, all races, including even American Indian, did Pryor-like characters. But the show really began when Richard himself made an unscheduled appearance. Most everything Richard does is unscheduled: Change or no change, many of his activities still tend to have a fluid quality. Still, the word passes fast in the Hollywood Hills, and a half-hour before Pryor pulled up, scores of fly-looking people poured in. Big-shots, too. Redd Foxx peeked through the curtain; Freddie Prinze sat by the bar. Freddie is a special Pryor fan. Once he said he really felt like he was happening because he was staying in the same room Pryor once had. And as soon as Richard pops on stage wearing a white gangster hat (Richard: “Hats are good for your attitude; niggers love hats; when you ain’t got no money, you gotta get yourself an attitude”), Freddie starts punching people in the arm, screaming, “He’s the best, he’s the goddamn best…. Man, Pryor knows what’s right; he’s paid all the dues. If I could get five minutes like any of his stuff, I’d come for months.”
Pryor, who says he really likes Jonathan Winters, digs the admiration, but he’s wary. “Nice that they say they love me, but I see it like the Western movies, just the young gunfighters waiting for the old man to slow up.” But then again, Richard Pryor is always wary. The horror seasons in Vegas and the exile that followed did more than turn him into a gun collector; they hurt his heart, too. Richard is not the trusting sort. Every once in a while he’ll chill you with a statement like, “You know me; I’m cool until you lie to me, then I get bad.”
Pryor is probably a poor choice to cross. The other day Mel Brooks came by the Silver Streak set. Mel and Richard once had business dealings. Pryor wrote a script called Black Bart that Brooks eventually made into Blazing Saddles. Richard is not anxious to talk about it, but the story goes that Pryor expected to get the lead part in the film. Then Brooks supposedly got cold feet when Warner Brothers contended that Pryor’s coke rep made him too unsavory a character to be a star. Cleavon Little copped the role. Richard was further depressed when Mel garnered all the applause for the picture (especially after the movie was a tremendous smash with blacks who related to many of Pryor’s joke lines). It made Richard cry. But today he’s doing his best to keep a stiff upper. Mel is playing his Yid imp around the set, paling around with Gene Wilder. Richard is polite. Polite even when Mel cuffs him around the neck, saying that Richard is “wonderful and talented” even if he isn’t Jewish. Richard arranges his face into smiling position and even manages a Sammy Davis-style breakup for one of Mel’s funnies. But as soon as Wilder and Brooks disappear, Pryor makes a sneer and collapses sourly on his dressing room bed.
For Pryor, the Blazing Saddles number had racial overtones. In Richard’s world, everything has racial overtones. On the “That Nigger’s Crazy” album, Pryor’s wino tries to rally the spaced junkie back to this planet by saying, “Boy, you know what your problem is? You don’t know how to deal with the white man. I do, that’s why I’m in the position I am in today.” That’s Richard at his best, applying the touching irony. A combination of hip and poetry — a guy who knows every street word and still wants to discuss John Hersey books about Hiroshima. But ironic, too, that the more Pryor becomes a mainstream success, the more dealings he’ll have with the white man. By now a large segment of his audience has to be white. In that there are problems. Much of his white-black comparison routine is tiresome. Pryor will do seemingly endless portrayals of blacks as vital, hip, and honorable under fire while whites are all stewardess-sterile and have the style of accountants. A common harp, but a white person would have to be terribly guilty to accept much of it. Pryor shrugs off such criticism, saying, “It’s just characters.”
No doubt, however, that Pryor’s crazy nigger legend comes in handy. It helps him frighten press agents and other unwanted types away from his door. Tough attitudizing is old-hat for Pryor; he knows he only has to squint to send Beverly Hills souls running.
But there’s a more subtle, poignant side to Pryor’s relationship with the white world. There should be for a man with an obvious capacity for great love who’s twice been married to white women. You can see it in Pryor’s acting in Bingo Long. Richard plays Charlie Snow, a black ballplayer in the pre-Jackie Robinson days who desperately wants to make “El Bigtime,” the white leagues. He figures if he pretends he’s Cuban, no one will notice that he’s black, so he goes around talking like Ricardo Montalban. The ruse succeeds in getting Richard battered about by a passel of baddies. The moral could be easy, but Pryor’s sensitivity to the issues of power longing and self-doubt in his character make for bittersweet moments.
Very complicated and painful stuff. Let’s say Pryor is easier to hang out with than to ask questions of. “I hate interviews,” Pryor says. “Let’s hang out.” So we hang out at Denny’s while Richard eats chef’s salads and breaks up at the way David Banks, his record producer, gently pulls an old waitress’s leg by asking her what she’s doing after work. No one laughs as picturesquely as Pryor when he’s hanging out. If you make a funny, Pryor’s on it in a second. Immediately, he’s gagging from the bottom of his throat, his hands are shaking, his eyes tumbling. If he’s standing up, his feet stamp and he bends from the waist. If he’s sitting down, he lets his butt slip off the chair until his chin rests against the table top. Genuflecting for the jokes. But the man is thinking all the time; picking up rap. The other day he quizzed me about a story I once did about rough kids in Chinatown. A few nights later the whole spiel was in his Comedy Store routine.
The best hanging out we did was the night of the Ali-Inoki fight. Some cats on the Silver Streak set told Pryor that this could be the night Muhammad finally had his ass whipped. The idea threw Pryor into a cold sweat so he bought sixteen $25 tickets so that the champ would have a solid rooting section at the Hollywood Palladium where the closed-circuit was showing. After a bunch of phone calls, people like Jim Brown — looking more massive than ever — showed up to watch the battle. The fight was a total dog. The wrestler lay on the canvas all fifteen rounds, hoping to kick Ali in the kneecap. The lack of action was getting Jim and Richard pissed off. “What the champ gonna do?” Richard said, “Jump on him and screw him?” There was one great moment. Yelling at his corner, Ali blurted, “Shut up, motherfucker!” into an open mike. That mangled Richard’s brain cells. His feet started moving, his mouth was gagging, and he couldn’t sit down for five minutes. Later it was agreed that this was the first time such a word had been said on an outerspace satellite.
This week, Richard is too antsy even to hang out. It seems strange that a comic who’s been on the boards for fifteen years should be as nervous before a performance as Pryor is tonight, but there are solid reasons. Right now, Richard is in the middle of his “transition.” Last year, before cutting “Is It Something I Said?” Pryor worked the Comedy Store every night for six weeks. He polished the characters until they were perfect — so perfect that he could throw away the original stories, improvise madly, and still have it come out right every time. But that was before the movies hit — when Pryor only had one career to worry about.
Now, for “Bicentennial Nigger,” Pryor has done the Store a total of three times. He couldn’t help it; he was shooting Silver Streak until a few days ago. The Roxy gig has already been rescheduled twice so Richard could have more time to “get his head ready.” He hopes it comes out right the first time, too, because three days after the show he’s leaving to do another movie. Preparation is a comic fallback, good to have when the gags muff, even for someone like Pryor. His major new character — a preacher who gives a sermon entitled “How Long Will This Bullshit Go On?” — is not nearly worked out. But Richard is loath to spend more time. For him, life as a stand-up could be drawing to a close.
“Can’t do this forever,” Richard says. “I don’t really want to go around the country playing clubs, seeing cities. I did that already. I have this new house. I want to stay put and do films.” It was inevitable. Anyone who sees Richard’s theatrics on stage can tell that stand-up is restricting for him. That’s what the Vegas beef was partly about. Richard’s imagination is too big for the one-man-show shtick: Besides, Pryor has always been a tremendous movie fan. Asked what he sees, he says, “Whatever’s advertised.” Comic Jimmie Walker, another Pryor disciple, remembers hanging out with Richard. All they did was go to grind houses. Richard has been translating his passions into film scripts for years. And now, with the Universal deal, he’ll be free to do what he wants. More to it than that: Pryor says, “Hey Jack, saw Logan’s Run the other day; twenty-third century, but there wasn’t no niggers in it. Guess they’re not planning for us to be around. That’s why we got to make our own movies.”
Quite a ways from the twenty-third century to the Roxy tonight. Well, maybe not that far. Black Hollywood is out for Pryor, and space-age outfits abound. Minnie Riperton has a Martian hairdo; Smokey Robinson is dressed like a Sunset Cossack. White people look sharp too; record industry types really lay on the turquoise bracelets when they know they’re going to party with blacks. And as soon as Richard ambles on stage, rather timidly, he acknowledges the Caucasian presence. “WHITE PEOPLE!” he shouts in mock horror. The scream must be primal, because it seems to loosen him up. It’s a hip crowd; they all know the Pryor legend. They titter when Pryor mentions white women, applaud when he talks about coke. Richard is doing well, especially with a bit based on Jim Brown’s version of the Ali-Inoki fight. But so far it’s all fairly sedate.
The audience knows what it wants: Pryor can act in Lina Wertmüller movies next week, but tonight they’re looking for a crazy nigger. Cheers are heard when a guy shouts, “Get crazy, man!” Pryor looks at the heckler with a sly smile, then stamps his feet and screams, “What you talking, nigger, want to fight?” The challenge has been voiced and met. But Pryor really sticks it when he introduces black actress Rosalind Cash with a standard laudatory show biz patter and tops it with, “Wish I could get some of that pussy!” That’s gall. Rosalind giggles. And the heckler surrenders in stitches: “Richard, goddamn!”
The place breaks up; Pryor, too. Now people are calling for Mudbone. If Richard creates any lovable characters, Mudbone has got to be the one. One of those history-knowing niggers, Mudbone is full of old stories about how he came up from Tupelo, Mississippi, way back when. He’s one of those cats who’re lying all the time, but looking at their faces tells you they’re authentic, as if just “being around” imbues them with a certain trust.
A typical Mudbone story is the one about the two dudes boasting about the size of their respective organs. They decide to settle it with a dangling contest off the Golden Gate Bridge. “Man, that water’s cold!” says the first. “Yeah,” agrees the second. “And it’s deep. too!”
Tonight there’s a special Bicentennial Mudbone. Except for the two opening lines, the whole routine is different. Richard makes the whole thing up on the spot. Lines like, “Jimmy Carter! I ain’t votin’ for anybody that owns a plantation!” The crowd goes mad and gives him a standing ovation.
Later, Richard says, “See, I can’t do the same thing over and over again. Even Mudbone changes.” After which he drives away in his spanky Mercedes, heading for the movies.
[Photo Credits: via various Tumblr sites and Wikipedia; Ali and Inoki, Tim Wehr ©Stars and Stripes]
He was a bit like the Eiffel Tower. You hear about it all your life, and when you finally see the damn thing, it looks so much like the postcards, it’s difficult to see it fresh. Hitchcock’s public self was so distinct that it was often impossible to know if I was dealing with the corporeal man or the invented persona. I think he sometimes got it confused, particularly in his storytelling. He was a well-known raconteur, and some of his stories were widely known and repeated–often by him. There were times when he seemed to feel obliged to tell Alfred Hitchcock stories. Sometimes he was at the top of his form and told them well; other times less so. I was aware of this and, as I came to see, so was he. With his high-waisted black suits–with trousers that rested above his enormous belly, leaving just a few inches of white shirt exposed and with a black tie tucked into his pants–he looked positively fictional, out of Dickens, perhaps, or a banker by Evelyn Waugh.
When I was working with him, he was seventy-nine years old and was sometimes lost in the solitude of great physical pain, arthritis mostly. He moved in and out of senility and yet, for all that, he seemed in no hurry to finish his work, even though his life was clearly limited. There was always time in our work sessions for stories and anecdotes. One minute the script, the next a story about Ivor Novello’s tailor or the Tahiti steamer schedule in the Thirties. Sometimes the talk was without apparent purpose, but at other times some shred of casual chatter would turn out useful to our work. He was obsessed with detail and had a slow, meandering style.
Hitchcock had the historical good fortune to have worked from silent films through television. At his best, he was an inventor of part of the modern cinema’s grammar. But unlike any other director, he was an identifiable public figure, as recognizable as any president or movie star. Television did that for him–but long before his television show he was popping up in all his own movies, those tiny cameo appearances that audiences loved. He exploited a physique that most would try desperately to diminish. He wasn’t crazy about being fat, but he saw his body as a tool to use in the making of his career. He always claimed that “in England everyone looks as I do, and no one would remark on it.” Maybe–but he exploited his profile as effectively as any pinup.
Brian DePalma’s weirdo glam rock horror comedy Phantom of the Paradise was released 40 years ago today.
The late William Finley was very pleased with his experience playing the Phantom. I was lucky enough to talk to Finley about his role not long before his death in 2012. A longtime friend and classmate of De Palma’s (they met at Sarah Lawrence College), Finley experienced the entire arc of Phantom, from its disastrous opening to its fanatical cult that grew over the next 25 years.
“Brian wrote the script originally in 1969,” Finley told me. “He use to hang out at the Fillmore a lot and take pictures. And he noticed, as the ’60s were ending, that we were starting to see a lot more preening self-regard by the frontmen of bands. And the kids having an unhealthy attraction to it. I actually think that Robert Plant was the original model for Beef [a musician in the film], but the character kept evolving. Still, I think Brian was very prescient about the coming of glam rock and the narcissism that came with it. He always had a good read on rock culture.”
At the time, though, critics didn’t seem to buy into De Palma’s take at all, either as parody or straight-ahead horror. New York Times critic Vincent Canby, a usually evenhanded if not especially hip critic, seemed to speak for many when he called Phantom of the Paradise “an elaborate disaster, full of the kind of humor you might find on bumper stickers and cocktail coasters.” However, De Palma’s lifelong booster, the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, said the film “has a lift to it. You practically get a kinetic charge from the breakneck wit [De Palma] has put into Phantom; it isn’t just that the picture has vitality but that one can feel the tremendous kick the director got out of making it.”
Hold that Tiger.
Seeing isn’t necessarily believing. Case in point: Tucker, Francis Ford Coppola’s new movie about the man who created a glamorous and controversial wonder car of the postwar ’40s but never quite got it into production. According to Coppola’s film, the Tucker was the Great American Automobile of its era, a dazzling experiment that advanced the automotive art by at least a decade. As for Preston Thomas Tucker, the man who made this miracle happen, Coppola presents him—and Jeff Bridges plays him—as a martyred saint of transportation, an endearing idealist betrayed by a sinister conspiracy hatched by Detroit’s Big Three: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
All of which adds up to a nice piece of innocent entertainment—and a considerable rearrangement of the truth. The Tucker car, in fact, was in some respects a streamlined lemon. And Tucker himself was a living jigsaw puzzle: industrial visionary, half-educated opportunist, promotional genius, amusing con artist, tender husband, big-spending boozer, loving father—and in the opinion of his adversaries, an out-and-out crook. Put the pieces together and you get the John De Lorean of a heartier time, an American primitive who grappled boldly for power and was swiftly destroyed in a spectacular financial scandal.
Everything about Tucker was spectacular. He stood 6’2″ and weighed 200 lbs., most of it muscle. Boldly handsome, he had large, dominating eyes and razor-thin lips. His black wavy hair was slicked back in the lounge-lizard style affected by George Raft, and a subtle effluence of Lucky Tiger hair tonic trailed him wherever he went. Invariably duded up in custom-tailored suits, jaunty black homburgs, expensive chesterfields and two-tone shoes, he could have passed for a modish mobster—except for his screechy bow ties and the white cotton socks he wore for his athlete’s foot.
From the funtastic new book, The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, check out this short essay Westlake wrote about working with Stephen Frears.×
Westlake wrote a screenplay based on Jim Thompson’s The Grifters for Stephen Frears’s acclaimed 1990 film adaptation, which ended up receiving four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Screenplay. This essay was published in Writers on Directors in 1999.
Here are two things Stephen Frears said to me. The first was several months before The Grifters was made and, in fact, before either of us had signed on to do the project. We had just recently met, brought together by the production company that had sent us to California to look at the place. Driving back from La Jolla toward L.A., me at the wheel of the rented car, Stephen in the seat beside me musing on life, he broke a longish silence to say, “You know, there’s nothing more loathsome than actually making a film, and it’s beginning to look as though I’ll have to make this one.” The second was the night of the same film’s New York premiere, at the post-opening party, when he leaned close to me in the noisy room and murmured, “Well we got away with it.”
I think what attracted me to Stephen in the first place is that, in a world of manic enthusiasm, here at last I’d met a fellow pessimist. Someone who would surely agree with Damon Runyon’s assessment: “All of life is six to five against.”
Not that he’s a defeatist, far from it. For instance, he refused to let me turn down the job of writing The Grifters, a thing that never happens. The normal sequence is, a writer is offered a job, thinks it over, says yea or nay, and that’s that. Having been offered this job, I read Jim Thompson’s novel—or reread, from years before—decided it was too grim, and said nay. That should have been the end of it, but the next thing I knew, Frears was on the phone from France, some Englishman I’d never met in my life, plaintively saying, “Why don’t you want to make my film?” I told him my reasons. He told me I was wrong, and proceeded to prove it—”It’s Lilly’s story, not Roy’s,” was his insight, not mine—and I finally agreed to a meeting in New York, which was the beginning of the most thoroughly enjoyable experience I’ve ever had in the world of movies.
Here’s another thing Stephen said to me: “I like the writer on the set.” This is not common among directors, and I wasn’t at all sure what it meant. Did he want a whipping boy? Someone to hide behind? Someone to blame? (You can see that I too am not a manic enthusiast.)
Anyway, no. As it turned out, what he wanted was a collaborator, and what we did was a collaboration. I didn’t direct and he didn’t write, and between us both we licked the platter clean.
I am not a proponent of the auteur theory. I think it comes out of a basic misunderstanding of the functions of creative versus interpretive arts. But I do believe that on the set and in the postproduction process the director is the captain of the ship. Authority has to reside in one person, and that should most sensibly be the director. So my rare disagreements with Stephen were in private, and we discussed them off-set as equals, and whichever of us prevailed—it was pretty even—the other one shrugged and got on with it.
The result has much of Jim Thompson in it, of course. It has much in it of the talents of its wonderful cast and designer. It has some of me in it. But the look of it, the feel of it, the smell of it, the three-inches-off-the-ground quality of it; that’s Stephen.
If we aren’t going to enjoy ourselves, why do it? Stephen’s right, much of the filmmaking is loathsome. Pleasure and satisfaction have to come from the work itself and from one’s companions on the journey. The Grifters was for me that rarity; everyone in the boat rowing in the same direction. I hadn’t had that much fun on the job since I was nineteen, in college, and had a part-time job on a beer truck with a guy named Luke.
The Getaway Car is on sale now.
[Copyright Donald E. Westlake. Reprinted with permission from The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, published by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.]
Because you can’t ever get enough of a good thing here’s more–from the beautiful site, Cinephilia and Beyond–on The Long Goodbye:
I decided that we were going to call him Rip Van Marlowe, as if he’d been asleep for twenty years, had woken up and was wandering through this landscape of the early 1970s, but trying to invoke the morals of a previous era. I put him in that dark suit, white shirt and tie, while everyone else was smelling incense and smoking pot and going topless; everything was health food and exercise and cool. So we just satirized that whole time. And that’s why that line of Elliott’s—‘It’s OK with me’—became his key line throughout the film. —Robert Altman
Today gives a wonderful profile of Billy Wilder that David Freeman wrote for The New Yorker in 1993. It originally appeared in the June 21, ’93 issue of the magazine and appears here with permission from the author.
Dig in, you’re sure to enjoy.
“Sunset Boulevard Revisited”
By David Freeman
For a while in the mid-eighties, United Artists paid Billy Wilder a big salary and set him up in an office at its Beverly Hills headquarters. He was supposed to advise the studio’s executives and to give his opinion on the productions they were planning. I asked him at the time how the arrangement was working out. He told me, “Every script, I tell them the same thing: Don’t do it.”
“Do they listen?”
“They do it anyway. Nine times out of ten, the picture flops. Then it’s ‘We should have listened to Billy.’ When there’s a hit, they’re so happy they forget what I said.”
Billy Wilder is the youngest of the generation of directors who dominated Hollywood in the period that shaped American movies and consequently America’s view of itself. They were the princes of the cinema: Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, George Stevens, George Cukor, and William Wyler. Wilder’s immediate contemporaries were Joseph L. Mankiewicz and John Huston. Only Wilder remains.
Wilder’s best-known movie, Sunset Boulevard, is about to become an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Wilder says of the composer-impresario, “He’s the Ted Williams of musicals—all hits!” The production, with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, opens at the Adelphi Theatre in London on July 12th. Patti LuPone plays Norma Desmond, the silent movie queen who has outlived her era.
Sunset Boulevard has become a sort of rallying point for movie buffs. In Gloria Swanson’s performance as Norma they seem to see a camp diva, along the lines of Callas. The initiates recite the film’s dialogue, chanting such famous Norma Desmond lines as “We had faces” and “I’m ready for my closeup.” “You used to be big,” William Holden says to her. “I am big,” Swanson replies. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
* * * *
After sixty years in Southern California, Wilder looks like a libidinous owl and is almost as famous as a raconteur as he is for his movies. He uses a highly personal international syntax, which doesn’t always include transitions. Wilder has a tendency to mumble and then to explode into his point, which is often a punch line. His stories of the Hollywood that was are enthralling in ways that go beyond such subjective matters as truth. He may repeat a story, but never the same way twice. Wilder’s remarks circulate in Hollywood, savored and retold for years. Before her marriage, his wife, Audrey, lived with her mother in modest circumstances. Wilder told her, “I’d worship the ground you walk on, if you lived in a better neighborhood.”
Billy Wilder’s first neighborhood was the town of Sucha, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was born on June 22, 1906, during the reign of the Emperor Franz-Josef. Wilder’s mother, Eugenia, who had visited America, named her second son Samuel but called him Billy, possibly for Buffalo Bill. (Billy’s brother, Wilhelm, was born in 1904. He, too, wound up in Hollywood, as W. Lee Wilder, a producer-director in the forties and fifties.) Billy’s father, Max, was in and out of businesses, including hotels and railroad station cafes, and in and out of money. As a child in Vienna, Billy took up a pool cue, stood on a chair in one of his father’s hotels, and shot billiards for pocket kronen. He lasted a few months at the University of Vienna, then quit to become a reporter on Die Stunde, a paper he recalls as the Viennese equivalent of a tabloid. “It was a revolver paper,” he says. “They came at you with a gun.” When the paper was putting together a special edition on the subject of Fascism, in 1925, Wilder was assigned to interview Richard Strauss, Arthur Schnitzler, Alfred Adler, and Sigmund Freud. He took the trolley around Vienna, pursuing the great men. “My question was ‘What do you think of Fascism and the future?’ With Freud, I got to ‘Good afternoon, Professor.’ He said, ‘What paper?’ ‘Die Stunde,’ I answered. ‘Out!’ he said.”
In 1926, Wilder went to Berlin and began to write scenarios. To earn money, he worked as a dancer at the thés dansants at the Eden Hotel, twirling older women around the floor. When the Reichstag burned, Wilder, feeling that career possibilities for twenty-six-year-old Jewish scenario writers might be limited, fled to Paris, leaving behind his family and his native language. By 1934, he was in Hollywood, with no money, no English, and no work. He has always said that he lived for a while in the ladies’ room of the Chateau Marmont Hotel. It has become part of Hollywood’s mythology, and it may even be true.
Ernst Lubitsch, a Berliner, was the head of production at Paramount for about a year in the mid-thirties—the only first-rank director ever to run a Hollywood studio. Wilder was in awe of him then and still is. “I was taught by Lubitsch you should not notice the director. He should be invisible. You should notice the characters,” Wilder said recently, reminiscing about his mentor. On being asked if such restraint wasn’t contradicted by the self-conscious style of German Expressionism, in which Lubitsch had dabbled, Wilder said, “Yeah, sure. They did all those angles and that lighting because they couldn’t afford sets. When they got money, in Hollywood, they dropped all that stuff.” Wilder has often said, “Lubitsch could do more with a closed door than most directors can with an open fly.”
Wilder got his chance with Lubitsch in 1936, when Paramount assigned him to work with Charles Brackett, a more experienced writer, on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Brackett, fourteen years Wilder’s senior, was a novelist and a gent. He was Harvard Law, class of 1920, and had been a drama critic for The New Yorker. When Lubitsch moved to M-G-M, he hired the pair to work on Ninotchka. Seven Brackett-Wilder scripts were shot before Wilder started directing; later, Brackett produced the pictures that he and Wilder wrote together.
During the Brackett era, Wilder’s scriptwriting methods were established. While Brackett, like all Wilder’s partners to come, jotted notes, Wilder paced the room, gesturing with a swagger stick or a baton, slicing the air. Brackett’s boozy Republican gentility was often at odds with Wilder’s brash ambition. Wilder was the junior man but the more forceful personality. The partners were known for their screaming matches as well as for their scripts. “We were opposites, from different parts of the world,” Wilder recalls. “Our temperaments had to be held in check. We fought a lot. Brackett and I were like a box of matches. We kept striking till it lights up. He would sometimes throw a telephone book at me.” They walked out on each other several times, each vowing to go it alone. But, like a couple in a marriage that doesn’t quite work but won’t quite end, they kept at it, locked in productivity and combat, and came to be known as BrackettandWilder.
For Wilder, a third colleague may have been as significant as Lubitsch and Brackett. Mitchell Leisen, a staff director at Paramount, directed three Brackett-Wilder scripts, and was unwittingly responsible for making Wilder a director. Wilder couldn’t bear him and often said so, believing that Leisen, who had started as a designer, knew nothing about storytelling and cared only for the drape of a skirt or the way a shadow fell. Wilder accused Leisen of tearing up carefully written scenes on the whim of an actor or just to demonstrate his authority. “He hated writers,” Wilder says. “I would come on the set and stop him. ‘What happened to that line?’ I would say. He would say, ‘I cut it. You’re bothering me.’ He came from set dressing.” The idea of Wilder’s mellowing is unlikely, and he still finds the subject of Leisen distasteful, but he acknowledges that Midnight and Arise, My Love, directed by Leisen from Bracken-Wilder scripts, are “good pictures.” Then he mutters, “I could have done them better.”
In the spirit of Lubitsch, Wilder’s cinema is one of exquisitely constructed scripts rather than ravishing images. It is also a cinema of frequently unsympathetic leading characters and of jokes and gags, the more topical, self-referential, or exuberantly vulgar the better. There are no Fordian horsemen plowing down snowy mountains; it is a writer’s cinema. Wilder became a director to protect what he had written. He always mapped out his story with a partner, then stuck to it on the set, often shooting in sequence and allowing for only minor changes. He frequently began production with an uncompleted script, writing as he shot, and this made him hard to fire. It was his way of giving immediacy to what he had written. Contemporary directors routinely talk about “finding their film” in the cutting room. Even directors working from their own scripts often encourage actors to improvise. They’re in search of spontaneity. “Unfortunately, they often find it,” Wilder says. Of the complicated camera angles now so much in vogue he says, “Down the chimney, through the fireplace: point of view, Santa Claus. Who else would be up there?”
In 1943, Wilder collaborated with Raymond Chandler on the adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity. “Brackett did not like to deal in risqué stories like that,” Wilder says. Although the movie is an enduring work, one of the best and most popular examples of film noir, Chandler had a rough time. He loathed Wilder’s strutting ways in the office. In a letter to Harnish Hamilton, his British publisher, he wrote, “Working with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life.” Brackett was a picture man, though, and knew the value of the alliance. He and Wilder were soon back together for The Lost Weekend, which won Oscars in 1945 for best picture, script, and director, and for Ray Milland as best actor.
Brackett and Wilder had patched things up, but Wilder’s marriage was coming apart. His wife, Judith, whom he had married in 1936, was the step daughter of the French artist Paul Iribe, who was also an art director for Cecil B. De Mille. The Wilders’ daughter, Victoria, was born in 1939. (Her twin brother, Vincent, died when he was four months old.) By 1942, Wilder had become involved with the actress Doris Dowling, who would later play the prostitute in The Lost Weekend. The affair was the subject of a great deal of gossip. Their friends assumed that Wilder would marry Dowling. Then he met Audrey Young, a singer, who was a bit player in The Lost Weekend. Wilder found himself separating from his wife, cheating on his mistress, and pursuing Audrey. She got the man, but her part in “The Lost Weekend” wound up on the cutting-room floor.
After the war, Wilder served with the Psychological Warfare Division of the United States Army in Germany. Among Colonel Wilder’s tasks was helping to rebuild the German film industry. To that end, he interviewed ex-Nazis, trying to decide which ones were the least undesirable. He was asked by the director of the Oberammergau Passion play to pass judgment on Anton Lang, who had played Christ before the war and had been in the S.S. Now the director wanted him back.
“On one condition,” Wilder said.
“And what is that?” he was asked.
“That in the Crucifixion scene you use real nails.”
During his tour of duty, Wilder got a look at what was left of Berlin, the city where he had served his ad-hoc apprenticeship in the movies. He had not heard from his family during the war. Now he confirmed what he had suspected: his mother, his stepfather, and his grandmother had died in Auschwitz. “What ever pain he endured privately, his response was to make a comedy, A Foreign Affair, written with Brackett and Richard L. Breen. It is serious without being in the least earnest, and it brought Wilder’s reputation for vulgarity to an early peak. Maybe no one was in a mood to make fun of postwar Berlin—no one but Wilder, anyway.
The film opens with shots of bombed-out Berlin, seen from a plane carrying a dim-bulb congressional delegation to look into the morale of the occupation troops. The team includes Jean Arthur as a representative from Iowa who brings a constituent’s chocolate cake for an Army captain (John Lund). He trades it on the black market for a mattress, tosses the mattress in his jeep, then drives through the ashen hell of Berlin while the soundtrack plays “Isn’t It Romantic?” It’s Berlin, all right, but the real locale is Billy Wilder Land. Of the choice of music Wilder says, “Paramount owned it. You were obliged to use what they didn’t have to pay for. They thought I was a good soldier.”
Lund takes the mattress to Marlene Dietrich. In some casual love play, she calls him her Führer (“Heil Johnny”), and he says, “Why don’t I choke you a little. Break you in two. Build a fire under you, you blond witch.” There’s not a lot of kitchy-kitchy-coo in the dialogue. Richard Corliss called the Movie “Wilder at his most vile.”James Agee said, “A good bit of it is in rotten taste.”
The question of “taste” has plagued Wilder. It is as if the critics, confronted with his bawdy rudeness, became Rotarians. Wilder is an ironist—that was the point of using “Isn’t It Romantic?” Movies usually trade in more readily understood situations and characters. In A Foreign Affair. Dietrich is a not quite former Nazi, mostly because a girl’s got to eat. Wilder keeps it broad enough for the groundlings, but underneath there’s a dark, anarchic vision.
For Wilder, it has always been jokes above all. He has the true satirist’s compulsion: he mocks everyone, and speaks his mind in wisecracks. Of the writers and directors who refused to testify before HUAC, the so-called “unfriendly witnesses,” Wilder said, “Two of them have talent. The rest are just unfriendly.” But, like all satirists, he has a moralist’s heart. For every swindler, there’s a patsy; for every corrupted bimbo, there’s a venal, self-serving fool of a man. His movies, like Wilder himself, are often mordant and relentlessly unsentimental.
* * * *
Wilder doesn’t own prints or cassettes of his films, and says he has no interest in watching them again He’s seen clips from Sunset Boulevard over the years. “The same clips!” he mutters. “ ‘We had faces,’ ‘pictures got small’ Who needs it?” The last time he had seen the entire movie was at the Paramount studio theatre in the summer of 1950.
As he walked across the Paramount lot on a recent morning, Wilder recalled that earlier screening, which was just prior to the release of the picture. Sunset Boulevard had suffered an unsuccessful preview in Evanston, Illinois, causing Brackett and Wilder to shoot a new opening. The movie begins, famously, with William Holden as Joe Gillis, the murdered screenwriter, narrating the action from the dead, his body floating in a swimming pool The rejected version began in the Los Angeles morgue, with corpses chatting about how they got there. After Paramount showed the re-shot version, the industry crowd milled about in the alley outside the studio theatre. Louis B. Mayer, who had not cared for the portrait of Hollywood, was heard to say, “Billy Wilder should be run out of town.” Wilder took that for the challenge it was, and told the head of M-G-M, “Go shit in your hat.”
Now, in that same alley, Wilder said, “That’s what I’ll be remembered for, a stupid insult to Louis B. Mayer.”
“Isn’t what people remember that you wouldn’t let him insult you?”
“They remember shit in the hat.”
Screening Room No. 5, where Wilder was about to have his first look at Sunset Boulevard since the run-in with Mayer, is in a tangle of editing rooms, offices, and projection booths above the theatre. It has been repainted, and the equipment is newer, but otherwise the room is unchanged since the days when Brackett and Wilder watched rushes there. Paramount is where Sunset Boulevard was written, shot, and edited; several of the locations in the film were only steps away.
“Is this going to be like the opera?” Wilder asked. When I looked puzzled, he said, “I went to see Götterdämmerung. It started at eight. At midnight, when I looked at my watch, it was eight-fifteen.” Assured that Sunset Boulevard played faster than that, he sat down, ready to see just what it was that he and Brackett had made forty-four years ago. We were seated on either side of the console, which permitted us to control the volume or speak to the projectionist. Earlier, I had reminded him that if he couldn’t bear it he could tell the projectionist to skip a reel or two. Now he had his eye on the console.
As Franz Waxman’s score boomed out and William Holden’s narration began, Wilder, who is usually animated, grew still. His mouth tightened and his lips twitched. He didn’t perk up until Holden, bemoaning his lack of work, says, “I talked to a couple of yes-men at Metro. To me they said no.”
When Erich von Stroheim, as Max von Mayerling, the butler and chauffeur, mistakes Holden for someone else and says, “If you need any help with the coffin, call me,” Wilder nodded approval and said, “You get those little hooks into the audience. ‘Coffin’ out of nowhere.”
During Holden and Swanson’s first big scene, with the exchange that begins, “You’re Norma Desmond…You used to be big,” Wilder looked as if he were watching a take and deciding whether to ask for another. When he called out “Good!” I half expected the film to stop and the actors to take a break.
Not until he’d had a taste of Swanson’s performance did he seem to relax. The picture depends on her. It was made twenty years after the end of the silent era, when audiences had a sense of the transition to sound. But would any of it come through now? When Norma plays bridge with Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner, her contemporaries, Holden calls them “the waxworks.” Wilder seemed to be looking hard to see whether the film itself now belonged in that category.
“He’s watching her,” Wilder said, meaning that Holden was watching Swanson, trying to decide what to make of this strange, pop-eyed wonder from another world. Through Holden’s eyes, the audience understands that every move and gesture Norma Desmond makes, every extravagant claim and demand, is real to her. Wilder saw that it was working, and began to enjoy himself. “That’s silent picture acting. You can’t teach somebody. Unless you grew up with it, you can’t do it.”
In von Stroheim’s first big scene, when he explains to Holden just who Norma Desmond is, he says, “There was a maharaja who came all the way from India to beg for one of her silk stockings. Later, he strangled himself with it.” Wilder laughed, and said, “So preposterous.” But when the scene was over he said of von Stroheim,”He’s like a light bulb that suddenly shines on in that scene—even with that strangling stuff.” Von Stroheim was himself a legendary director of the silent era—the film that Norma runs for Joe is his unfinished Queen Kelly, which starred Swanson. He brought a director’s sensibility to his role. “It was his idea that Max wrote all the fan letters Norma got,” Wilder explained. “He had an idea about Max washing her underwear. ‘I can do a lot with that,’ he said. It was too much, I didn’t use it.” Of von Stroheim as chauffeur, Wilder said later, “He didn’t know how to drive. We had to tow the car when he comes onto the lot. He still crashed it into the Bronson Gate.”
After Wilder was sure that the central performances held up, he occasionally hummed along with Waxman’s score. He was amused by the various sums of money mentioned: five hundred dollars a week for a screenwriter, and twenty-eight thousand dollars as the value of Norma Desmond’s lavish touring car, an Isotta-Fraschini. When Norma says, “I’m richer than all this new Hollywood trash. I’ve got a million dollars,” Wilder repeated the line and laughed.
But it was Swanson who continued to interest him. When she says, “Me, me, Norma Desmond,” in all her nutty megalomania, Wilder said, “Right up to the edge.” He meant that she had the courage to risk looking ridiculous and the skill to keep in character. A moment later, he said, “She was fifty-two. It was old then. Holden was about thirty. The chasm between silent pictures and talkies, you think there’s three hundred years between them.”
During a scene with Holden and Nancy Olson, the young screenwriter he meets, Wilder’s lips were moving, but I couldn’t follow what he was saying. I lowered the volume, and realized he was approximating the dialogue. But this was no reverie. He was apparently trying to get Holden and Olson to pick up the pace. I guessed he hadn’t liked the line readings in 1949 and didn’t like them now. Near the end of the scene, he said, sharply and loudly, “Then what happened?,” which was Holden’s line—he hadn’t got to it yet. It cued Olson’s “You did,” which ended the scene. Wilder said, “Good short line.”
Wilder took particular delight in the sequences with Cecil B. De Mille, who plays himself “He was shooting Samson and Delilah,” Wilder recalls. “We used his sets when Norma visits. We had him for one day. Ten thousand dollars. Then we required one more close-up. I asked him to come back and do it. He understood. It was the shot outside the stage where he says goodbye. He came back. For another ten thousand dollars.”
When DeMille tells Norma to sit for a moment, Wilder said, “I wanted De Mille to displace Hedy Lamarr and give her chair to Norma. She’d do it—for twenty-five thousand dollars. I said that it would be enough for Norma to sit in a chair with Hedy Lamarr’s name on it. That was ten thousand dollars. So I put her in De Mille’s chair.” While she’s sitting there, a boom microphone passes behind her, disturbing her hat and casting a shadow on her face. “Watch this,” Wilder said, anticipating the end of the shot. “Hah!” he whooped as Norma scowls at the microphone, the very thing that ended her era.
As Norma is about to make her final walk down the staircase, playing Salome to the newsreel cameras, Wilder said, “When I rehearsed this scene, very complex emotions are coming down those stairs. I rehearsed it to music.”
I nodded, and mumbled something about Strauss.
“No, no,” he said. “Strauss for the rehearsal. Then we got better than Strauss. Waxman!” When the music surged and the end credits ran, he nodded in time and hummed with the score as the lights came up. Then he was quiet. He knew that it is on this film that his reputation will rest for future generations. There were Paramount employees waiting with pictures and posters for him to sign, but no one was going to rush Billy Wilder at a time like this. Then, as always, retreating into anecdote, he said, “Willy Wyler made a picture called Hell’s Heroes. Thirty years later, he wanted to look at it again. It took them about a week to find a print. They sent it over to his house—he had a cutting room. He took a chunk out and sent it back. No one would ever see it! He wanted to improve it.”
“Do you want to recut?”
“I’m Wilder, not Wyler. We got mixed up all the time. Willy, Billy.”
“Would you like to go into the editing room with it?”
“Here, there, maybe. Some retakes. But no. There’s not much dust on it.” He was quiet again. Then he said, “Come on. I’ll buy you a cheap lunch.”
* * * *
Because Billy Wilder is a screenwriter, rewriting is in his blood. He can’t resist trying to improve something already written—or, in this case, spoken.
In a restaurant near his office in Beverly Hills, he talked more about Sunset Boulevard. “I dug out from one of the drawers a vague story about a silent era star,” he said. “More of a comedy. Mae West was a possibility. With a man half her age. As Charlie and I worked on it, I thought, maybe we need some young blood. Maybe we’re sort of pooped out So we got D. M. Marshman. He was a writer for Life magazine.”
“Were you and Brackett not getting along?”
“We had been working together thirteen years. We needed another mind in there. It was our last picture.”
Holden’s role was written for Montgomery Clift, who turned it down at the last minute, probably because it was too close to his own relationship with the singer Libby Holman. At the time, Wilder was furious, but, looking back, he says, “You wouldn’t believe Clift as a ghostwriter, even if he was hungry.”
Did he think Clift might have given a more complex performance? One could imagine him having an ambiguous reaction to his degradation.
“Holden is closer to a Hollywood writer. Not a poet of the new muse. The best actor I ever worked with was Charles Laughton—Witness for the Prosecution. He goes to a point where a tenth of an inch more and it would be ludicrous. Very few can do that. Swanson got it.” Then Wilder changed the topic without a pause. “The night shot where Holden and Nancy Olson walk on the lot, she tells how she grew up there, at Paramount. How she wanted to be in movies. That’s my wife’s background we used. Audrey’s mother worked in wardrobe. Aud grew up like that.”
Could he say what he had been thinking while he was watching the movie?
“I was involved in remembering, How did I work it? Did I get the best possible scene I could? Over all, the most comforting feeling was that, yes, I would shoot it this way again. The dialogue was not bad. I didn’t wince. I found it surprisingly believable. Only a few minutes that embarrassed me—if the picture is shown in the hereafter theatre, I’ll speed up the projectionist. Today, I couldn’t drum up such a cast. I needed Swanson, I got her. I needed De Mille, l got him. I needed von Stroheim, I got him. I was lucky. It looked pretty good. I would stand up for it. Now I don’t have to look at it for another forty-five years.”
* * * *
After Sunset Boulevard, the Brackett-Wilder partnership was dissolved. Brackett went on to a prominent career as a producer and was publicly upbeat about the breakup, but at the end of his life he told Garson Kanin that he’d never understood it. “We were doing so well,” he said. “It was such a blow, such an unexpected blow, I thought I’d never recover from it.” After Brackett, Wilder had a series of partners. Some were distinguished, but none stayed on for a second picture until I. A. L. Diamond, who always claimed his initials stood for Interscholastic Algebra League, turned up. Born ltek Dommnici, in Romania, Diamond arrived in America at nine and grew up in Crown Heights. After Columbia, where he wrote the book for the Varsity Show for each of his four years and edited the Daily Spectator, he kicked around Hollywood writing comedies and musicals. In 1956, he hooked up with Wilder for Love in the Afternoon. Eventually, they made twelve pictures together, including Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, One, Two, Three, Kiss Me, Stupid, and The Fortune Cookie, all black-and-white gems of the American idiom, written by men whose native language was not English.
Some Like It Hot was made during Marilyn Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller. She showed up on the set hours after her call, and she had trouble with her lines, requiring forty-seven takes over two days to enter a room and say, “Where’s the bourbon?” After the film was in release, Wilder made some indiscreet remarks about Monroe to the press, saying that after he’d made two pictures with her (The Seven Year Itch was the first) the Directors Guild should award him a Purple Heart. The result was a public squabble. Arthur Miller called Wilder “contemptible.” Today, Wilder takes a more relaxed view of Monroe. “Not all the doctors and chemists and clairvoyants know what makes a star,” he says. “When I would be driving to the studio in the morning, I would think the whole cast would be there, two hundred extras would be there, the crew would be there. And Marilyn? Who knows where? I would stop the car and throw up. My back was always out. Except the footage looked great. I would have preferred fewer takes, but each time she said a line it was the first time it was ever said.”
“Well,nobody’s perfect,” the picture’s famous last line, was considered for an earlier scene:
JERRY: He keeps marrying girls all the time.
JOE: But you’re not a girl. You’re a guy. And why would a guy want to marry a guy?
In 1985, Diamond wrote in California Magazine that he had thought about adding, “Nobody’s perfect,” but was afraid that it “would kill the security joke.” He filed it away in his mind and later thought it might do as the last line of the movie. He remembered Wilder’s being uncertain, and saying, “Maybe we’ll think of something better on the set.”
Reminiscing about Diamond, Wilder said, “The highest compliment you could get from him would be ‘Why not?’ The Reagans once sent an invitation to go to the White House for dinner. I didn’t want it. lzzy said, ‘You’re right. If you go, then you’ll have to invite them to your house. Then back and forth. Who knows what it could lead to?’”
Diamond died of multiple myeloma in 1988, at the age of sixty-seven. “The script that was written was a completely different third act,” Wilder said. “I was fourteen years older. I was supposed to go first. He knew he had that disease four years. He never said a word. Finally, when we were talking about something I thought we could do, he said, ‘I better tell you, I guess.’ ” Then Wilder waved his hand and shrugged. Friends say he was distraught over Diamond’s death. “Flattened” is the way one put it.
Wilder had already endured a period of commercial flops. Now he had no partner. “If God would send me another Brackett or Diamond…” he said, letting the sentence trail off. The last Wilder-Diamond film was Buddy Buddy, in 1981. It was not well received. Even before Diamond’s death, more movies were doubtful. But the sheer fizz of Wilder’s personality made it unlikely that he would withdraw. He had long collected modern art, and owned works by Picasso, Miró, Giacometti, Balthus, Kirchner, and Cornell. By 1989, his collection had grown so large and the market was so good that he decided to sell. He declared himself Lord of the Tchotchkes and arranged for an auction at Christie’s in New York. The media couldn’t get enough of it. The sale generated thirty-two million six hundred thousand dollars. Wilder had been wealthy for years, but now he was a rich man. More important, he had a hit.
Wilder can’t seem to stop collecting art. The walls of his office feature works by Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella; in one corner there are odd-looking found objects, awaiting sculptural treatment. He has always been fond of objets trouvés, and now, with the help of a friend, he has been turning out highly idiosyncratic pieces of sculpture. “Stallone’s Typewriter” is an old Underwood painted in camouflage green and black, with bullets and toy weaponry attached. The platen is wrapped in a gauzy American flag. Wilder says he’s working on a script but adds, almost plaintively, “I don’t know if anyone will let me direct it.” What he does know is that film directing has become a younger person’s sport. Wilder turns eighty-seven this month. In Beverly Hills, near his office, he’s a familiar sight on the streets, where passersby sometimes point him out, like a civic attraction. The Wilders will be in London for the opening of Sunset Boulevard, as guests of Andrew Lloyd Webber. “It’s going to be expensive,” Wilder says, grinning. “After the Connaught, it’s Paris for the collections and a tiny little stop at Christian Dior.”
Critics have often written disparagingly about Wilder, pointing out the themes of venality and corruption and usually calling them cynicism. But Wilder’s recurring motif is disguise, and his real theme is identity. A young screenwriter allows himself to be dressed like a plutocrat and makes love to a woman who appalls him. A saxophone player puts on drag, then a yachting costume, and starts sounding like Cary Grant. Who are these guys?” They, and a gallery of others, reside in an exaggerated world that belongs to the quick-witted and to those who can cut the best deals—a world where everything, and certainly love, is for sale. Taken collectively, Wilder’s raucous, impolite, and often impolitic movies are the record of an exile, a man of the century, made in a medium that was virtually unknown when he was born. Like Hollywood itself, they are a very American achievement. After their alliance was dissolved, Charles Brackett wrote of his former partner, “He was sassy and brash and often unwise, but…he was in love with America as I have seen few people in love with it.”
The critics are now catching up. In 1991, Andrew Sarris published an essay in Film Comment titled “Why Billy Wilder Belongs in the Pantheon.” Twenty-three years earlier, in his influential The American Cinema, Sarris had put Wilder in a category called “Less Than Meets the Eye.” Critical ideas and judgments change all the time, of course, but usually those criticized aren’t around to hear about it. Many of Wilder’s contemporaries, directors who were giants in their time, now seem like Ozymandias. But Wilder’s pictures are watched and studied by film students and professionals trying to figure out how he did it.
When I asked Wilder what he made of the critics’ coming around, he shrugged, apparently uninterested in the issue. A little later, he answered indirectly, saying, “The best insert shot ever made is in Potemkin. The sailors are going to mutiny because the meat is rank. Then there’s the insert of the meat. It’s crawling with maggots. The doctor looks at it and says, ‘The meat’s fine.’” Then Wilder laughed at the absurdity of ever worrying about what anyone says about anything. It reminded him of a story. “I told Sam Goldwyn I wanted to make a movie about Nijinsky. I explained how he was the greatest dancer ever and I told him about his career and how he ended up in a French nuthouse, thinking he was a horse. So Sam says, ‘What kind of picture is that? A man who thinks he’s a horse?’ I told him, ‘Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending. In the final scene, he wins the Kentucky Derby.’”
[Photo Credits: Images found, unattributed via Google Images; if you know who took various shots, please let me know and I will give the proper credit; shot of Chandler and Wilder via UCLA]
For more on Billy Wilder, head on over to the great site, Cinephilia and Beyond.
Bob Balaban: Altman-esque means never having to say you’re sorry. Bob did what he wanted in the face of tremendous obstacles and he really was programmed that way. I suspect as a child he was pretty stubborn all his life. What was he like as a child Kathryn, did you ever hear stories about him?
Kathryn Altman: Yeah, I can’t believe them!
BB: But to me, the whole key to Robert in everything, was that he was someone who followed his own beat and listened to his own drum. You couldn’t dissuade him from that path, and that was one of his great strengths as a filmmaker, and possibly as a human being as well. So that’s Altman-esque to me.
KA: Right off the top of my head, my synonym for Altman is having the world’s greatest sense of humor—I mean, just the world’s greatest, the best. And that’s something that shows in all his pictures in so many different ways and always comes up at some point.
BB: One of the greatest secrets of writing and directing is that people with senses of a humor really understand that there’s no difference between comedy and tragedy, it’s all mixed in there together just as in life. And most filmmakers say, this is going to be a funny movie or this is going to be a serious movie, but for Robert, I don’t think there was any dividing line between. It was life, it wasn’t serious, it wasn’t funny, it was life.