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.
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]
Here’s another gem by Ross Wetzsteon. Originally published in the March 14, 1988, issue of New York magazine. Reprinted here with permission of the author’s widow, Laura Ross. Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Flying. He’d wanted to fly since he was 16. Sitting at his desk in high school in Greenwood, Mississippi, he fantasized that it was a P-51 Mustang, F-86 Sabre jet. He didn’t want to be a pilot, he wanted to be a flier. A pilot just drives—the flyer flies.
And now, five years later, Morgan Freeman is sitting in the cockpit of a jet fighter at last, the Plexiglass bubble secure, the nose falling away in front, the wings swept back, the joystick between his legs. Taxi to the head of the runway, get his clearance from the control tower, let loose the engine, sore into the sky!
Okay, it’s just a T-33 jet trainer parked beside a hanger and he’s only an airman-second-class radar mechanic who’s gotten permission to sit in the cockpit for a few minutes, but this is what he’s dreamed of since he enlisted in the Air Force. Hand on the throttle, eyes scanning the sky, he lets his mind fall into a rapturous reverie—chasing the clouds, dipping his wings from side to side, nosing into a steep dive and pulling out in a swooping arc.
But something’s wrong. After a couple of minutes, he realizes he can’t find the thrill he anticipated. It isn’t there. Instead of fantasizing, he starts thinking. Maybe this isn’t what he wants after all. Maybe he only wanted it because of the movies he’d seen. For one thing, anything he shoots will stay shot. Ten minutes pass. Fifteen. The dream is fading. No, this isn’t what he wants it all. After 20 minutes, he unstraps himself, pushes back the bubble, gets out of the cockpit, leaps to the ground, and walks away—not just from the plane but from the whole idea, from war, military life, jet fighters, all of it. He’s made a decision. If it’s all about movies, he’ll become an actor instead.
Thirty years later, in her New Yorker review of Street Smart, Pauline Kael asks, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?” and it’s clear from her rave that it’s a rhetorical question. At Christmas time, he wins awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York and Los Angeles film critics as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a pimp in Street Smart. In February, he’s nominated for an Oscar—against all odds, since only an electric performance could survive such a forgettable film. A street-smart pimp? The same Morgan Freeman who just finished a nearly yearlong run as an elderly, unlettered southern chauffeur in the Off-Broadway hit Driving Miss Daisy (a performance that won him his third Obie in eight years)? The same Morgan Freeman who’s a surefire Tony nominee for his performance as a charismatic Pentecostal preacher in The Gospel at Colonus, the long-awaited Lee Breuer-Bob Telson musical that had cheering, ecstatic audiences standing on their seats at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival in 1983, then in Houston, Washington, Philadelphia, Paris, Atlanta, Barcelona, and opens on Broadway March 24?
And this is only one year. Morgan Freeman has played a wise old wino in The Mighty Gents on Broadway, an idealistic upper-middle-class architect on the soap Another World, a death-row prisoner in the film Brubaker. He’s danced with Michael Kidd at the 1964 World’s Fair, sung with Pearl Bailey in the all-black Hello, Dolly! He could be seen romping on The Electric Company, then as a stately Coriolanus at the Delacorte.
“When professionals talk range,” says a director, “the names you hear most often are Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Morgan Freeman. It’s that indefinable quality only the greatest actors have to completely submerge themselves in radically different roles, to make you think in each one of them, ‘He was born to play that.’ A lot of actors have that authority in one or two or even three roles, but Morgan has it in everything he does.” It’s the kind of talent that often wins accolades within the profession long before it wins public recognition, and only this year has the world finally realized what Freeman has known for 30 years—that he made the right decision when he walked away from that cockpit.
Oscars, Obies, Tonys—Morgan Freeman is grateful for the recognition, but it also makes him uneasy. “It’s like some sorta Miss America contest,” he says in a half-exasperated, half-baffled tone. “‘Most this,’ ‘Best that’—all this schmagoo about winners.” He’s rubbing the clown white out of his hair with a towel after one of this final performances in Driving Miss Daisy. “If Jack Nicholson, Nick Nolte, and Bill Hurt are all up for the same award—with absolutely different characterizations—you’re going to tell me one of them is the best?”
At the Obie ceremonies last May, Freeman told a story. “Years ago, I was nominated for a Tony award for The Mighty Gents. Oh, ah, gee whiz—I was so executed! So I got my tuxedo and I went to the ceremony, and of course I didn’t win. Now, to be big about it, you know, you say ”kay.’ But I was crushed. I didn’t like feeling crushed, so I would prefer not to have been involved in it at all. If you’re going to give me an award, fine—just give it to me. But don’tnominate me for it. Because what they’re telling you is ‘You’ve been nominated, but you didn’t win.’ Terrific. Who wants to hear that?”
But wouldn’t an Oscar make a big difference in his career?
Freeman runs a comb through his hair, pats the left side of his head, then the right—he has facial bones that even Katharine Hepburn would envy, but not a trace of narcissism. “In a way, I’m kind of contradicting what I said, because sure I’m interested in getting the nomination, but frankly I don’t care if I win or not.” For one thing, getting the nomination will help him land the film of Miss Daisy. “I would commit crimes for that. But otherwise, I don’t want to get involved. It’s just that the whole system is carrying me along,” he says, spreading his hands, palms upraised, in a gesture of helplessness. “If your luck holds, it might lead to more work. But conversely, if it doesn’t, you might not even be in the business. Believe me, I know something about that.”
He’s bundled up now, heading out for dinner. He eats only one meal a day since he turned 50 (last June) and “my metabolism suddenly came to a screeching halt.” If awards don’t make much sense to him, bring up “range” and he immediately says, “That’s what I’m here for. I never quite made it as a ‘matinee idol’ or ‘leading man’”—the irony in his voice is more self-deprecating than sarcastic—”but I’ve always wanted to play the most interesting roles, and they’re not necessarily the leading roles. I prefer character roles. I want to get as far away from myself as possible. That’s the whole point of acting for me.”
Walking along 42nd Street, Morgan Freeman talks about the performances he most admires—not the Orson Welles of Citizen Kane but the Orson Welles of Touch of Evil; not the Laurence Olivier of Hamlet but the Laurence Olivier of Khartoum. He stops on the sidewalk, raises his right hand to his forehead in a snappy salute. “Now, that’s the level of performance you strive for.”
Like Freeman’s performance in Street Smart. Vicious yet charming, scary yet seductive, menacing yet amiable, the kind of guy who can hold a gun to your throat, then slowly smile, pat you on the cheek, and say, “Come on. I’ll buy you a cuppa coffee.” Freeman’s Fast Black has all the oxymorons you’d expect in a routinely first-rate portrayal of a pimp. But he takes them to a level deeper, playing a man so tautly in control he could snap into psychosis at any second, a man, most of all, who knows that a large part of being a successful pimp is being a gifted actor.
In one of the most chilling scenes in movie history, he grabs the prostitute played by Kathy Baker, slams her against a wall, and lays a broken scissor blade on her cheek, half an inch from her eyes. “I’m gonna take one eye. Just one,” he tells her. “You have to tell me which one—left or right?” Back and forth flash the scissors. Left? Right? Left? Right? Choose. And when he finally terrorized her into choosing, he slowly withdraws the scissors, turns them upside down, and peers through the handles as if they were eyeglasses, with a sly, get-my-point grin. Laurence Olivier himself could raise his right hand to his forehead in a snappy salute.
“What is a pimp?” Freeman asks, gesturing randomly at the passersby on 42nd Street. “Can you walk along here and pick one out? The way they usually play ‘em in movies, you can. That’s just a caricature. No one I’ve ever seen in movies has done a person I know.”
He’s a regular at the restaurant; all the waiters greet him with first-name smiles. The owner rushes over, puts his arm around Freeman’s shoulder, guides him to the best table. There’s friendship in the greetings, not effusiveness, yet there’s a slightly wary reserve in his response. He speaks warmly with a hint of a drawl in his voice, but at the same time his eyes are sharply observant, some part of him remains distant, withdrawn, private. It’s as if he enjoys being known, liked, respected, but senses it could all change in a second—and if it does, he’ll be ready.
How does he “research” a part like Fast Black? He said something about people he’s known?
He’s silent for 20 seconds, 30, as if he hasn’t heard the question—it’s a trait his friends know well, the long, deadpan pause is always followed by that warm, slightly quizzical smile. “Nothing like that. All that happened was the costume designer called and said she wanted to go shopping with me. Fine. Whatever you say. I figure we’ll be going to 42nd Street, see. But then she says, ‘I want to take you to Saks Fifth Avenue,’ and as soon as she said that, my mind was galvanized! So we went shopping at Saks. The Giorgio Armani stuff was too sedate, but we were sure at the right store! ‘Cause being a pimp, it’s all about looking’ good.
“I’m not much for talking about acting,” he continues. “I’ve been called an intuitive actor, and I guess that’s right. I go with what I feel. It doesn’t do me any good to intellectualize it. Take Fast Black. He’s a real frightening guy: he’s made it into an art form—intimidating people, then slacking off—but talking about it that way didn’t help me. It was just getting into his clothes—that’s when I started putting the character in place.
“Sure technique has something to do with it, knowing when to underplay, when to overplay. When you first see Fast Black, for instance, he’s just a guy in a car having a conversation. Don’t get all animated, don’t ‘act.’ Then that scene on the basketball court, that the time to go over the top.” He looked at home driving the lane. Did he ever play basketball? Freeman draws back, puts on an “I can’t believe what I just heard” expression, raises both hands in a gesture of mock astonishment, and says in a playfully stern void, “Now, what the hell kinda question’s that to ask a man who’s tall and black?”
What about the scissors scene, though—the scene that could win him an Oscar? It seemed very thought out. “But the whole scene is Kathy’s,” Freeman says. “I’m getting all this noise becauseshe made that scene.” The reason for his modesty, of course, is that he’s judging the scene only as a matter of onscreen technique. What he can’t judge is the off-screen character that made it possible.
“Don’t underestimate trust,” says Street Smart‘s director, Jerry Schatzberg. “Actors can go out of control—I’ve seen it happen, especially in a role like that. One of the actors we auditioned got so deeply into the part that he accidentally sliced off part of his finger. So when we were finally shooting the scene with Morgan, it was frightening just to be there.”
“The people who were watching us were so frightened, they were standing flat against the walls,” says Kathy Baker. “But I trusted Morgan so much, I could give myself over to it completely. Kathy Baker wasn’t afraid, so I was free to let the character be totally scared out of her mind. Another thing about Morgan: Originally, we were shooting that scene on his face, but after a couple of takes he said, ‘No, no, this isn’t my scene, this is Kathy’s scene,’ and he reached out and put his hand over my face—‘This is where it’s happening’—and that’s the way it is in the film. How many actors would do that?”
“Well, sure,” Freeman says with a dismissive wave of the hand. “I work best when I feel I can have ideas and express ‘em. Sometimes I get in trouble when I open my big mouth, but it can be a very creative part of the process when people are receptive. It was like . . . like . . . dancing’.”
He danced in Miss Daisy, too, the story of the initial unease and growing affection between an elderly Jewish widow and her black chauffeur. “Dana Ivey and me, we’re both from the South. We know things,” Morgan Freeman says wryly. “That dance they do down there, that dance between blacks and whites, that southern charm.” Gentleness, faith, patience—they come as naturally to the chauffeur as raging cynicism, and finger-poppin’ swagger came to the pimp.
“I went to see a play at Playwrights Horizons,” Freeman says, “and I started reading the notices on the bulletin board. One of ‘em was a synopsis of this play called Driving Miss Daisy that sounded real interesting. I ‘member thinking, ‘Damn, who do I gotta see to do a play ’round here?’ A couple of months later, I got a call. Would I be interested in doing a play at Playwright Horizons? Turns out it’s the same play. Damn right I’m interested! But when I get the script, I go, ‘This is great,’ ‘Gee whiz,’ and all that. ‘But this play calls for an older man.’ But they tell me, ‘We’re going for quality rather than age,’ and my head, it explodes four or five times its normal size.
“So then I want to know who’s playing Daisy,” he continues. “I don’t want to be onstage with an actress twenty years older than me; that won’t work at all. But when I hear it’s Dana Ivey—well, man, oh, man, I think, ‘This is gonna be two actors up there.’”
What was up there, in fact, was an acting feast. And a rapport that, like most of Freeman’s working relationships, extends beyond the stage. “Of course, everyone knows he’s one of our very greatest talents,” says Ivey, as if in a hurry to get the obvious out of the way, “but what only his friends know is what a beautiful, sweet giving person he is. Morgan’s a mahatma, a Great Soul, with a capital G and a capital S.”
Great Soul—it could be a capsule review of his performance in The Gospel at Colonus. “When I stepped onstage at my first run-through in Minneapolis back in ’83,” says Freeman, “and I spoke the first words” (his voice drops an octave: it could resonate to the rafters, a voice rivaled only by James Earl Jones’s), “‘Think no longer that your are in command here,’ when I said that first line and heard the members of the choir going, ‘Amen!’ behind me, I said to myself, ‘Oh, shit, Morgan, this is gonna knock ‘em dead!’ And then that joyous music broke out, and all that incredible singing’, and all kinds of Jesus noises goin’ on, it just wrung me. . . . ” He’s so moved by the memory he can’t finish the sentence. “I’ve been in a lotta shows in my life,” he says finally, “and I’ve thought a lot of ‘em were pretty good, but this is a masterpiece.”
Gospel at Colonus, the tale of Oedipus’s final days as a Pentecostal church service, links Hellenic myth and black gospel music, Sophoclean tragedy and call-and-response exaltation, Greek catharsis and biblical ecstasy. As the minister who orchestrates the passions of the churchgoers with the intonations, cadences, and modulations of the great gospel preachers—now plunging into despair, now seized by rapture—Morgan Freeman has a serene dignity that defines, once and for all, the concept of stage presence. And in a stunning coup de theatre, he takes center stage after the show-stopping “Lift Him Up,” sung by Carolyn Johnson-White of Brooklyn’s Institutional Radio Choir with beatific frenzy—what actor would dare follow such a performance?—and not only holds the audience with his concluding sermon but lifts them yet another plateau higher. Hallelujah!
“I’d been outta work for two years,” says Freeman, “when I get this call from Lee Breuer. I’d never heard of Lee Breuer, but we sit in my kitchen for a couple of hours while he explains his ideas. He wants to do a Greek tragedy, but not with the classical European approach. We have our own classics here in America—gospel music, for instance.” Freeman is in the dialect mode he often affects with a slightly ironic edge, portraying himself as the country cousin in the city.
“So Lee is sittin’ there, rattlin’ away,” he goes on, “and he is one highly ‘lectual dude. I don’t know what hell he’s talking’ ’bout. Who is this guy? But he’s piqued my interest, ‘specially that bit ’bout European classicism. Then I find out Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama are going to play Oedipus—are you kiddin’! And these fabulous old gospel singers, they’re going to be in it, too. ‘Wow, golly, gee whiz.’ I’m goin’, ‘What’s this guy doin’? Then he tells me, ‘I need a star to glue it all together,’ and I say, ‘I’m no star,’ and he says, ‘Well, I’m going to make you a star.’”
Morgan Freeman pauses, does a bug-eyed double take. “Me? A star? I got two words for you: ‘Hah. Hah.’”
But a few weeks later, he heard Bob Telson’s music and “suddenly felt goose bumps, chills, little bits a hair standing’ up all over my body.” He pauses, drops the dialect, says solemnly, “Then, that first run-through in Minneapolis. I wanted to call everyone, right then. I wanted to get on the phone and tell everyone I know, ‘Man, this is what theater is all about.’”
Once more, Freeman is modest about his own contribution. His preaching style, for instance: “I was raised as a Methodist, but I event to Pentecostal services sometimes, and there’s no way I can do that as well as they can. Drivin’ the congregation into a frenzy? Quotin’ the Bible?”
This is not false modesty, though, because Morgan Freeman will make claims when he thinks it’s his due. “Lee’s fabulous conceptually,” he says, “but he’s also very receptive to creative input. He took a lot of my suggestions.” One major example: “I told him he shouldn’t allow too many places where the audience applauds every time they want to, we’re talking’ ’bout swollen hands—and by intermission.”
“I consider Morgan my assistant director,” says Breuer. “If I have the ability to conceptualize, he has the ability to know what the moment demands. He added professionalism without adding slickness. He provided a plumb line to direct and vital contact with the audience, which is another way of saying he helped me get rid of some of my artsy-fartsy instincts.”
Breuer pauses for a moment. “We had a little conversation early on. It was the best piece of directing I ever gave him. ‘You’re no longer a character actor,’ I told him. ‘You’ve got it all to become a star. And to do this right, you have to think of yourself as a star. You have to feel that no one else onstage is worth looking at.’ I think he thought of himself as a star for the first time. He should—everybody else does.”
Freeman is still uneasy about the notion—he’s still a “play’s the thing” actor. “People don’t usually go to the theater expecting spiritual uplift or redemption,” Freeman says, shifting the focus from himself to Gospel, “but this show gives them something they’ve been missing that they didn’t even know they’ve been missing, the experience of soul.”
It’s long past midnight now, but it’s early evening for Morgan Freeman. He likes to stay up until four, five in the morning—he cherishes that pre-dawn privacy. When he reaches his large Upper West Side apartment, his second wife, costume designer Myrna Colley-Lee, is already asleep, as is the grandchild who’s living with them. (How old is she? “‘Bout 30,” he said, “all wrapped in a 6-year old package.”) A couple of bikes lean against the wall in the hallway, a couple of dozen hats hang from a rack, the walls are covered with pictures of sailboats—not a sound in the apartment except his cat Ebony, purring in his lap.
Freeman boots up his computer (“He’s a Gemini, part show-off and part loner,” his wife says). Now it’s time for the solitude of writing. He has ideas for stories, novels, movies, but mostly he writes commentaries on current events, a series of dialect dialogues featuring Sol and C.C.—Solomon and Concerned Citizen. (“Ever’body gon’ need he’p from ever’body if we specks to survive on dis planet,” Sol says in one. “Quicker we all see dat, de better off we’s all gon’ be.”)
Tonight, though, he’s working on a piece about a recent trip down South, when he visited an elderly black man who knew his great-grandmother and grandmother at the beginning of this century. “These people, these ancients, were mine,” he types. “My people. They had meaning and substance. They endured. They continue to endure.” Morgan Freeman is proud to call himself a self-made man, but not too proud to understand that even a self-made man has roots.
Morgan Freeman had an unsettled childhood, born in Memphis in 1937, living in Charleston, Mississippi, with his grandmother until she died when he was six, off to Chicago with his mother, back to Greenwood, Mississippi, a brief period in Nashville—all the while the man he coldly refers to as his “biological father” . . . Morgan Freeman enters another of his minute-long pauses. “You really want to know all this? To tell the truth, I don’t like to talk about it.” It doesn’t seem to be a question of race so much as a difficult family situation. Freeman will probably write about it sometime, between him and his PC.
His first exposure to acting was at the age of eight—Fast Black got his start as Little Boy Blue—but he didn’t get hooked until the seventh grade, when he was literally flung onstage. “It all started with a girl named Barbara,” he says, “the class princess, as nice as you please. I wanted to get her attention, so one day I pulled a chair out from under her. Sure enough, I got attention. The teacher grabbed me by the nape of the neck, lifted me onto my toes, and marched me down the hall. I thought for sure I was gonna be ‘xpelled.
“But he opens the door and flings me into this room, and there’s this English teacher and he asks me, ‘You ever done any actin’?’ Well, under the circumstances, I’m quick to say yes. Turns out there’s these dramatic tournaments—every school does a play—and the winner goes to the state finals. Well, we do this play ’bout a family with a wounded son just home from the war—I play his kid brother. We win the district championship, we win the state championship, and dadgummit, I’m chosen as best actor. All ’cause I pull this chair out from under Barbara.”
His head-in-the-clouds phase interrupted the budding actor’s career, but ever since he walked away from that cockpit, he’s wanted his feet on the boards. The ex-airman went to Los Angeles, looked up Paramount in the phone book, and took a bus to the studio to ask for a job, only to discover, among the first questions on the application, something about familiarity with office machinery. It wasn’t his last rude awakening—he’d had one almost every year since.
“It’s all been back and forth between trying to get a part and having to get a j-o-b.” He worked as a clerk at L.A. City College, then enrolled in its theater department—”I was walking’ in tall cotton!” But when he left school and drove to New York, the only work he could find was a telegrapher. Back to the West Coast, this time to San Francisco, living on day-old doughnuts, ending up in a musical-repertory company, losing that job when he refused to play an Indian inLittle Mary Sunshine who waves an American flag—”You gonna tell me an Indian is gonna tothat?” Back to New York, knocking around, an extra in The Pawnbroker, another j-o-b, this time in the garment district. Maybe he’d have better luck as a dancer. And he did at first, successfully auditioning for the Aquacade at the 1965 World’s Fair—”the World Something or Other Extravaganza.” Where could he go but up? A $49-a-week counterman at Nedick’s in Penn Station, that’s where.
But he hung in, entered his Hello, Dolly!-Electric Company-Mights Gents phase, and, in 1978, won the Clarence Derwent Award for promising newcomers. “‘Newcomer,’” he says with a resigned laugh, “after twenty years.” And then that Tony nomination—”‘Ho, boy, welcome to success at last. I’m going to kick tail all over the place. Now the phone is never gonna stop ringing’!’ But the door slammed shut, just like that. All this attention and then I didn’t work for two full years. I’d taken success for granted and then—kablooey. I’ll never make that mistake again.”
Morgan Freeman gives himself some of the blame. “I kinda let my mouth run off. I felt compelled to tell people what was wrong with their ideas. I guess word got around that I was a troublemaker. One movie I was up for, “Any other black people in this movie?’ I asked them. They all looked at one another. ‘We don’t believe so,’ they said, ‘We never thought of it in racial terms.’ Well, that was a lie right there—I mean, they were casting me as an orderly—and the whole thing turned to shit on the spot.
“Another movie, I was getting a little tense about this, ya know, and when they asked me what I thought of the script, I said, ‘Yeah, well, there are twelve characters in this movie, nine white scientists and three blacks—a cook, a mechanic, and something else, I forget. What do youthink I think?’ Needless to say, I didn’t get the part.”
Troublemaker, maybe. Militant, no. “I’m so tired of hearing about the under class, about slavery. Racism isn’t new. It’s not something this country invented. ‘Aw, they won’t let us eat in this restaurant,’ but they’re no lining us up against the wall and mowing us down, either. What they’re doing in South Africa—now that’s racism. Give me a choice, and I’ll take this racism right here.”
Doesn’t this attitude get him in trouble with some of his black friends? “Naw, they’re all tired of hearing it, too. We just want to get on with the business of doing something about it. And remember our past, too. There’s a whole other kind of wonderful history of black people in this country, every kind of hero you can imagine, and the fact that nobody knows anything about it is the greatest pity of all.”
That’s one of the things he’s going to write about someday. And he’s considering a movie script about black cowboys. “I know who this country belongs to,” he says, with more determination than anger. “You can’t disenfranchise me. You’ve just gotta know how to fight.”
He’ll fight when he has to—he’ll fight to do the movie of Miss Daisy, to play Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew—but he still has that serene vision of soaring, though in a boat, not in a plane.
“When I see sailboats,” Freeman says, “it’s like seeing a bird—those white wings.” He has his own sloop, a 30-footer named Lenora II, after his grandmother. He has sailed from the Keys to Nova Scotia, and now he has his eye on a Gale Force 9, a blue-water cruiser—$150,000 “with all the hoohaw on it”—and if Gospel‘s a smash. . . .
“You ever been on the ocean?” he asks in a kind of reverie. “The birds out there, big fat gulls called shearwaters, they have these pressure-sensitive wing tips, they fly right on the water, they touch the waves—it’s the ultimate turn-on.” More than acting? “Acting’s very fulfilling, but sailing satisfies another need, a need of the soul. People need peace in their lives—grace—and that’s where it is for me.” His voice is rapturous now. “Once I hoist sail and the wind blows, I take flight. That’s how I fly now—on my own wings.”
Ross Wetzsteon was a journalist, critic, and editor in New York City for 35 years. From 1966 until his death in 1998, he worked at the The Village Voice as a contributor and editor, and for several years as its editor-in-chief. During his tenure at the Voice, Wetzsteon oversaw coverage of everything from politics to sports, but his abiding interest was the theater. For 28 years, he was the chairman of the Village Voice Obie Committee, responsible for bestowing awards for excellence on Off- and Off-Off Broadway artists and writers. Wetzsteon also contributed articles to New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Playboy, The New York Times, Inside Sports,Conde Nast Traveler, Mademoiselle, and many other publications. He edited several anthologies, including The Obie Winners in 1980 and The Best of Off Broadway in 1984. He also wrote the preface to a collection of playwright Sam Shepard’s works,Fool for Love and Other Plays, and he was the author of Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960. He died in 1998.
Mugged, mugging. I remember hearing those words all the time growing up. Always aware that it could happen, that it would happen. When it did, getting mugged didn’t mean you’d be killed, just that someone would take your shit.
Twelve years ago, when the moon was made of paper and a pleasant old man was the President, Hector Diaz moved with his mother, his grandmother and a platoon of assorted relatives from the slums of North San Juan to El Barrio in the slums of North Manhattan. None of the Diazes spoke English and there were 10 people in three rooms, but the rooms were big, the plumbing was inside and the older Diazes took strength in little Hector, who was 9 and had eyes the color of ripe olives and who seemed to learn English faster than he grew. On Hector’s 11th birthday the family moved to Simpson Street in the South Bronx and Hector moved to the streets, where along with more English he learned the ways of the IRT and of airplane glue.
Two years ago Hector moved from Simpson Street to Avenue C on the Lower East Side, where he changed his ecstasy from glue to red wine in brown paper bags and then to heroin in glassine envelopes. Hector is still the only Diaz who can speak English and his eyes still look like olives, but green ones now, stuffed with red pimento. The Diazes, or what’s left of them, still live on Simpson Street and Hector visits them occasionally. But Hector spends his days on the streets of the Lower East Side, where he and a friend named Louise share their nights in burnt-out buildings and support themselves by mugging their neighbors.
For a time, in the fifties, the streets that run east of Avenue A to the river and below Houston Street to the Brooklyn Bridge on New York’s Lower East Side were almost a shrine, praised as the breeding ground of armies of doctors and lawyers all of whom looked like Harry Golden. Praising the tenements of their youth (“Sure it was tough, but we had love and desire . . .”), Lower East Side alumni sounded like Nixon talking about his astronauts. Today the incipient Jewish judges are gone, and the hippies of a few years ago are mostly gone, departed for communes or the suburbs. The streets and the buildings, exhausted from generations of bright, aggressive youngsters followed by stoned hippies, look tired, as if they need a rest after 65 years of social ferment. Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall are gone; the streets are lined with garbage now—human and automotive—and the people are mostly Puerto Rican. The billboards are in Spanish and in every store window a red sign screams “How do you know you don’t have V.D.?/ ¿Cómo sabe Ud. que no tiene enfermedad venérea?” The old-law tenements are crumbling, collapsing, burnt-out hulks. Their windows are covered with tin and plywood and their roofs are ripped away so that the sunlight floods into the upper stories like shrapnel.