Billy Wilder – The Guardian

Billy and Me

Cameron Crowe, director of Jerry Maguire, loves Billy Wilder’s films so much he’s written a book about them. Here, exclusively for the Guardian, he explains how he got the inside track on The Apartment, his favourite of them all

Growing up, I often heard my father’s favourite joke. It was a quip that was useful on many occasions. It meant `Hurry up.’ Or it meant `Get to the point.’ Sometimes it was a joke in itself, an ode to good-natured impatience. The phrase was `Shut up and deal.’ I never knew the origin. I always assumed it came from my dad’s real- estate business, or something a buddy told him once in a card game.

Years later, I embarked on a lengthy home-study programme of film classics. Any such journey leads rather quickly to the work of Billy Wilder, the great writer-director of such enduring films as Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. On this day I was watching Wilder’s 1960 comedy-drama, The Apartment. It was a potent martini of a movie, sad and hilarious, subversive and somehow sweet. And then came the last line, as the broken-hearted hero CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is finally reunited with the elevator girl he adores (Shirley MacLaine). Lemmon professes love, and with playful indifference, MacLaine whips out a deck of cards. `Shut up and deal,’ she says.

Such is the enduring effect of Billy Wilder. Through films like Sabrina, Stalag 17, The Seven Year Itch, Ace in the Hole, and the aforementioned Sunset Boulevard and Some Like it Hot, Wilder has infiltrated modern society and changed our sense of humour in ways we don’t often realise. Whenever we see the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe, her white dress billowing above the subway grating, we are looking at a writing and directing invention of Billy Wilder. When Audrey Hepburn still pops up in every other issue of Vogue, wearing the stunning attire of Sabrina, it is again the lasting influence of Wilder. Whenever an actor jokes, `I’m ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille,’ they are quoting Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. And though he was born in Vienna, escaped Berlin in the 30s and came to Hollywood with only a partial mastery of the language, his clear-eyed portraits of American romance and opportunism have somehow survived as definitive snapshots of his adopted homeland. Though I’d never even known it, Billy Wilder had scripted my family’s best joke.

Over the past few years I have had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Mr Wilder himself. I met him first as a director imploring him to act in Jerry Maguire (he said no, with relish), and later as an interviewer attempting Wilder’s first book-length question-and-answer session (he said yes, after much cajoling).

Now 93 and still going strong, Wilder still reports to his office almost every day and follows current film-making with a passion. Spending time with Wilder is much like spending time with his films. His long-time wife Audrey is not unlike a Wilder character herself. It was Audrey, in fact, who came up with one of the great lines in Ace in the Hole, spoken by an unsentimental almost-widow: `Kneeling bags my nylons.’ The two live in Westwood, California, in a house filled with a stunningly eclectic mix of art that Wilder has collected over a lifetime. While Wilder never acquired art with an eye toward investment, it was a positively Wilderesque turn of events that some years ago he auctioned off part of his collection to the tune of $32.6m, more than he ever made in his entire career as a film director.

Our conversations for the book spanned several years. Wilder played the part of the reluctant but fastidiously accurate subject, and I assumed the role of director playing hookey from his own career. Together we discussed his every script and film, though the lesser-known failures in his body of work would often cause him physical distress to recall. But recall he did, sometimes just before throwing me out of his office. (`Please, no more about Kiss Me Stupid!’)

There were many differences between us, from hair-length to musical tastes to my own problems with exact punctuality (`You are always five minutes late!’), not the best habit to indulge with the gentleman who is still complaining about Marilyn Monroe’s lateness more than 40 years later. Wilder enjoyed jabbing me over those differences, though it was a mistake to arrive at his home wearing basketball shorts one day. Later, I learned he was somewhat horrified. He thought I had shown up in my underwear.

So yes, the differences kept him entertained, but the one subject that always united us was The Apartment. We would return to it again and again, as a symbol of film structure and a rare example of all the elements coming together to create a movie that was almost exactly what the director had intended. Since our book has been published, I’ve become well acquainted with the sometimes militant factions of Wilder loyalists. Some call Ace in the Hole and Sunset Boulevard the unfiltered brutal best of Wilder. Others select Some Like It Hot as the director’s comic masterpiece, the one that made it all look easy. Some love the romantic concoctions of Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon best. Others choose the dark-horse Cagney comedy, One-Two-Three. There is much gunfire between these camps, but if you just look at the bigger picture, as Wilder does, the very fact that these films are still being discussed is `goddamn great.’ And I will happily take all the bullets necessary. When the smoke clears, The Apartment will still be my favourite.

There is controversy over the origins of The Apartment. As with any success, there are many who claim credit. Some have said the New York columnist Sydney Skolsky presented Wilder with a treatment of the idea. Others say the movie was influenced by a Hollywood scandal in which an agent, Jennings Lang, was caught (and shot in the groin) having a tryst in the apartment of an underling. Even Tony Curtis, in his autobiography, suggests authorship of the idea.

Wilder rejects all these theories, and gives credit to an unlikely source director David Lean. Seeing Lean’s brilliant early film, Brief Encounter, about an adulterous affair conducted in the apartment of a third party,

Wilder scribbled this idea in his notebook: `What about the poor schnook who has to crawl into the still-warm bed of the lovers?’ Years would pass before Wilder felt he could slip this concept past film censors.

It was during the making of Some Like it Hot that Wilder first suggested to Jack Lemmon, his cross-dressing hero, that he had another picture in mind for him. Lemmon would play CC Baxter, named after Wilder’s favourite assistant director, CC Coleman. Baxter was the quintessential button-down schnook, a little man in a big insurance company. At first unwittingly, then ambitiously, Baxter would loan out his apartment for the afternoon and evening trysts of his philandering higher-ups. Juggling appointments, unable to enter his own apartment even when suffering from a cold, Baxter would try but find it hard to conduct a budding romance of his own with the plucky elevator girl, Fran Kubelik.

Kubelik, a modern working girl, was a cutting-edge creation for 1960. Forty years later, the part still feels fresh. A sexually active loser-at-love with only fleeting moments of self-pity, it was not an easy part for Wilder to cast. When Marilyn Monroe, fresh from the rocky shoot on Some Like it Hot, sent out feelers to play Fran Kubelik, Wilder avoided the temptation. `It would not be real,’ he told me later. `Everybody in the whole company would be after the elevator girl.’ He settled on a young actress named Shirley MacLaine, then coming off a dramatic turn in Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running. It was perfect for the story. On first look, you might miss her. On second look, you were infatuated. What lies beneath the cheery kid-sister demeanour of the elevator girl? The answer, as CC Baxter would soon find out, was plenty.

Even today, decades after winning three Oscars for the film, Wilder is still tweaking the story of The Apartment. He sometimes wonders if he should have given Jack Lemmon `a limp, or some physical deformity’ to increase sympathy for the character. And he expresses surprise that audiences would root for MacLaine and Lemmon as lovers. But it is their very lack of traditional smouldering qualities that make the union of Baxter and Kubelik a celebration of romantic misfits everywhere. And when Lemmon discovers that he is actually assisting his boss, played by Fred MacMurray, in a secret affair with Kubelik herself, it is one of those moments where audiences weep and screenwriters drool. Wilder accomplishes this aching plot turn wordlessly, as MacLaine offers Lemmon her cracked compact mirror to check his look. The compact is the very same one that had been left behind in his apartment, the one Lemmon had unctuously returned to his boss for brownie points. The shot still delights Wilder, as it well should. `Three things are accomplished in that one moment,’ he points out. `Very nice.’

The casting of Fred MacMurray as the no-good boss Sheldrake (a lucky charm name that appears in several of Wilder’s films) is the kind of Wilder touch that still inspires me in my own casting process. The part originally belonged to actor Paul Douglas. When Douglas died just before filming, Wilder turned to MacMurray, an actor mostly known for lighter family fare. MacMurray complained, but took the part anyway, just as he did in joining the cast of Double Indemnity. In Wilder’s films, comic-actors often shoulder the drama. Dramatic actors, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, find themselves playing comedy. When the formula works, as it often did for Wilder, the whole film becomes more textured and unpredictable. In a movie like The Apartment, the only thing black-and-white is the colour of the film.

Wilder’s celebrated collaborator IAL Diamond once aptly described Wilder’s style as a blend of `the sweet and the sour’. Perfected through previous pictures, that happy-sad quality reached a pinnacle in The Apartment. And though Wilder is famously adverse to self- conscious camerawork, anyone lucky enough to see The Apartment on a big screen will find themselves with enormous visual delights as well. Early sequences showing Jack Lemmon at work in the vast insurance company are as striking today as when the film was released. Making Jerry Maguire, I was the very epitome of a strident director, demanding a huge studio set filled with extras to create a similar effect in showing Maguire leaving his sports agency. Only later, interviewing Wilder, did I learn I could have saved a lot of money and set space. Wilder himself shot the scenes on a very small stage, utilising the tricks of visual perspective. Behind Lemmon, the desks get smaller and smaller and so do the actors. At the very back of the office, the co-workers are played by midgets.

Billy Wilder was at the peak of his directing powers negotiating the tricky mix of melancholy and humour. Shirley MacLaine recalls Wilder never sitting, often chain-smoking and pacing while directing. Every word mattered. (Diamond stood nearby, policing the exact delivery of each line.) Sometimes she would take a relieved breath after completing a long speech, only to find she’d left out an `and’ or a `then’. The takes continued until the dialogue was perfect.

This is not to say that Wilder couldn’t swing with a good suggestion. MacLaine, who was then embroiled in a difficult love affair of her own, once casually sighed: `Why do people have to fall in love with other people anyway? Why couldn’t they fall in love with a kangaroo?’ Wilder rebuilt the entire set, and re-filmed a key scene to include the line. And again, when MacLaine shared the trials of learning how to play gin, lessons she was then getting from Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Wilder and Diamond wrote that into the script too. And so was born the gin game between Lemmon and MacLaine that continues throughout The Apartment.

When filming on The Apartment was completed, so exact was Wilder’s execution that the entire movie was edited in a matter of days. `There was about five feet of unused film,’ Wilder remembers with only slight exaggeration. It was, he also recalls, one of the few occasions when he knew the power of the picture while filming. Reviews were not uniformly excellent, with some critics attacking the raciness of the film’s subject matter, not to mention Lemmon’s pimp- hero, but audiences responded quickly. The film was a hit, and the roll continued through Oscar night.

When Wilder was at the podium, accepting the Academy award for best director, playwright Moss Hart half-seriously whispered in his ear: `It’s time to stop.’ But Wilder did not stop. Moments later, he was awarded the Oscar for best picture as well. And Wilder would go on to direct nine more films. He often discusses future ideas, though he wonders if his physical stamina could match his still-racing mind. He is, as he says with characteristic lack of pretension, a writer. But if you look hard enough around Wilder’s apartment, you can spot his Oscars standing in a clump within the cabinet by his den. And the one out front, standing guard among the other statuettes, is his best picture award for The Apartment. He offers the film his highest compliment. ‘It worked.’

Though our book is finished, our relationship continues. Just the other day, a small miracle happened when Wilder agreed to a rare on-camera interview for The Today Show. I sat beside him in the NBC studio that was once the home of Johnny Carson, and listened as the interviewer leaned forward and posed what was clearly an important question.

‘We are doing a show on the Century’s Great Thinkers,’ he said, ‘and I’d like you to comment on the next millennium. What would you like to say about the future?’

In our current world where anyone of even questionable importance feels a duty to offer lofty thoughts about The Next Thousand Years, Billy Wilder blinked suspiciously behind large glasses.

‘Nothing,’ he said, slightly incredulous, as if to answer would condemn him to a prison filled with pretentious twits. ‘Nothing.’ I watched the frustrated interviewer with some sympathy. Wilder is, after all, not the easiest interview. Just as he has for some seventy years of film-making, today Wilder will leave the chest-beating to others.

The interviewer thumbed through his pages of questions. ‘What’s next,’ Wilder asked, professionally pleasant, stealing a look at his watch. ‘How else can I help you?’

In other words, shut up and deal.

Five great Billy Wilder movies

The Apartment – Lemmon lets his flat, loses his heart.

Double Indemnity – There’s no insurance to cover the Barbara Stanwyck risk.

Sunset Boulevard – Story of a dead man and a faded dame.

Ace In The Hole –¬†Kirk Douglas, low as a journo.

Some Like It Hot –¬†Cross-dressing Curtis and Lemmon.

Courtesy of The Guardian – Cameron Crowe – Dec 3, 1999