The Old Man and the Dope: Wooing the Amazing Wilder

Conversations With Wilder , by Cameron Crowe. Alfred A. Knopf, 373 pages, $35.

Cameron Crowe spent many hours talking with Billy Wilder. Mr. Crowe, writer and director of Singles and Jerry Maguire , met with his 93-year-old interlocutor at his office, came by his house, dined with Mr. Wilder and his wife, Audrey. Like François Truffaut, whose famous book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock inspired the Q.&A. format of Conversations With Wilder , Mr. Crowe was the very model of filial piety and persistence. But all this eagerly solicited conversation was not enough to bridge the chasm–intellectual and generational, if not metaphysical–between the two men.

One of the great directors of the Hollywood studio system, Mr. Wilder is an Austrian-Jewish immigrant whose sensibility was shaped by the ironical culture of Vienna and Berlin. He is a sophisticated collector of modern art and a scathing observer of American life. Mr. Crowe is a native Southern Californian, a former reporter for Rolling Stone who now directs blandly engaging Hollywood films larded with the American optimism that Mr. Wilder ridiculed throughout his career.

Mr. Crowe’s questions are frequently inane or obvious, but I suspect he only played the dope in order to elicit Mr. Wilder’s amusingly irritated rejoinders. I was reminded of Mr. Wilder’s 1948 farce, A Foreign Affair , in which Jean Arthur, playing a naïvely sermonizing member of Congress from Kansas on a visit to war-ruined Berlin, gets a taste of reality when she encounters Marlene Dietrich in the role of a ravaged cabaret singer:

“Mr. Crowe (Jean Arthur to Mr. Wilder’s Dietrich) asks how he was ‘able to resist the temptation for schmaltz’:

“B.W.: For what?

“C.C.: For schmaltz. Throughout your career.

“Wilder offers a rare smile, as if I’ve just told a dirty joke. Have I misused the word?”

Mr. Wilder doesn’t respond directly to the question, because he was never thus tempted. The conventional wisdom is that he was a cynic. In fact, he was simply tough-minded. In Hollywood, genuine cynicism tends to wear the friendly mask of effusive sincerity–of schmaltz. A fine recent example of this masquerade is Mr. Crowe’s Jerry Maguire , a Wilder-inspired Clinton-era parable in which a humiliated sports agent gets his groove back by getting in touch with his feelings and overcoming his “cynical, cynical world.” In Jerry Maguire , there’s nothing wrong with the system that a more sensitive “corporate culture” can’t fix.

The zing in Mr. Wilder’s best work derives, by contrast, from his depiction of a world where–as Shirley MacLaine explains to Jack Lemmon in The Apartment –you have the grim choice of being a “taker” or getting taken. Throughout the 40′s and 50′s, in romantic comedies, film noir, dramas, adventure films, war movies, biopics and farces, the writer-director skewered the pieties of postwar America. (The only genre he didn’t try was the western–a stretch for most urban Jews, alas.) His protagonists were rogues, pushovers, murderers; the endings of his films were seldom happy in the conventional sense. He beat the studio system mainly by sticking to his guns. After the first screening of Sunset Boulevard , Mr. Wilder’s film about a desiccated Hollywood star and her precociously burnt-out paramour, Louis B. Mayer said, “How dare this young man, Wilder, bite the hand that feeds him?” The young man in question overheard the remark, and sank his teeth in further: “Mr. Mayer, I am Mr. Wilder, and go fuck yourself.”

If rudeness is a sign of health, then Mr. Wilder may be counted a robust nonagenarian. When Mr. Crowe called to ask whether he’d make a cameo appearance in Jerry Maguire , Mr. Wilder hung up. The young director rushed over to his office on Brighton Way to plead with him in person, taking along his leading man, Tom Cruise, for good measure. They were both shown to the door, where Mr. Wilder took the occasion to dress down his admirer. “‘Nice to meet you, and nice to meet you,’ he said in a courtly fashion. His gazed passed across me and stopped on Tom Cruise. ‘Especially you.’” Mr. Crowe finally cajoled Mr. Wilder into doing a book–but the older man warned him, “The book is going to be like shit.”

It’s not, thanks in part to the stubborn Mr. Crowe but mostly to Mr. Wilder, who is a great talker: witty, cutting, perceptive. Listen to the way he handles Freud, whom he met as a young journalist in Vienna. The father of psychoanalysis kicked Mr. Wilder out of his apartment, but not before the young man caught a glimpse of the couch. “It was a very tiny little thing,” he remembers. “All his theories were based on the analysis of very short people.” Mr. Wilder was always good on such details. He says he began making films “because you live, actually you live 5, 10 or 15 or 20 different lives”–the filmmaker shares the reporter’s restless search for vicarious experience.

The cunningly dopey Mr. Crowe asks if there’s an afterlife. “I hope not,” Mr. Wilder answers, “because there are so many shits that I’ve met in my life, I don’t want to meet them again.” Was he in love with Dietrich? “I was not. I do not fuck a star. That’s a primary rule of mine … If I did have a real yen for that thing … then I fuck the stand-in.” Is Audrey, his wife of the last 48 years, the love of his life? “She is kind of … 80 percent … What the other 20 percent is, I cannot tell you.”

Born in 1906, Mr. Wilder arrived in Hollywood in 1934. (Three-quarters of his family, including his mother and grandmother, perished in concentration camps.) In 1939, he had his first hit, Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka , which he co-wrote with Charles Brackett, a patrician Republican. By the early 1940′s, he was directing his own scripts and acquiring a privileged view of the workings of the studio system.

It’s a pity that Mr. Crowe is a schmoozer rather than a critic. He’s breathtakingly indiscriminate in his praise of Mr. Wilder’s movies, which he calls “a treasure trove of flesh-and-blood individuals, all wonderfully alive” (a description that seems woefully inadequate when extended to William Holden’s character in Sunset Boulevard , who narrates from the grave). In fact, Mr. Wilder is an ambiguous hero, part rebel, part conformist. He was a smasher of taboos and also a calculating crowd pleaser who increasingly pulled his punches when they threatened to graze the audience. Always more of a writer than a director, he created few lasting visual images: There is nothing in his repertoire to match the best work of his contemporaries John Ford and Orson Welles.

By the 1960′s, with signs of intelligent new life in American cinema, Mr. Wilder’s best work was behind him; his 50′s irreverence seemed curiously tame in the face of a tumultuously changing American reality. When Mr. Crowe asks Mr. Wilder what the 60′s were like for him, he replies, “I didn’t even know they were the 60′s.” Pauline Kael wrote a vitriolic review in 1961 of Mr. Wilder’s Cold War satire One, Two, Three : “Wilder hits the effects hard and sure; he’s a clever, lively director whose work lacks feeling or passion or grace or beauty or elegance. His eye is on the dollar, or rather on success, on the entertainment values that bring in dollars.” (Ironically, Ms. Kael’s view that “vulgarity is not as destructive to an artist as snobbery” precisely echoes Mr. Wilder’s own convictions about filmmaking.) Around the same time, Dwight Macdonald wrote in The New Yorker that Mr. Wilder was “not cynical enough; he uses bitter chocolate for his icing, but underneath is the stale old cake.”

I.A.L. Diamond, Mr. Wilder’s writing partner from the late 50′s through the early 80′s, called Mr. Wilder’s style “sweet and sour,” a phrase that aptly describes the canon of Jewish comic films, from Mr. Wilder and the Marx Brothers to Woody Allen. I’m not sure whether Diamond was thinking of Chinese food, but it fits: At his worst, Billy Wilder gave us takeout–you left the theater titillated but oddly undernourished; at his best, in films like Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity , he laid out a full banquet, more sour than sweet.