Among my favorite books are biographies or autobiographies of long-admired writers, directors, actors, musicians and vocalists. One of the most interesting and intelligent bios I’ve read is that of director Billy Wilder. Yes, I’m finally done reading NOBODY’S PERFECT, of which I wrote a piece on June 22 and promised to write a review when I finished it. My take? Imperfection was never more worth recommending.
Unlike some biographers, author Charlotte Chandler knew the subject of her book personally and well (for almost 30 years). Her first book, HELLO, I MUST BE GOING, was a best-seller about — who else — Groucho Marx. She has also profiled Mae West, Tennessee Williams and Alfred Hitchcock, among others, is on the board of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and is active in film preservation. So the lady knows — and loves — what she is doing.
Perhaps the best thing about this bio is that after reading it, you feel as if you know the real Billy Wilder. For example, he learned early on not to shoot excess footage because the more you gave the studio (Universal) to play with, the more they could recut the picture in ways he disliked. It was his movie, and with careful planning and tight shooting, he did his damnedest to give them no choice.
One also gets a feel for the man in his views of other directors, telling Ms. Chandler: “I admired Preston Sturges. He was a writer who became a director, and he had respect for words. His work was his life. He would have worked free. The last time I saw him was in Paris. He was sitting in an outdoor café. Old friends would stop and have something with him, and they’d pick up the check. It seemed he was hard up. He’d had a great life, but it didn’t end up great. He didn’t know how to write a third act for his own life.”
Another director he admired was Ernst Lubitsch, of whom he speaks in this clip:
Let’s close with a quote from one of Ms. Chandler’s last interviews with him in Dec. 1999: “I don’t like to look back. You could drown in what-ifs, especially if you make it past ninety, which I have. If you’re going to say , ‘What if?’ you might as well save it for something like, ‘What if Hitler had been a girl?’
“At ninety-four, there aren’t many goals to work for except longevity. Maybe trying to make it to a hundred as long as my mind is good, and I look forward to each day.”
“I could never imagine myself being old. An old man was someone who was forty, then fifty, then sixty. When I was a young man in Vienna, if someone had offered me a deal to guarantee I’d make seventy, I’d have grabbed it. Seventy would’ve sounded pretty good to me.”
“At ninety-four, it’s not long enough. It seems short. Too bad. But it has to end sometime.”
For Billy Wilder, it ended March 27, 2002, leaving behind a legacy of 21 Academy Award nominations and five films on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 funniest films, including #1: SOME LIKE IT HOT. I like it any way he made it.