WILDER WITH A TWIST OF LEMMON
PCC Remembers A Magical Evening With Legends Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon
If Monroe was working today and was not under contract to Fox, she would make huge amounts of money. If Schwarzenegger gets $16 million for a picture, she would get $75... and no muscles!
Wilder, the 88-year-old, five-time Oscar winner, lamented the ballooning film budgets. The budget for Some Like It Hot was $2 million, which wound up $2.4, because of Monroes antics. What did Gone With The Wind cost? Five million for the whole thing? On Jurassic Park, they spent $7 million just for the ad campaign.
The filmmaker looked relatively at ease, dressed in checkered sports jacket, white shirt undone at the neck, dark slacks and thick glasses. But his knees, bouncing back and forth, revealed a nervous energy.
A question from the audience shifted the focus to Lemmon. Did you ever give up smoking? The query brought applause from the audience. The actor responded, I quit drinking about 10 or 12 years ago. I found that relatively simple, although I had never been on the wagon. I was beginning to worry that I was drinking too much. Actually, they ran out, was what happened.
Then, about three or four years ago, I quit smoking. After a few weeks, it really wasnt that tough, but I found myself patting my pockets all the time, reaching into empty pockets, without even thinking. But you get over it. Non-smoking becomes as much of a habit as smoking was. Ive always been compulsive. My wife can smoke one cigarette a week. For me, its easier to stop completely.
Packard got back on track by asking Wilder about his early days, writing for other directors. Wilder said, I started as a newspaper man, then began working on scripts for silent pictures. The scripts would be just 25 pages - no dialogue, just action. It was good training, because you couldnt afford to include anything that was superfluous.
Wilder recalled how frustrating it was, when he and Charles Brackett wrote the screenplay for Hold Back The Dawn, a 1941 film directed by Mitchell Leisen. It starred Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland. In Mexico, Boyers character cannot cross the border into the United States, because he doesnt have the proper papers. We had a scene written, in which, on a dirty wall, theres a cockroach crawling up, trying to get back to where he came from. Boyer talks to the cockroach, saying, Where are you going? Have you got a visa? Where are your papers? And he knocks it down.
At lunchtime, I saw Mr. Boyer in the commissary and asked him what they were shooting that day. Writers werent welcome on the set. He said they were shooting that cockroach scene. But, he said, We changed it just a little. I spoke with Leisen and told him I could not speak with a cockroach. Its stupid. Im from France. We dont speak to cockroaches there. I said, Well, how did you change it? He said, Oh, we just tore out that page.
As Wilder recalled, he then conferred with Brackett. We were still working on the script. I told Brackett, If that s.o.b. doesnt talk to the cockroach, he isnt talking to anybody! And we gave the rest of the dialogue to Olivia de Havilland.
By directing his own work, Wilder was able to prevent such problems from developing. Its an advantage for a director to know how to write, but its not necessary. It does help, however, if he knows how to read!
Wilder spoke of his two great collaborations as a writer, first with Brackett, later with I.A.L. Diamond. I started collaborating, when I first came to America, because I couldnt speak English. Obviously, my collaborations with Brackett and Diamond worked well, or they wouldnt have lasted so long. I like collaborators who will disagree with me. You need someone to pull at the opposite end of the rope. But you shouldnt be stubborn.
Lemmon, whose affection for Wilder was clear, piped up, Can I interject something, because Billy isnt going to compliment himself. Id like to point out something about really good writing. Ive done seven films that Billy and I.A.L. Diamond wrote and I learned something rather rapidly that I had not been aware of about really good writing. That is, it is not just what they write. Its also what they do not write. In those seven films, believe it or not, I have never known one actor to change one single word or even to ask to change anything. It is honed- down and lean. There is not one extra syllable. You cant ad-lib, because you cant add and you cant take away.
In addition to being a writers writer, Wilder was a directors director. He even directed Cecil B. DeMille, Erich Von Stroheim (both in Sunset Boulevard) and Otto Preminger (Stalag 17). Wilder says, Mr. DeMille had a reputation for making very affected, grandiose pictures. He had casts of thousands. If just everyone who was in the picture came to see it, it would make money.
As an actor, he was absolutely perfection. We needed him for one day. That was $10,000.
After that one day, Wilder decided he needed a non-speaking, close-up shot of DeMille. That meant the legendary filmmaker would have to return on another day. So I went to see him. He was shooting Samson and Delilah. I said, Would you come back to do this one close-up for me? He said, Of course. That will be another $10,000. Thats why hes so rich! But he cant spend it now, Wilder said with a wicked laugh.
Mr. Preminger had great difficulty remembering lines. We parted as enemies. Whenever he muffed a line, spoiled a scene or whatever, he would send us one pound of caviar. This was to make up for $9,000 in shooting time.
Wilder had a much higher opinion of Von Stroheim. He was fabulous, a genius. I did a picture with him called, Five Graves to Cairo. He played General Rommel. I had never met him. My opening line was, Mr. Von Stroheim, the idea that I should be directing you is overwhelming. The problem you had was always being 10 years ahead of your time. He said, Twenty.
He could be absolutely brilliant. On Sunset Boulevard, he said, I have an idea for my scene. If you like, let me wash Swansons underwear . it will point out my love, my sexual obsession with her. I said, Erich, I dont think thats going to work. He comes back and says, I have another idea. See if you like it. Norma Desmond is not forgotten, because every week, she gets 300 letters from fans. Wouldnt it be beautiful, if we find out that it was I who wrote all the letters? I said, That Ill take. So I give him credit. Sometimes he came up with really great ideas.
Lemmon was asked how his great, enduring friendship with Walter Matthau began. We are very close friends, thanks in main part to Mr. Wilder. I had known Walter since just after World War II, back in New York, in the late 40s, when we were all trying to get a foothold in the theatre or live TV, which was just beginning to burgeon then, and subsequently film. Walter was always considered a great actor. Billy had wanted to use Walter in Seven Year Itch, before Walter became a household name.
Wilder chimed in. Walter did a test. He was brilliant. But ultimately Zanuck, who produced the picture, had no confidence in the idea of having a brand new leading man opposite Marilyn Monroe. So he took the guy that was in the play.
Tom Ewell, who was a wonderful actor, Lemmon interjected.
Wilder continued, But I knew when I saw Walters screen test that there was a brand new way of playing comedy. Hes unique. He can do Shakespeare. He can do anything.
Wilder said that, even when working with such amiable actors as Lemmon and Matthau, he didnt feel completely at ease on a set. I never feel comfortable, when I make a movie. I don't sleep well. Its not like theatre, where you work on the show out of town before opening on Broadway. With pictures, what you create is done, there forever for everyone to see. Theres never been a picture Ive been 100 percent happy with.
Lemmon said, I dont think that comfort is part of the creative process. I firmly believe that. I think an artist, no matter what the craft level may be, whether its a writer, director or actor, when you get into a zone of just plain comfort, you wont do your best work.
Packard asked Wilder how creativity might have been affected by the relaxation of cinematic morality standards in the 60s and 70s. The writer/director responded, It was only a good thing for pornographers. Lubitsch would never have written a dirty word, a dirty scene. If the dialogue would call for You son of a bitch!, hed come out with, If you had a mother, shed bark. It just takes a little intelligence, a little effort, to come up with something better than dirty words.
My wife and I go to the movies these days and its a guessing game. I say, Is that her left knee? No, thats her right breast. Everything is in extreme close-up. And thats just under the titles! Imagine what comes later. I think audiences are getting bored with it. Its too much on the nose.
When the supportive applause died down, Packard mentioned that there had been a special celebration at the Stanford Theatre, marking the 100th birthday of Ernst Lubitsch. Wilder quipped, Ive still got six months to go! Packard invited him to return in person on the occasion of his 100th [Wilder passed in 2002, at age 95].
The subject turned to a discussion of color versus black-and-white film. Wilder related, For a long, long time, I resisted making films in color. On Some Like It Hot, Monroe saw the rushes from the first day and said, What the hell? This is not in color?! I said, Marilyn, we have two guys disguised as women. You cannot do it in color, because the beards will show through. Any kind of lie like this worked with her. She said, Oh, yes. I understand.
Actually, I still love black-and-white pictures. I have yet to hear someone say, Is this film in color? No? Lets go see something else.
Wilder mentioned that this years Best Picture Oscar winner, Schindlers List, was filmed in black-and-white. I loved the way it was done. It was the only way to do it. It gave you the feeling of a newsreel, of something really happening. It is an enormously important picture, more so now than ever before. I liked the gentleness, horrible as the situation was, that Spielberg accomplished. Ive seen if four times. The second time, I watched the audience, noticing what the ages were, when the handkerchiefs came out. The other times, I was looking at the people in the concentration camp, relating to those faces, looking for my mother... and I cried.
The mention of Spielberg also sparks a more whimsical memory from Wilder. I was coming out of Spago [the Beverly Hills restaurant]. It was raining. There were no stars there that particular evening, but there were people waiting with cameras and autograph books. One came up to me and said, Mr. Wilder, would you please give me three autographs? I said, Three? Why three? he said, Because for three Wilders, I can get one Spielberg. This is the bartering in Hollywood.
Wilder was asked how important the casting of the right stars is to a film. Of the 10 most successful pictures ever, the first seven have not a single star. There is no star in Star Wars, E.T. or Jaws. What is the important thing? The story.
Packard wondered how Lemmon and Wilder felt about the demise of the old studio system. Lemmon remarked, Weve lost something that will probably never be regained. I came in at the tail-end of the studio system. I did my first film in 1953. There was one great plus in the old days and that was having a whole slate of films at each studio. Whats detrimental today is that, because there is less product being made, each film has become too important. The average film now costs over $30 million. What happens to each film at the box office has become so important, it starts out with a dark cloud over it
The result is, for most people - though it hasnt affected me personally in this way - is that, to a great extent, the fun has gone out of the business. I cannot tell you how much that affects a film, whether its a drama or a comedy. The joy, the fun, the camaraderie, the sense of community are gone. With the studio system, there was a beehive of activity, people all with this purpose, with more security and less fear. Yet somehow or other, thank God, a handful of wonderful films always seem to get made each year - In The Name of the Father, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Piano, Gilbert Grape, etc. We always get that handful that have tremendous worth, artistically, whether theyre commercially successful or not.
Wilder said, When I was under contract to Paramount, we had 104 writers. We all had to deliver 11 pages on yellow paper on Thursday afternoon. It was incredible the material the studio had to choose from.
There are no more studios. Each studio used to be a closely knit family. I remember once talking to the daughter of Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM. She asked me what picture I was working on. I said I was making One, Two, Three with James Cagney. She said, I never heard that name before. I said, Thats impossible. He made so many great pictures, all those gangster pictures. He was one of Warner Brothers top stars. She said, Oh, thats it. My father forbade his children to ever see a Warner Brothers picture.
Much too quickly, the time allotted for the question-and-answer session had vanished. The audience stood as one, applauding the two heroes of cinema, wishing the pair could have lingered a bit longer. Then the lights in the grand, old theatre dimmed, the sumptuous curtains parted and pristine prints of Some Like It Hot and The Apartment delighted the crowd, just as they might have some 30 years ago. Wilder and Lemmon were already being whisked towards home, but their magic continued to sparkle in the movie palace.