PCC Remembers A Magical Evening With Legends Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon

By Paul Freeman [1994 article]

On a Saturday afternoon, the lasting impact of classic films was clearly evident at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, California. Nearly 1,200 people packed the place to honor the screenwriting/directing genius of Billy Wilder.

Wilder participated in a Q-and-A session, accompanied by one of his favorite actors, Jack Lemmon. The two worked together on seven films: “The Apartment,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Irma La Douce,” “The Fortune Cookie,” “The Front Page,” “Avanti” and “Buddy, Buddy.”

It was Lemmon who convinced Wilder to make this rare public appearance. Proceeds from the event went to the UCLA Film Archives. Plans called for the money to be used to preserve Wilder’s 1942 Paramount movie, “The Major and The Minor,” starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland.

The Stanford Theatre Foundation and the associated Packard Foundation, in partnership with UCLA archives, had already funded the preservation of 45 films, including “The Quiet Man,” “A Star Is Born” (1937 version) and “My Man Godfrey.”

Hosting the festivities was David W. Packard, whose father founded Hewlett-Packard, the electronics giant. Packard helmed the purchase and $6 million restoration of the Stanford Theatre, a fabulous movie palace erected in 1925. A devoted movie buff, Packard directed questions, both his own and those pre-scribbled by audience members, towards Wilder and Lemmon.

Packard pointed out that the setting should be somewhat nostalgic for Lemmon. “That’s true,” said the actor, looking dapper in pale green leather jacket, turtleneck and slacks. “When I got out of college, I was looking for an agent, looking for work. Finally one of the premier collectors of early films, who ran a revival theatre, the old Knickerbocker Music Hall on Second Avenue in New York, hired me to play piano for the silent films. Actually, it was half a piano - every other note didn’t work. But I played the accompaniment to Valentino and other great silent stars.”

Gesturing towards the Stanford’s magnificent pipe organ, Packard asked Lemmon if he’d like a job playing it. “If it’s steady, I’ll take it,” the star quipped.

At that moment, what he took were a pair of maracas that Packard handed him. Lemmon laughed, shook them to that famed tango beat and said, “The best single piece of direction I’ve ever gotten came from Billy Wilder, while we were making ‘Some Like It Hot.’ It’s the scene just after I’ve become engaged to the Joe E. Brown character. The scene was filled with so many big laughs, you wouldn’t have been able to hear half of the dialogue. Billy handed me the maracas and said, ‘In your happiness and joy, you dance with these things.’ It was a stroke of genius. It served as both pause and punctuation.”

Back pain caused by sciatica limits Wilder’s activities, but his wit was as devastatingly sharp as ever. He expressed concern that some in the audience, which ranged from teens to octogenarians, might not be familiar with the films being mentioned. The partisan crowd laughed. The Stanford had just completed running a two-month long Wilder festival. Many of those attending the tribute had come to those screenings, which traced Wilder’s evolution as an artist.

Born in Vienna, Wilder moved to Berlin and began work as a screenwriter. In 1934, he relocated to Hollywood. With his first steady writing partner, Charles Brackett, he created such scripts as “Ninotchka,” “Midnight” and “Ball of Fire.”

In 1942, Wilder had a chance to bring one of his scripts to life, “The Major and The Minor.” It was a hit and led to a long string of successes, including “Double Indemnity,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Stalag 17,” “Sabrina,” “Love In The Afternoon” and “Witness For The Prosecution.”

Dark humor and cynicism crackled through Wilder’s writing. But in much of his best work, it was tempered with a grudging strain of optimism. The Wilder world is populated by colorful characters who spout unforgettable dialogue.

When asked about Marilyn Monroe, Wilder recalled her exasperating habit of blanking out dialogue. “I worked on two pictures with her and wanted to give up the profession. My wife and three doctors begged me to never work with her again. She was a most difficult woman. It was not easy for her to get in front of a camera, while suffering from dementia praecox or whatever. She couldn’t remember one word. Not one!

“She misreads a line, then breaks down and starts crying. I would say, ‘That’s all right. Let’s try it again.’ But, because she’d been crying, it would take 45 minutes to an hour to put new make-up on her.”

With horror, Wilder recounts the making of one particular scene in “Some Like It Hot.” “We had done 83 takes,” he says. “It was a very difficult line - ‘Where’s that bourbon?’ I put my hand on her shoulder and said, ‘I’m sure you’ll get it now. Don’t be worried about it.’ She said, ‘Worried about what?’ Eighty-three takes. We went for another 17.”

Wilder acknowledged Monroe’s charisma. “There was something about her voice. It was neither too loud nor too soft. It had a special rhythm to it. Like Garbo’s, her voice could hold you.

“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 Monroe’s 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 wasn’t 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. I’ve always been compulsive. My wife can smoke one cigarette a week. For me, it’s 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 couldn’t 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, Boyer’s character cannot cross the border into the United States, because he doesn’t have the proper papers. We had a scene written, in which, on a dirty wall, there’s 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 weren’t 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. It’s stupid. I’m from France. We don’t 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. doesn’t talk to the cockroach, he isn’t 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. “It’s an advantage for a director to know how to write, but it’s 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 couldn’t speak English. Obviously, my collaborations with Brackett and Diamond worked well, or they wouldn’t 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 shouldn’t be stubborn.”

Lemmon, whose affection for Wilder was clear, piped up, “Can I interject something, because Billy isn’t going to compliment himself. I’d like to point out something about really good writing. I’ve 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. It’s 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 can’t ad-lib, because you can’t add and you can’t take away.”

In addition to being a writer’s writer, Wilder was a director’s 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.’ That’s why he’s so rich! But he can’t 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 Swanson’s underwear . it will point out my love, my sexual obsession with her.’ I said, ‘Erich, I don’t think that’s 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. Wouldn’t it be beautiful, if we find out that it was I who wrote all the letters?’ I said, ‘That I’ll 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 Walter’s screen test that there was a brand new way of playing comedy. He’s unique. He can do Shakespeare. He can do anything.”

Lemmon went on to talk about his experience with Matthau on 1966’s “The Fortune Cookie.” “Billy had written the part of old Whiplash Willie for him. That was the first time Walter and I had a chance to work together and we became immediate best friends and we’ve been like brothers ever since.”

Wilder said that, even when working with such amiable actors as Lemmon and Matthau, he didn’t feel completely at ease on a set. “I never feel comfortable, when I make a movie. I don't sleep well. It’s 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. There’s never been a picture I’ve been 100 percent happy with.”

Lemmon said, “I don’t 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 it’s a writer, director or actor, when you get into a zone of just plain comfort, you won’t 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!,’ he’d come out with, ‘If you had a mother, she’d 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 it’s a guessing game. I say, ‘Is that her left knee?’ ‘No, that’s her right breast.’ Everything is in extreme close-up. And that’s just under the titles! Imagine what comes later. I think audiences are getting bored with it. It’s 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, “I’ve 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? Let’s go see something else.’”

Wilder mentioned that this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, “Schindler’s 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. I’ve 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, “We’ve 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. What’s 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 hasn’t 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 it’s 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 they’re 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, ‘That’s impossible. He made so many great pictures, all those gangster pictures. He was one of Warner Brothers’ top stars.’ She said, ‘Oh, that’s 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.