Billy Wilder, by Bernard F. Dick. New York: Da Capo Press (a division of Plenum Publishing), 1996 (updated edition). $13.95, ISBN 0-306-80729-7. Trade paperback, 198pp. To order, contact Da Capo Press at 1-800-321-0050.
Da Capo Press is doing an invaluable service for film buffs that deserves a tip of the hat. I learned this firsthand recently while trying desperately to locate a copy of Joe Adamson’s study of Tex Avery (King of Cartoons), the only decent book in English on Avery and long out of print. After being rebuffed by the usual used book sources, I stumbled on a copy of the Da Capo reprint, which I hadn’t known existed. Da Capo has resurrected quite a few rare titles, mostly as direct reprints using the original plates but sometimes allowing the authors to add new material. A reasonable pricing scale makes such purchases irresistible.
Bernard F. Dick’s Billy Wilder was part of Twayne Publishers’ Theatrical Arts series published in the 1970s and ’80s, and one of the better entries in that ambitious but variable-quality group. Dick follows the typical Twayne style in discussing Wilder’s films in loosely chronological order, with detours into thematic chapters (e.g., matching Sunset Boulevard and Fedora in the decoratively titled “Down Among the Rotting Palms” chapter).
The author is a fine writer at his best in discussing the more gripping Wilder films like Double Indemnity and Some Like It Hot. He nicely captures the former’s Phyllis Diedrichson character (Barbara Stanwyck) by calling her “the rhinestone tarantula at the center of a spangled web,” and neatly summarizes the complex relationship of Walter Neff (Fred Macmurray) and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson): “That Neff loves this man is not surprising; one loves what one lacks.” Not that the book is simply a series of well-turned phrases; the author’s analysis of Marilyn Monroe’s “Sugar” character in Some Like It Hot is equal parts insight and pathos.
Adding to the book’s research value — this is arguably the one monograph on Wilder that should be on every cineaste’s shelf — are the author’s authoritative discussions of the literary sources of the films, assessments of their commercial and critical success or failure, and a refreshing recognition of the contributions of Wilder’s collaborators from the obvious (I. A. L. Diamond and Charles Brackett) to the less so (Miklos Rosza’s score for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes).
A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler. New York: Da Capo Press (a division of Plenum Publishing), 1997 (updated edition). $16.95, ISBN 0-306-80798-X. Trade paperback, 517pp. To order, contact Da Capo Press at 1-800-321-0050 or go to a damned bookstore.
The word “sonofabitch” may be the single most common description of movie directors, particularly by abused, disgruntled actors. Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger immediately come to mind in this regard, but even allegedly gentle directors like Sirk have been so labeled (by Gloria Talbot, from All That Heaven Allows). William Wyler was one of the major Hollywood “sonofabitches,” according to Jan Herman’s William Wyler: A Talent for Trouble, but also one of its keenest talents whose sometimes noxious ways paid off in screen performances that continue to resonate decades later.
This big, solidly researched critical bio (500+ pages) explores Wyler’s personal history and career with intelligence and depth, along the way painting a witty, incisive portrait of a Hollywood that, for better or worse, is long gone. Wyler’s intellectual intransigence, bullying ways, his hatred of the “dishonesty” of Hollywood, along with personal tragedies and triumphs are all thoroughly detailed. Buffs will most appreciate Herman’s strong discussion of the circumstances of the making of the films, though some of the critical assessments seem misjudged — e.g., writing off one of Wyler’s best, Dead End, as “dated” and “stagebound.” (A few minutes with Claire Trevor’s riveting consumptive whore or the East Side Kids’ scorchingly sarcastic brats jettisons such notions.)
Wyler’s relationship with actors is what’s most intriguing about him — driving his style and forming his cinematic legacy — and the book goes into considerable detail there. Surprisingly, some actors like Gregory Peck actually appreciated his authoritarian methods, happy with a director whose artistry demanded endless takes to get the effect he wanted. On the other hand, Sylvia Sidney disliked him intensely, not least because of what would now be called his sexual harassment of her. Still, under Wyler’s direction in Dead End, she gave one of her greatest performances. Wyler’s ability with actors, the book shows, won over even hard-line anti-Wylerites like Andrew Sarris, who praised “the extraordinary performances” in one of the later works, The Collector. Wyler’s well-known affair with and unceremonious dumping of Bette Davis is thoroughly examined, but again, as the author reminds us, with Wyler the performances were all, and they have outlasted such peccadilloes.
Other important titles that Da Capo has returned to print include Lotte Eisner’s Fritz Lang, Peter Cowie’s The Cinema of Orson Welles, Parker Tyler’s Screening the Sexes, Sarris’s The American Cinema, and David Robinson’s Chaplin: His Life and Art. Look for ’em!