Conversations With Wilder

Book Reviews

Conversations With Wilder

by Cameron Crowe

Knopf, 400 pp., $35

"Imagine for a moment a party," begins Cameron Crowe in the introduction to his own chapter of film history. "A somewhat elegant affair, populated solely by characters from the films of Billy Wilder. Over there at the piano, swirling a drink, is the doomed Walter Neff from Double Indemnity. He's trying not to stare at the effervescent Sugar from Some Like It Hot. Fran Kubelik and C.C. Baxter from The Apartment dance closely to postmodern jazz in another room, while Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard descends the main staircase to join the flinty and ambitious Chuck Tatum from Ace in the Hole. And outside, hiding in a tree on this moonlit night, yearning for a glimpse of David Larrabee, studying every moment in this full house of wildly different characters, crouches lovesick Sabrina."

Gulp. One can just picture Audrey Hepburn's angelic young face among the tree branches, or William Holden's dazzling, golden boy smile. "What an evening it would be," concludes Crowe. That's page "xi" of Conversations with Wilder, opposite a picture of the 93-year-old Wilder, perhaps the oldest living director (according to the man himself) and one of the uncontested immortals of 20th-century cinema. If you can stop the reels of your imagination after that and put down this priceless audience with a man who has made this world a better, richer place, then you never cried tears of laughter watching Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag. Never swallowed back a lump in your throat after Holden gets decked flat across a boardroom table and sits up beaming at Humphrey Bogart, "You are in love with her." Never experienced Erich von Stroheim's pathos at the end of Sunset Boulevard. Never had a love affair with "pictures" as Wilder calls them.

Destined for the same repute as Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock, or perhaps Peter Bogdanovich's John Ford -- similar book-length interview/dialogues with cinematic auteurs in the twilight of their lives -- Conversations With Wilder plays like one of the director's classics: full of vigorous thought and capricious wit. Laugh-out-loud wit. In a 1997 Rolling Stone film diary, former music scribe-turned-screenwriter/director Crowe detailed his attempts to land his idol Wilder for a small part in his upcoming film, Jerry Maguire. Though ultimately failing, Crowe's contact with the not-so-reclusive director (Wilder still keeps regular office hours and answers his own phone) results in a touching, real-life account of a young knowledge-seeker climbing the mountain in order to glean answers from the master.

In his gently persistent manner, Crowe asks Wilder to access his favorite children (The Apartment, Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot) as well as his ugly orphans (Fedora, The Front Page, and Buddy Buddy), and in the process uncovers great "lost" Wilder films, such as he and writing partner Charles Brackett's script for Mitchell Leisen's 1939 gem Midnite, collaborations with Ernst Lubitsch (Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, Ninotchka), and an early directorial bow, Five Graves to Cairo. Crowe also presses Wilder to unlock the essence of his work and self, often to his subject's bewilderment, and even though the director's final and absolute truth seems to boil down to "Lubitsch did it better," a treasury of tidbits spill forth, like the shot but never-seen prologue to Sunset Boulevard, the fact that Wilder wrote "every part" for Cary Grant, and his summation of Audrey Hepburn: "She was a thing made in heaven." Cameron Crowe, you've done a great thing.

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