Friday, February 18, 2011

Billy Wilder | Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment

The body lying face down in the pool

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille
The all-girl band of Some Like It Hot
Kisses for the milk fund

Some of the 31,249 employees where C.C. Baxter works
Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment

by Douglas Messerli

Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D. M. Marshman, Jr. (authors), Billy Wilder (director),
Sunset Boulevard / 1950

There is perhaps no better example of a voice speaking from the dead than the man lying face down in the pool at the beginning of Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard (1950), a voice which, despite the murder of the body it inhabits, proceeds to “narrate” the rest of the movie. Few films have attempted such audacious narrative stances—even Raymond Maté’s movie of the same year, D.O.A. (Dead on Arrival), in which a poisoned Edmond O’Brien (as Frank Bigelow) must convince the police of his murder before he actually dies, cannot compare with Wilder’s talking corpse.

Sunset Boulevard continues, moreover, in a manner that alternates between film noir and the macabre and absurdist worksof Tod Browning two decades earlier. In between these extremes, writer-director Wilder, along with Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman, Jr., conjure up fairly realist episodes of ordinary folk, fellow writers and other young people whose lives are subject—both financially and spiritually—to the whims of studio heads.

William Holden (the actor embodying the narrating corpse, Joe Gillis) portrays a near has-been scriptwriter, trotting out stale plots and story lines to fulfill his understandably cynical reaction to his chosen profession. Real-life MGM head Irving Thalberg once described writers as “necessary evils,” and Joe recognizes that audiences as well “don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.” Having just been visited by creditors in search of his unpaid automobile he must also face the fact that he hasn’t long to survive in Hollywood. Perhaps he should return to the small town newspaper for which he previously worked, admitting defeat. As fellow scriptwriter Betty Schaefer says, “I’d always heard you had some talent. Joe’s answer: “That was last year. This year I’m trying to make a living.”

Having ditched his car in a nearby parking lot, Gillis attempts to make a get away until he can scare up enough cash to leave. In the process, however, he is spotted while driving down Sunset Boulevard by the creditors, and is forced to speed away in escape. The viewer hardly recovers from the implausible coincidence of Joe’s being discovered in a city of such vast spaces, when Wilder presents his character with the apparition, among some of the wealthiest properties in the world, of a seemingly abandoned mansion with an open garage perfect for his disappearance.
Thus begins an ongoing series of incredulous events that make this film such an improbable masterwork, a work that has often seemed to me, at least, far less appealing than most of Wilder’s other movies.

Watching the film this time around, however, I perceived that the seeming improbabilities and strange mix of genres of Sunset Boulevard are, in fact, intentional challenges to the credibility of the work.

As if the accident of the two previous incidents was not enough, for instance, Wilder ups the ante, so to speak, as his heroine Norma Desmond—whom we soon discover is a former great silent film star (played by the former great silent film star Gloria Swanson)—and her butler/former husband Max van Mayerling (performed by the great former director of Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, who, after Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg severely cut and reedited his last films, was never able to direct again) appear to have been awaiting Joe’s arrival: “What took you so long?” the imperious Desmond demands to know of Gillis. Before we even have time to recover from the multiple mirrored images of fiction and reality Wilder has set into play, Gillis is led upstairs to what appears to be a waiting corpse—“I'd like the coffin to be white, and I want it specially lined with satin. White... or pink. Maybe red! Bright flaming red! Let's make it gay!,” Desmond babbles—the body of which we soon after discover is her recently deceased chimpanzee. Without missing a beat, Joe parlays his mistaken identity into a job to rewrite Norma’s dreadful comeback script of Salome! It’s significant to note that absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco’s first play, The Bald Soprano, was first performed the very same year, and that his The Lesson and The Chairs appeared over the next two years! The events and interrelationships of the actors with their characters in Sunset Boulevard, if not the dialogue, seem to parallel, almost, the French playwright’s daffy thematics.

Indeed, Wilder created in Sunset Boulevard a drama that—just as von Stroheim’s slightly insane rendition of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue”—pulls out the stops. To Joe’s offhanded dismissal of her attentions, for example, (“…I’m all wrong for you. You want a Valentino, somebody with polo ponies, a big shot.), Nora histrionically reacts: “What you’re trying to say is that you don’t want me to love you. Say it. Say it! [slaps him hard across the face].” The wild gestures and eye flutterings of Swanson’s Norma Desmond evidently resulted—according to a Paris Review interview with Wilder—in a “strong reaction,” as actress Barbara Stanwyck “went up and kissed the hem of Gloria Swanson’s robe, or dress, or whatever she was wearing” the night of the film’s preview. It is, in fact, quite extraordinary, a performance I cannot help but think of as what later would be described as “high camp.”

Throughout the film, Wilder and his fellow writers keep the story at high boil with their verbal wit: (DESMOND: My astrologist has read my horoscope, he’s read DeMille’s horoscope. GILLIS: Has he read the script?). But it is Wilder’s continued use of real individuals destroyed or ignored by Hollywood that lends the film another dimension that is both poignant and hilariously satiric: among Desmond’s regular visitors, characters Gillis refers to as her “waxworks,” are the lyricist and composer team Ray Evans and Joe Livingston, who throughout the late 1940s and 1950s wrote songs such as “Buttons and Bows,” “Mona Lisa” (the same year as Sunset Boulevard), “Que Sera Sera,” and “Tammy”; Swedish-born actor Anna Q. Nilsson, another true-life star of the silent films whose career went into sharp decline with the advent of the “talkies”; H. B. Warner, a silent film actor who performed Jesus Christ in Cecil DeMille’s 1927 epic King of Kings, and went on to play character roles in notable movies of the 1940s such as You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life; and the great Buster Keaton, one of the most renowned of silent film actors and directors, whose career was destroyed by his decision to sign on with MGM in 1928.**

Along with the appearance in the film of another of Swanson’s directors, Cecille DeMille—older than the supposedly agèd Swanson, actually only 52 at the time of filming***—and other cinematic incidents (at one point in the movie Norma and Joe watch one of her past films, actually a scene from Queen Kelly, the film from which Swanson [as co-producer, bankrolled by her then-lover Joseph P. Kennedy] fired von Stroheim, thus ending his career) that create a bizarre relationship of events past and present. In another such moment, Max, awaiting Norma’s return from her visit with DeMille to the car, points out a nearby studio building to Joe: “You see those offices up there? That was Madame’s dressing room, the whole row.” Gillis’ sardonic answer, “Didn’t leave much for Wallace Beery,” refers to the silent film star and director who, when purged by his studio upon the advent of talkies, was hired for MGM by the ubiquitous Thalberg. Beery was also Gloria Swanson’s first husband.

In short, as the spider-like Desmond weaves her web around the increasingly trapped young writer, Wilder and his co-writers weave their own web of relationships and circumstance around their actors and the fictional beings they portray, helping us to understand exactly how the studios entrapped and continued to hold their actors and actresses, gradually sucking them into an unreal world from which they could never again return to the normality of everyday life.

Gillis tries to recapture his artistic aspirations and his manhood through his innocent relationship with co-writer Betty Schaefer, but to do so he has to hide that friendship and later love from Norma, and, in turn, keep the fact of his life with Desmond from Betty. Ultimately, he has no choice but to reveal the brutal truth to both women: because of the web of lies he has lived he can offer little to either.

As he prepares to escape, the mad fury of Norma plays out like an operatic aria, absurd and unbelievable as all other events of the film. As Desmond’s previously unacknowledged madness is now manifested to the world, we watch in horror as she rouges her face while real-life ghoul Hedda Hopper (often called “the ferret” by Hollywood insiders for her tenaciously vicious attacks of actors, attempting to “out” Cary Grant and, soon after this film, naming names for the McCarthy committee) hovers in the background, after which Desmond morti-fyingly slinks down the staircase where Erich von Stroheim stand-in for Cecil DeMille, invisibly capturing her grand descent into hell.

Is it any wonder studio executives were outraged, Mayer loudly yammering at the movie’s screening, “We need to kick Wilder out of America if he’s going to bite the hand that feeds him.”? (Paris Review interview with Wilder)

Wilder and his co-writers have presented us in Sunset Boulevard a tragic satire about filmmaking—its writers, actors, and directors whose lives were destroyed by the Hollywood system—seemingly so exaggerated that, strangely enough, it reads as a somewhat credible depiction, as if that celluloid being had cried wolf so many times that we have no choice but to believe in the worst. But then that voice of the man lying face down in the pool begins to speak all over again and we recognize this is, after all, an artifice, another imitation of life.

Los Angeles, April 9, 2008
*One is reminded here of the abandoned mansion in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 masterwork, Rebel without a Cause.
**Swanson had also invited William Haines to perform with her in the movie, but he declined. Haines, often described as the first openly gay Hollywood star, was a major silent film actor who, after his arrestment for picking up a sailor in L.A.’s Pershing Square, was given an ultimatum from studio head Louis B. Mayer to choose between a sham marriage (often called a “lavender” marriage) or his relationship with Jimmy Shields. Haines chose the latter, leaving filmmaking to become a designer for Hollywood clients such as Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. In 1936 he and his companion were assaulted by members of the White Legion, wearing hoods to hide their faces, who dragged the men from their home and beat them. Among his later clients were Nancy and Ronald Reagan.
***(FIRST ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: [about Nora Desmond] She must be a million years old. CECIL B. DEMILLE: I hate to think where that puts me. I could be her father.)

by Douglas Messerli

Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond (writers) [based on a story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan], Billy Wilder (director) Some Like It Hot / 1959

There’s not a great deal to be said about Billy Wilder’s comic masterpiece Some Like It Hot that isn’t apparent in the viewing. Nearly anyone who has a sense of humor, a basic understanding of English, and the ability to decipher farcical wit, can comprehend this film; indeed, that is the wonder of this masterpiece, it’s near-complete accessibility to what other filmmakers hide in ironic asides or reveal through a sometimes involuted and symbolic series of images: this is a film about murder, mayhem and all things sexual—transvestism, heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, lesbianism, androgyny, impotence and everything in between. Had Wilder tried to get away with these same issues just a few years earlier, his film might never have been made. One has only to observe the maniacal guilt of Tom Ewell’s character in Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) for even imagining a sexual rendezvous with the girl (Marilyn Monroe) upstairs, to comprehend that in the four years since that film, something had drastically changed—despite the fact that the director and producers actually skirted the issue by choosing to release the film with a certificate of approval. If The Seven Year Itch might be subtitled, “thinking wild,” Some Like It Hot is literally, as Monroe croons, “running wild.”

Wilder based his material on a German musical comedy, Fanfaren der Liebe (Fanfares of Love), from which he borrowed the cross-dressing musicians, but little else. For me the first part of the movie idles a bit while establishing the down-and-out condition of the two leads (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) and the motivation for their flight and Keystone cop-like pace of the rest of the story; and the least startling aspect of this gender-bending film is their decision to dress in drag. Indeed, Curtis is such a pretty-boy throughout the first part of the film, his youthful slightly pudgy face set off by the long waves of eyelashes, that when he and Lemmon suddenly appear in women’s dress, Curtis looks right for the part and is certainly as beautiful as any German saxophonist of Cabaret’s all girl orchestra. It is Lemmon’s oversized clown-like mouth and heavy chin that truly remind us throughout the film that these two girls are actually men.
Oddly enough, it is Lemmon’s character Jerry who is committed to their transformation right from the start, so desperate for a job that he suggests they dress in drag in front of booking agent Poliakoff:

We could borrow some clothes from the girls in the chorus….
We get a couple of second-hand wigs, a little padding here
and there, we call ourselves Josephine and Geraldine.

Joe’s reaction is predictable: “He’s got an empty stomach and it’s gone to his head.” It is only their unfortunate witnessing of Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in the garage where they have come to pick up Nellie’s car that forces Joe to proceed with Jerry’s plan. Introducing themselves as the “new girls” to their employers, the mean-hearted Sweet Sue and her emasculated manager Beinstock, Jerry takes their outward disguise to a new level by suddenly declaring his name to be Daphne instead of Geraldine (the feminine version of his male self). In short, once in drag he redefines himself, becomes something different; like the mythical Daphne he transforms himself into a new thing. And it is at that very moment when Wilder seems to come alive as a director, spinning out a yarn that plunges into a near frenzy before it comes to its logical—if unexpected—conclusion.

While, Joe deludes himself that their transformation will soon be over—"Once we get to town, we'll blow this whole setup”—Jerry has other ideas, including swallowing up the entire train car of what his stereotypical masculine persona sees as edible beauties:

Jerry: When I was a kid, Joe, I used to have a dream. I was locked up overnight
in a pastry shop and there was goodies all around. There was jellyrolls and
mocha éclairs and sponge cake, and Boston crème pie and cherry tarts—
Joe: [warning] Don’t. Listen to me. No butter, no pastry. We’re on a diet!

To play safe, Joe removes the ladder to Jerry’s train berth, disallowing any access to the women.
Wilder focuses on Jerry’s transformation by continuing to have Joe (the real womanizer of the two) tear his “chests”—the padding he’s used to create the illusion of breasts. When Joe finally insists that his friend re-adjust his attitude, “Just keep telling yourself you’re a girl,” a mantra which Jerry repeats in time to the rhythm of the train’s wheels, we perceive that they will never be able to turn back and that Jerry may well permanently become one of the “girls.”

By the time they reach the Seminole-Ritz Hotel (in reality the Coronado Beach Hotel near San Diego), Jerry is already attracting, as ludicrous as it seems, the admiration of males, including the wolfish geezer Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) and the undersized bellhop, who’s ready to hop into bed with sassy Daphne. Even the other women admire Daphne’s muscular girth. Before long, (s)he is tangoing with a rose between her teeth and soon after engaged to be married!

Joe, meanwhile, who has just had perhaps his first serious conversation with a woman, Sugar Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe), on the train, has other plans in mind. Intuiting his intentions, Jerry reminds his friend—in a phrase that might be at home in any old-time gay conversation—“Well, I’m your fairy godmother. And I’m gonna keep an eye on you.”

Joe’s transformation involves another kind of cross-dressing. Costuming himself like a Ivy League-bred, bespectacled, yacht-living, millionaire playboy—a sort of bizarre mix of bisexual and homosexual figures from Fred Astaire and Cole Porter to Cary Grant—he becomes Shell Oil “Junior”—a man right out of Sugar’s fantasies. To encourage her to seduce him, Joe-Junior claims to be impotent, a condition resulting from the death of his beloved Nellie during freshman year at Princeton.

We were standing at the highest ledge watching the sunset, when
suddenly, we got this impulse to kiss. I took off my glasses. She took
off her glasses. I took a step toward her. She took a step toward me….

In an attempt to revive his sexuality, Sugar insistently kisses him—the desired result—again and again until she can melt away his supposed mental complexes and relieve him of his haunted past.

In fact, Sugar achieves precisely that! Forced to see the world from another perspective, made to look through the eyes of his previous female victims, Joe reevaluates his life and begins to fall in love with Sugar. But the possibility of death suddenly looms up again in the form of a mobster convention in their very hotel. To soften the blow of his necessarily quick departure, he steals Jerry’s gift from Fielding of a diamond bracelet and delivers it up to his new love.

Once again, the two are on the run, this time through the hotel lobby and into the meeting room itself, where they hide out under the table, bowing at the feet of their would-be murderers—a position that calls up the sexual insinuations of the lifestyle of which Sugar has previously complained: the “fuzzy end of the lollipop.”

History is repeated as they again witness a gangland murder. But this time around, Joe and Jerry are reborn not merely in new dress, but in new behavior, as they escape with Osgood Fielding, joined by Sugar, to his yacht. Joe, it is apparent, has finally fallen in love and will be married, and Jerry—despite his attempts to explain the impossibility of marrying Fielding—at least within the comic terms the film delineates—may nonetheless marry into a life of wealth and security with Fielding with their mutual recognition that “nobody’s perfect”!

Throughout the film there is a running gag about Joe and Jerry sharing type O blood—the blood type that is often described as the “universal donor” since it can be shared with A, B, and O blood. Universality, indeed, seems to be one of Wilder’s goals. Perhaps for the first time in history, with its hilarious multi-sexual ending, a film directly appeals equally to audiences of all sexual orientations. Kinsey has prevailed.

How perverse to think of this film being paired with Tennessee Williams’ drama of homosexuality and cannibalism, Suddenly Last Summer—a presentation of a completely unforgiving sexual world—upon the Los Angeles premiere of Wilder’s comedy! The showing, as one might have predicted, was a disaster.

Los Angeles, April 4, 2008

by Douglas Messerli

Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond (writers), Billy Wilder (d.) The Apartment / 1960

We annually watch The Apartment in our house on New Year’s day in honor of its last scenes. But it’s a silly convention, since the film is not about a particular day, but about every day. Wilder’s vision of the American workplace is about as devastating of a portrait since Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (I’ll have to reread that play).

Indeed, C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works in accounting, and in a early scene, as he recounts staggering figures of the American workplace (“Our company has 31,249 employees, which is more than the size of...Natchez”), Wilder pulls the camera back and away to reveal row after row of hundreds of such desks as Baxter’s, immediately portraying to the viewer his insignificance to the overpowering company and, simultaneously, indicating his “exceptionalness”: he is the only remaining worker in the morass of empty desks.

Yet we also quite quickly realize that this activity of continuing to work beyond the others is no heroic act and will certainly be recognized by no one. No J. Pierpont Finch (of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) is he! Baxter remains after work, his voice tells us, because of his “little problem”: he has a bachelor apartment just perfect for the quick sexual rendezvous of the executives. In short, not only is Baxter’s workplace a hell of anominity and uniformity, even his home has been taken over by the company—with his job and promises of promotion as ransom. As his counterpoint, Miss Kubelik (Shirley McLaine), observes, there are givers and takers.
Baxter is definitely one who has been “took.”Miss Kubelik (the “Miss” emphatically repeated throughout the film to reiterate, perhaps, the societal evaluation of an attractive “unmarried” woman) is even lower in the company echelons; she is an elevator operator, with no place to go but up. The female equivalent of the nebbish Baxter, she too is being used by the company—in this case through the use of her very body, not only through the pinches and gropings of executives, but through an unhappy affair with the married senior executive, J. D. Sheldrake, Fred McMurray, who plays his swarmy role so well that it is difficult to see what attracted her to him in the first place.

Both have the lowest of self-esteem, a position in which the company is determined to keep them in order to control and manipulate their lives. Baxter, without identity and home, has such an empty life that he is pleased to be accused by his neighbors for the endless partying and noise issuing from his supposed love life. Miss Kubelik’s compact mirror, cracked when she threw it at her lover, makes her “look like she feels.” It is that object, moreover, which reveals her affair to Baxter, who, after her later attempt at suicide, saves her life.

Both characters are brought to higher positions in the company manipulations of them: Baxter is made assistant to Sheldrake and Kubelik promised (yet again) that Sheldrake will eventually leave his wife. And ultimately, Kubelik—like those before her—might rise to the role of receptionist and Baxter (who, after all, is capable and efficient) might obtain a higher executive position. In short, they may ultimately partake in a version of the American Dream—but at a terrible price. They need only to look at the executives around them to see the inevitable dissatisfaction of that way of life.

Baxter’s abandonment of his job, which leads, in turn, to Kubelik’s abandonment of Sheldrake, is their only possible redemption. Wilder knows only too well that in America the young can start over again, that a new Eden is as possible as a new year. Champagne for the happy couple!
But perhaps next year we should watch this film on Labor Day in honor of all those dead souls who could not escape.

Los Angeles, October 18, 2002

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