Conversations with Wilder
by Cameron Crowe
A review by Christopher Bolton
Although Citizen Kane and 2001 are more technically innovative and therefore more important to the medium The Apartment remains my favorite film. I've seen it more times than I can count. Each viewing is as fresh and invigorating as the first. And while there's no denying the skill Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine brought to their roles, the resonant voice emerging from the film belongs to its co-writer and director, the legendary Billy Wilder.
Conversations with Wilder offers a rare insight into Wilder's life and work. So rare, in fact, that it almost never happened: Cameron Crowe, writer-director of Say Anything... and Almost Famous, struggled for years to meet with Wilder. It wasn't until Crowe's Jerry Maguire reaped a pile of Oscar nominations that the famously elusive Wilder consented to an interview. Even then, Wilder regards Crowe’s motives (and his tape recorder) with suspicion, as the project grows from a magazine article into a thick, gorgeous book. "Who wants to read all these old stories?" Wilder asks.
For one, any current, would-be, wanna-be, or has-been screenwriter or director; for another, anyone who loves great movies written with sharp humor and directed with unsentimental humanity. A refugee from Berlin who teamed with New Yorker writer Charles Brackett because of his tenuous grasp of English, Wilder started out writing such classics as Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka. Dissatisfied with other directors' approach to his material, Wilder took the directing reins himself and conceived a breathtaking filmography including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, Some Like It Hot, and of course, The Apartment.
In an era when few mainstream filmmakers imbue their product with any kind of personal stamp (Crowe being an exception), it's refreshing to revisit Wilder's work through his own eyes. His wit remains unblunted even into his nineties and his insights into the filming process are invaluable. Crowe manages to pry revealing personal details about Wilder's rarely discussed youth, the loss of his family in Auschwitz, and the decline of his career following the Oscar-winning high of The Apartment. This is arguably the most essential book-length discussion between filmmakers since Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock.
The book itself is lavishly illustrated with more than 650 black-and-white photographs, and sumptuously designed by Chip Kidd. With Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Shirley Maclaine, William Holden, Jack Lemmon, and Gary Cooper only pages apart, it's a visual feast for the eyes.
Certainly there are directors who pushed the envelope more provocatively or pleased greater numbers of audiences (less provocatively), but there are few directors who have so successfully managed to entertain with a distinctive, personal touch as Billy Wilder. To read about his life and films in the legend's own words makes Conversations with Wilder indispensable. The only comparable pleasure is another viewing of The Apartment.