I've never read a dull word about Billy Wilder. His caustic wit is always ready with a wickedly funny remark, and any of several biographies on him is guaranteed good reading. Since he passed away in 2002 Cameron Crowe's photo interview book has done exceedingly well. Billy Wilder Speaks is the work of German director Volker Schlöndorff, who in 1989 had already known Wilder for twenty-five years. Difficult to pin down for interviews, Wilder was working with another documentarian in his little writing office in Beverly Hills when Schlöndorff piggybacked his camera for a "rehearsal" for a possible interview. He ended up getting two weeks of excellent on-camera reminiscences from the great director. The only restriction imposed was that the film would not be shown until after Wilder's death
The 71-minute film is a delight. In most other interviews Wilder does what all Hollywood personalities do when confronted with the same questions about the same movies made 40 and 50 years ago -- they repeat the same anecdotes and sometimes apocryphal tales. They want to be entertaining, and sometimes their memories aren't that good. I also suspect that industry veterans avoid discussing some aspects of old times for fear of betraying the confidences of friends, or bad-mouthing people they haven't seen for decades. For Schlöndorff Wilder has plenty to say, and a lot of it is in German, which has the beneficial side effect of loosening his tongue. The assurance that nothing he says will come back to bite him does the rest. Schlöndorff tells us that Wilder said, "After I'm gone, who cares?"
Wilder definitely does care about the films he made and the people he knew. Schlöndorff takes him right through his career from Germany to his early days in Hollywood, skipping over ground covered too well by others -- there's no discussion of the unreliable rumors that Wilder was an "Eintanzer" in Berlin, one step away from being a gigolo. The young hustler we meet doesn't seem the type. He wangled his way to Berlin as a publicist for a big American jazz band and from there sidestepped into newspaper work and screenwriting.
Wilder talks about his films and the stars in them more than he does about himself. Although his cynical edge hasn't diminished he shows hints of a sentimental side. He has nothing bad to say about Humphrey Bogart and talks fondly of Charles Laughton. Wilder obviously adores Marlene Dietrich and recalls their joking acknowledgement that her screen image was only a carefully crafted illusion; he even says that she was "more like a man" in her dealings with people. He's less critical of Marilyn Monroe, perhaps after decades of mulling over the personality that had been so infuriatingly unreliable during filming. And he's practically teary-eyed on the subject of his collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, who had passed away not long before the interview. He grins with amusement to recall that the initials I.A.L. stand for "Interscholastic Algebra League."
Schlöndorff's camera captures Wilder in his office and another unspecified setting, perhaps the director's home. We also wander to a podium at I.A.L. Diamond's funeral service, for Wilder's farewell to his partner. Schlöndorff keeps the docu at the level of raw footage, not bothering with fancy opticals or even fades. Photographs are filmed at an angle as they are placed on a tabletop, thus not interrupting the interview format. Wilder even takes a phone call (in French) at one point. We hear Schlöndorff and another interviewer (Gisela Grishow?) helping Wilder find words in German and English, without any attempt to edit them out. The natural interview feel adds considerably to the appeal of the show: These are simply great interactions with one of the 20th century's most entertaining men.
Wilder offers a number of observations not heard or read elsewhere, such as his description of Jack Lemmon's work ethic and Shirley MacLaine's doubts that The Apartment will be a success. Even the Cameron Crowe book stacks up as a compendium of old stories compared to the freshness of the content heard here. Speaking in German, Wilder praises Raymond Chandler's knack for dialogue but describes his inability to handle structure. The reasons Wilder based so many of his films on European was to take advantage of their fine construction -- he stresses the prime importance of the end of the second act. He's proud of his original work but also ponders how he was able to start shooting so many films with the final acts only partially written. It sounds like a disastrous practice, but since his films were shot roughly in script order, he and his collaborators often found the inspiration for the ending in what the actors brought to scenes already filmed.
The fun, of course, is in just hearing Wilder tell all those hilarious tales with that wicked smile on his mouth. They're too good to ruin here by repeating them.
Kino's DVD of Billy Wilder Speaks is a fine flat transfer of film elements in excellent condition. The movie isn't over-weighted with film clips, but those that are shown are of excellent quality. Shots from A Foreign Affair and Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival) look better than I've ever seen them, raising hopes that those titles have been remastered and might be released on DVD in the near future.
Kino's producer Brett Wood worked on this American version of the film, which does the right thing by subtitling Wilder instead of over-dubbing a translator, a practice that made the recent docu of Stalingrad nigh-unwatchable. The extras are terrific. Anyone disappointed that a particular Wilder movie was given too short a hearing will find new insights among the 70 minutes of extra footage. The extra material is just as good as what's in the movie proper and Savant found himself watching it all. It includes quite a bit of interpolated commentary by Volker Schlöndorff that helps our understanding but would have clogged up the main feature. Schlöndorff also contributes a short text essay; the disc rounds out with a text filmography for Wilder and an extensive gallery of trailers. A terrific disc!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Billy Wilder Speaks rates:
"Thanks for your review, Glenn but I'm puzzled and surprised.This material (or much of it) was broadcast over here on television by the BBC several years ago. It consisted of three programmes, each lasting close to an hour, shown on three consecutive evenings, and included Volker Schloendorf explaining the background to the meeting. I recorded these programmes on VHS tape, and they now comprise one 3-hour tape.
Your review gives the running time as 71 minutes. Is this correct? If yes, then a lot of material has been omitted. You also say there are 70 minutes of extras. Are these extras more or less the same in terms of people sitting around talking as the rest of the material? In other words, is it possible that what is on the extras is part of what the BBC broadcast all those years ago?" -- Robin Moss
Hello Robin ... I just received this explanation from Guido Bibra:
"I've been reading your last reviews and was surprised to see a disc Billy Wilder Speaks. This is actually a cut-down version of a much longer German TV-series called "How did you do it, Billy?" Seventy Minutes plus another seventy Minutes of Interviews is not very much - the original series was in six 30-minutes-episodes!
I've no idea what the might have cut out, but there are a lot of film clips in the longer version, sometimes with the interview running over it. Billy Wilder and Volker Schlöndorff mostly talk German, but Wilder often switches to English on the fly. Is Hellmuth Karasek present in the short version? The TV series was actually the by-product of his Wilder biography - at first he just wanted to interview Billy Wilder, but then persuaded him to let Schlöndorff film the interviews as well. " -- Guido Bibra
The new version doesn't have Hellmuth Karasek or extensive clips you mention. When the other interviewer and deleted clips are combined, they might easily make up the missing 40 minutes. In Europe the major TV outlets don't have to pay so dearly for film clips, which is probably what made a DVD of the full show impossible. As I've seen all the movies many times, I'm pleased with the disc as it is! Thanks for the information, Glenn
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