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Born to Be Wilder : BIOGRAPHY : WILDER TIMES: The Life of Billy Wilder, By Kevin Lally (Henry Holt: $30; 496 pp.)

June 16, 1996|David Ehrenstein | David Ehrenstein frequently writes about Hollywood for the Book Review

Everybody knows what a movie is nowadays: a 14-second clip shown in constant rotation on television news broadcasts (the truck racing the funnel cloud from "Twister" being the current favorite) and the gushing sound of entertainment "reporters" tracking the "race" for the "No. 1 spot at the box office" between two heavily publicized "rides" (e.g. "Mission: Impossible" versus the omnipresent "Twister").

Needless to say, the actual films used to create such media "image bites" couldn't be less important. That's why it's odd to read a book like "Wilder Times," Kevin Lally's biography of the maker of "Sunset Boulevard," "Some Like It Hot," "Double Indemnity" "The Apartment," "Ace in the Hole" and "Love in the Afternoon." Imagine films that were written and directed rather than marketed and morphed!

"Wilder Times" is a solid assemblage of fact and opinion about the life and works of a man born to an ordinary middle-class, Austrian, Jewish family who quickly moved from gigolo to newspaper reporter, screenwriter and finally one of the most successful writer-directors in Hollywood history.

Lally, using material culled from a variety of sources, including Hellmuth Karasek's 1992 "Billy Wilder: Eine Nahaufnahme" ("One Close-Up," not yet translated into English), Volker Schlondorff's 1988 British television interview with Wilder (not yet shown in the U.S.--do we see a pattern here?) and original interviews with Wilder, offers an unauthorized but far from unflattering study of the master of acerbic wit.

Those familiar with Wilder's story won't find many surprises in this recounting of his mentoring by Ernst Lubitsch, writing partnerships with Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, battles with director Mitchell Leisen over the scripts of "Midnight" and "Hold Back the Dawn," and his love/hate relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Unlike previous biographies, however, Lally provides detailed information about the seldom-if-ever-seen films Wilder scripted in Germany before immigrating to the U.S. ("A Blonde Dream" and "Scampolo, a Girl of the Street" sound particularly interesting). But if you're looking for "deep dish" insights into the man himself, you'll have to wait for that long-promised autobiography to get them, or--better still--simply take a good look at his films.

Unlike Orson Welles, who seems to grow in mystery with every passing biography (there have been two this year alone), there's never been anything particularly obscure about the art or life of Wilder. Like Preston Sturges, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and John Huston, he gained fame in the 1940s when he won hyphenate status writing and directing a series of popular sophisticated comedies and dramas.

Like fellow emigres Lubitsch, Erich von Stroheim and Max Ophuls, Wilder freely mixed romance with stinging social satire. Unlike them, however, he showed no nostalgic yearnings for the European past. Learning English in record time (though never losing his accent), Wilder embraced a modern America and everything it had to offer with enormous relish. But this didn't result in rosy-colored, patriotic fantasies in the Capra mode. In fact one can hardly imagine a Huston, Elia Kazan or even a Robert Aldrich making a film as brutally excoriating as "Ace in the Hole"--which not only attacks mass media sensationalism, but the public that greedily devours it as well.

"However strong his commercial consciousness," Lally writes, "Wilder sometimes gave an audience more than it bargained for: disreputable and unsympathetic lead characters, startling gallows humor, a blistering view of the human condition." That's putting it mildly.

"I felt degraded and disgusted, as if the dirt were being hurled right in my face," said critic Pauline Kael of Wilder's Cold War cartoon satire "One Two Three." But she never cared much for the director anyway, and neither did Andrew Sarris--usually at sword-point with Kael--who called him (in his book "The American Cinema") "too cynical to believe his own cynicism." (In recent year's he's recanted this judgment.) That both critics spent the better part of their careers complaining about the blandness of standard Hollywood fare and yet found fault with Wilder shows just how deeply he had dared to cut, particularly in the 1960s when he broke free of studio control, became an independent producer and threw caution to the winds--especially in the arena of sexual politics.

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