It definitely was an odd pairing of Old and New Hollywood: an elderly icon's swan song and hero worship at its most opportune, something lovely and sad at the same time. Why, it was something out of a Billy Wilder film, say "Sunset Boulevard" meets "The Apartment."
Even so, how did Cameron Crowe manage to get the elusive Wilder to discuss his legendary life and films for a Q&A book after so many others had failed? By appealing to Wilder's journalistic instincts (he started out as a reporter in Vienna and Berlin in the 1920s). And by relying on his own earnestness and quiet persistence, which paid off for Crowe when he was a rock journalist with Rolling Stone magazine back in the '70s.
It certainly worked, judging from the recently published "Conversations With Wilder" (Knopf), which has successfully made the industry rounds like a holy writ.
Maybe it's just as well that these two filmmakers are worlds apart. Crowe, the writer-director best known for "Jerry Maguire," is still learning his craft at 42, with only a handful of films to his credit. And Wilder, 93, the master of razor-sharp wit and bittersweet truth, the last great link to Hollywood's golden age, has pretty much withdrawn from public view.
"It was the beautiful distraction that any writer looks for. . . . Let me pursue this little piece of Holy Grail," Crowe recently explained over dinner at his Santa Monica office, still beaming about his privileged experience. "I was trying to figure out what to do next after 'Jerry Maguire,' working on some script ideas. I arranged an interview. He was very friendly and I kept coming back for more."
Wilder, who for years has shied away from delving too deeply into his celebrated career, even turning down invitations from director Mike Nichols and the late Jacqueline Onassis, obviously saw a comfortable opportunity to tell his story and a project to occupy his sharp mind.
"He was reticent because he didn't want to be a role model or set himself up as a stuffy figure to be studied," Crowe said. "And I just continued to let him know that nothing existed in his voice. Like somebody loving a musical artist and wanting to get the body of work, I wanted to get Billy's voice. And I think I was entertaining to him on some level because I was different. He'd kid me about my wardrobe and about being late."
Crowe, who is in post-production on his fourth film, an as-yet untitled autobiographical drama about his early days at Rolling Stone and the perils of befriending the people you interview, thinks Wilder may also have appreciated that Crowe took so much time off from his own work to spend time with him.
"He kept asking me how my script was going and that I should get back to it. One night we were out having dinner, and he leaned across the table to me and said, 'If you never publish this, that's fine with me. If it's just for you, that's fine.' That blew me away because he was saying that he enjoyed this on some level and that he liked me . . . which made me want to publish this even more."
Once Wilder started ruminating about the past, Crowe eventually wore down his resistance about expanding their conversations into a book. They met about 15 times over the course of several weeks in 1997, with the discussions ranging from the challenges of writing and directing to movie stars to the malaise of contemporary storytelling.
Wilder divulged that "Battleship Potemkin" is his all-time favorite film, Charles Laughton (the star of "Witness for the Prosecution") was the most impressive actor he ever worked with, and he longed to make "Schindler's List" as a testament to his mother and grandmother, who both perished at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
One Secret of Wilder's Success: Collaborations
Not surprisingly, "Conversations With Wilder" was intentionally modeled after "Hitchcock," Francois Truffaut's legendary Q&A with the master of suspense published in 1967. "I liked the Hitchcock book, but I loved the grainy photos as much as the conversation," Crowe recalled. "I loved the way those two guys went shoulder to shoulder and talked about every movie. But Truffaut says very early on that he did not want to get personal. And there is no way you could do that with Billy, because Billy is so much of a social genius. I yearned for the personal."
Wilder tried not to get too personal--he glosses over his abusive childhood, as well as sex, love and marriage. He claimed he never seduced his leading ladies because it was too much of a distraction from directing, and that Audrey, his wife of 50 years, is as close to perfection as he's ever going to find. "Audrey's like the great Wilder heroine. She fell for him and won him. It was great watching them together. They have a wonderful sparring, highly charged relationship."