Billy Wilder was a lover of words, and a writer above all else. He said many times in interviews that his move into the director's chair was simply to protect his scripts. Wilder cared deeply about the language, rhythm and timing he spent months crafting with his Hollywood writing partners. Actress Marian Collier remembers watching him on the set of 1959's “Some Like It Hot” as he silently mouthed every syllable of dialogue with the actors.
“Good writing, good acting, good directing,” Collier says now, more than 50 years later. “The main thing was, it was a great script. The director, Billy Wilder, was the whole thing. I don't think anybody else could have done it.”
Wilder was a unique figure in the history of American film, and two of his greatest works are the subject of a mini-film festival Feb. 16 with screenings of “Some Like It Hot” and “Sunset Blvd.” at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. He won six Academy Awards for directing, writing and producing during his career, and multiple other honors for an astonishing run of film classics, including the noir thriller “Double Indemnity” in 1944 and “Lost Weekend,” which won the Golden Palm at the very first Cannes Film Festival in 1946.
His stories and characters could be deeply cynical about human behavior, but Wilder relished in the humor of all that darkness. There was less darkness in “Some Like It Hot,” though even the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre could be a setup for laughs. It was the same with William Holden's body floating face-down in a pool during the opening moments of 1950's “Sunset Blvd.,” as the actor's narration begins weaving a bizarre knot of comedy and tragedy in a fading Hollywood mansion.
Wilder was utterly American as a filmmaker, despite the heavy Austrian accent he spoke with onset. He fled Europe during the '30s, leaving for Paris immediately after the Reichstag fire. A year later he was in the United States, a writer who spoke no English. But he carried a wealth of tragedy and experience with him. He'd lost his mother and grandmother to Auschwitz, and understood that darkness was a part of human existence, just as wordplay and slapstick could help make it bearable.
Wilder pushed the boundaries of Hollywood with stories of sexuality, innuendo and craven human behavior, playing a big part in smashing the paternalistic Production Code. “The Apartment,” his 1960 comedy-drama about a man who lends his apartment out for sexual dalliances, ignored the code and won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. He ignored it also with “Some Like It Hot,” with its risque setup of men on the run dressed as women and the many layers of gender confusion that follows.
Collier had only a small role in “Some Like It Hot,” as a member of the Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopaters band accompanying stars Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. She has been a working actor in all the decades since, but fans still want to talk to her about what has turned out to be a classic. It was only her second movie.
“I knew it was going to be great, but I had no idea it was going to be this great,” says Collier of the long shoot in Hollywood and Coronado Island. She was assigned a clarinet, which she had dabbled on in grade school. In the movie, she has a memorable scene in the bathroom with Monroe and Lemmon. She is also in the famous gag where each of the women musicians climbs into Lemmon's train bunk for an impromptu party.
Monroe was famously a challenge for the director. She often arrived late for shooting and had problems remembering her lines. “He had a difficult time with her,” Collier says. “You know, 28 takes to say ‘Where is that bourbon?' — that's a little tough.
“It was very loose. She was never there. We sat around waiting for her all the time, which was good — we had a lot of laughs, a lot of fun,” she recalls. “She couldn't get there in the morning because she couldn't sleep. We were signed for six weeks and we worked four months.”
Wilder continued to direct through the 1970s, including a vivid interpretation of “The Front Page,” the ribald newsroom comedy, to mixed reviews, despite a cast led by Lemmon and Walter Matthau. His legacy still rests mainly in the black-and-white '40s, '50s and '60s. After 1981's “Buddy Buddy,” one more outing with Lemmon and Matthau, his career as a director was essentially over, though he kept turning up at the office to write and write. He lived for another two decades, wondering out loud why he couldn't get another directing job, picking up an Irving Thalberg Award among many honors for his great film successes, and noting the irony every time.
In a later era, he might have found a home directing high-end TV for HBO, or at least a gig directing an occasional episode of “CSI.” Instead, he continued as a benched elder statesman until his death 11 years ago at age 95. His work is a potent legacy, forever drawing new generations into his dark and hilarious worldview. Next weekend's big-screen presentation by the Alex Film Society is a rare opportunity to see and hear the master's words in action just as they were intended.
What: “Wilder Weekend,” the Alex Film Society's presentation of “Some Like It Hot” and “Sunset Blvd.”
When: Saturday, Feb. 16; “Some Like It Hot,” 2 p.m., with guest appearances by Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopaters all-girl band cast members (including Marian Collier); 8 p.m., “Sunset Blvd.”
Where: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale
More info: (818) 243-2539, alexfilmsociety.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times