In later life, many big-name filmmakers have shown a tendency to become unreliable in their recollections. Frank Capra cheerfully rewrote details of his past once he’d succeeded as an above-the-marquee talent. By recent accounts, so did James Whale, the working-class Englishman who reached a Hollywood pinnacle with Universal’s first two Frankenstein movies in the early 1930s. As dramatized in Gods and Monsters, Whale fabricated an alternate biography along the way to disguise his humble upbringing.
But not Billy Wilder. He was a mendacious, tricky recaster of facts from his childhood on.
Not surprisingly, the restless, brilliant man who directed and co-wrote an unprecedented string of superbly realized movies from the 1940s through the early 1970s — nimbly assaying drama (The Lost Weekend), gothic horror (Sunset Boulevard), farce (Some Like It Hot, One, Two, Three), tales of war (Stalag 17), and tender romance (Sabrina) — simply couldn’t help tweaking, reshaping, and improving upon the already-impressive events of his career and his personal life in the retelling, just as he molded the crackling dialogue and plots in his movies.
A flock of past biographers have taken Wilder to task on points of fact here and there, especially regarding his days in Vienna and Berlin as a young journalist and scriptwriter before he fled to Hollywood in 1933. By and large, though, they’ve served as admiring conduits to Wilder’s entertaining spin on things.
Enter Ed Sikov, an academic with a doctorate in film studies and a couple of fussily analytical books on Hollywood comedies of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s to his credit. Though he never spoke with Wilder (who’s now 92 and in sometimes delicate health), Sikov has evidently parsed every word Wilder ever shared with an interviewer to produce the massive, 592-page act of annotated detection that is On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. In a progression of now-neutral, now-reproving clinches that at times puts one in mind of the Ken Starr-Bill Clinton tango — or at least of Keyes, the bulldog insurance investigator played by Edward G. Robinson in Wilder’s 1944 masterwork Double Indemnity — Sikov sets up a leitmotiv of pinning down his subject with facts, grabbing hold of his hand, and giving it a firm rap on the knuckles.
Did Wilder study law at the University of Vienna? Nope, says Sikov. Did the initial script for Double Indemnity, written with Raymond Chandler, sail through the censorious Hays Office with little interference, as Wilder once claimed? ”Nonsense,” Sikov snorts. During his army service in 1945, did Wilder hold the rank of colonel, as he recounted? Not quite, Sikov concludes. Did he seriously consider, as he claimed, casting Mae West as the faded silent-screen star finally played by Gloria Swanson in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, or Marlon Brando for the unemployed-screenwriter role that went to William Holden?
You get the picture. By midway through his chronicle, which doggedly chews through a mountain of documentation on virtually every Wilder movie in generally fascinating detail, Sikov is openly dismissing Wilder’s credibility, or, as Sikov puts it, ”the extended comedy routine that served as Billy’s memory.” But pedantic as Sikov can be, his monumentally research-heavy approach proves a curiously satisfactory foil to Wilder’s more outlandish bits of exaggeration.
In fact, the better you understand the realities Wilder took off from, the more you appreciate the spirit behind the fibs and exaggerations.
In describing the massive main set of Wilder’s 1960 tale of alienation and office politics, The Apartment, Sikov unearths a quintessential Wilder anecdote. To give the rows of office desks a sense of infinite recession into distance, set designer Alexander Trauner placed children at some of the furthest desks. In Billy’s excited account, the trick involved ”tall extras seated behind normal desks, others shorter, behind smaller desks, some dwarfs at miniature desks, then some cutouts and toy desks.” The man simply couldn’t resist an opportunity to make something bigger out of something small. In almost 600 pages of careful tending, Sikov succeeds in exposing Wilder’s fantastical streak. But Sikov’s very humorlessness makes Wilder appear funnier, more prodigiously colorful, and more astonishing than ever. B+