Wednesday, June 5, 2013


I finally finished reading ON SUNSET BOULEVARD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BILLY WILDER by Ed Sikov last night. I've been reading it since the first of the year and the reason it took me so long to finish this 592 page biography of one of the greatest film directors of all-time is that I read the entire book aloud to my lovely wife, Judy. When you only have a few minutes to read each evening, when you're reading aloud, and the book you're reading is just south of 600 pages, it takes awhile.

I enjoyed the book. It covers all 25 feature films that Wilder directed, from THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR to BUDDY BUDDY, plus films he wrote in Hollywood and films he wrote and directed while still in Europe. As such, it's as comprehensive an overview of a great man's career and body of work as one could hope to read.

Billy Wilder, in addition to being a terrific writer and director, was also a consummate storyteller. Make that, bull-shit artist. He never told the same story twice and there are many things in his life and career that no one quite knows the exact truth about due to Wilder's mercurial gift of gab. It also turns out that the man could be an absolute prick to those around him. He was quick with the insult, the gibe, the wisecrack that, while funny, contained a well-sharpened barb.

Wilder's film making career can be divided into two distinct parts: the good films that he made up to a certain point and the string of bad films that he made for the rest of his career. The scales are balanced out over the years with DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE LOST WEEKEND, SUNSET BOULEVARD, ACE IN THE HOLE, SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE APARTMENT offsetting the consecutive flops of KISS ME, STUPID, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, AVANTI!, THE FRONT PAGE, FEDORA and BUDDY BUDDY. 

It seems that Wilder lost his touch sometime in the early 1960s after winning Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for THE APARTMENT. ONE, TWO, THREE looks better in retrospect than it did at the time of release and while IRMA LA DOUCE was a commercial hit (reuniting Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine), Wilder's subsequent films were all both critical and box-office failures. Even though he was out of touch with the "new Hollywood" of the 1960s and '70s, Wilder kept on working until he finally realized that he could longer produce the types of films he used to. 

It's very tempting to see the later years of Billy Wilder as an analog for Norma Desmond but Wilder never faded away and he never tried to mount a doomed comeback. Instead, once he retired from filmmaking, he was bestowed with countless lifetime achievement awards and recognition for an extraordinary body of work. 

As entertaining and informative as ON SUNSET BOULEVARD is, I do have one quibble. The book was published in 1998. Billy Wilder was still alive at the time (he died in 2002). Ed Sikov never interviewed Wilder for this book. All of his material is from secondary sources. A lot of other people did all of the heavy lifting and Sikov assembled their work into a coherent and highly readable narrative. That's no small feat but I have to wonder why Sikov didn't seek out the cooperation of his subject. Wilder was alive (and fairly) well at the time and he certainly seems to have been someone who didn't mind talking about himself and his career. 

Aside from that, ON SUNSET BOULEVARD is a good read, recommended for Billy Wilder fans and film buffs. But don't try reading it aloud unless you've got six months to spare.

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