Above, left to right: Architect Michael Maltzan, Hammer director Ann Philbin, film director Curtis Hanson, Audrey Wilder, and UCLA Film and Television Archive director Tim Kittleson
Billy Wilder, Master of Caustic Films, Dies at 95
By ALJEAN HARMETZ
Published: March 29, 2002 (New York Times)
Billy Wilder, the caustic writer and director who won six Academy Awards and international acclaim as one of the world's great filmmakers and then spent the last 21 years of his vivid life imploring Hollywood to let him make another movie, died on Wednesday night at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 95.
He had been suffering from pneumonia, The Associated Press reported.
Almost all the 25 films Mr. Wilder made as a writer-director displayed his slashing wit and stinging social satire. Yet no other major filmmaker slipped so easily into so many genres.
''Double Indemnity'' (1944) defined film noir. ''The Lost Weekend'' (1945), which took the Oscar for best picture and also won Mr. Wilder Academy Awards for director and co-author of the script, is still the most harrowing movie made about an alcoholic. ''Sunset Boulevard'' (1950) is the grandest of melodramas, a corrosive look at an aging silent-film star (Gloria Swanson) and the young screenwriter (William Holden) who becomes her kept man. ''Some Like It Hot'' (1959), with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as hapless musicians who escape gangsters by dressing as women, endures as a great American farce, while ''Sabrina'' (1954) sparkles as a sophisticated romantic comedy in which a chauffeur's daughter (Audrey Hepburn) is wooed by a captain of industry (Humphrey Bogart) and his playboy brother (Holden). And ''Witness for the Prosecution'' (1957), based on an Agatha Christie play, was a powerfully effective courtroom thriller.
Mr. Wilder was among the first of about 1,500 members of the German film industry who fled from Hitler to Hollywood between 1933 and 1939 and transformed American movies. He was one of a few refugees who reached the top of the industry, a feat made more remarkable by his complete inability to speak English when he arrived in Hollywood in 1934.
Mr. Wilder skeptically probed and exposed human weakness, particularly venality and greed. He had an inventive talent for making unpleasant situations hilarious, and he had the courage to deal with traditionally taboo subjects.
Vincent Canby, the longtime chief film critic of The New York Times, once wrote: ''Wilder is often called cynical, mostly, I think, because his movies seldom offer us helpful hints to better lives. There are few people in his movies one could model one's behavior on. He doesn't deal in redeeming social values. Instead, he sees the demeaning ones.''
In Love With Words
Mr. Wilder was a director who protected his scripts. The look of a movie was less important to him than its language. ''I don't like the audience to be aware of camera tricks,'' he told one interviewer. ''Why shoot a scene from a bird's-eye view, or a bug's? It's all done to astonish the bourgeois, to amaze the middle-class critic.''
Those middle-class critics were never quite comfortable with Mr. Wilder's sardonic focus on the dark side of American life. In love with words, he sprinkled sugar laced with acid into movies whose heroes were often adulterers and gigolos. In ''The Apartment'' (1960), an accountant (Lemmon) earns promotions by lending his apartment to executives for their extramarital romps only to fall in love with an elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine) who goes to his apartment for trysts with his boss (Fred MacMurray).
When this morally ambiguous film was named the best picture of 1960, Mr. Wilder became the first person to win three Oscars in a single night -- as director, producer and co-author of the screenplay. (Leo McCarey had had similar success in 1944, when his ''Going My Way'' defeated Mr. Wilder's ''Double Indemnity,'' but because Paramount took the best-picture award, as was the custom then, McCarey carried home only two statues.)
In his private life, Mr. Wilder was abrasive and exuberant, with an impish face and an impertinent irascibility. A small man who was constantly in motion, he was as witty in person as on paper.
His biting one-liners included this definition of an associate producer: ''the only guy who will associate with a producer.''
In postwar Germany, Mr. Wilder was a colonel in the United States Army who oversaw a program that prevented former Nazis from working on films or in the theater. When asked by the director of the traditional Passion play in the town of Oberammergau if a former Nazi, Anton Lang, could play Jesus, Mr. Wilder responded, ''Permission granted, but the nails have to be real.''
Writing in The Times in 1991, Canby called Mr. Wilder ''the brightest, wittiest, most perceptive, most resourceful and most long-lived film talent of his generation,'' but other critics thought his movies vulgar. Still others were troubled by his tendency to pull the sting from the tail of his characters at the last moment, allowing for happy endings. Often, though, those happy endings were ambiguous -- as when the alcoholic writer refuses a drink, at least for the moment, in ''The Lost Weekend.''
Pushing the Boundaries
For two decades -- from the first movie he directed, ''The Major and the Minor'' (1942), to ''Irma La Douce'' (1963) -- Mr. Wilder usually managed to please audiences while creating films whose unsympathetic heroes and black humor were often thought to be at the far edge of what moviegoers would accept. But ''Kiss Me, Stupid'' (1964), a bawdy sex farce with Dean Martin and Kim Novak, seemed to go over that edge; it failed at the box office and was condemned as an occasion of sin by the Roman Catholic Church's Legion of Decency. Mr. Wilder was suddenly out of touch with the audiences that had made him a top director of the 1950's.
Although critics praised some of his later films, like ''The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes'' (1970) and ''Fedora'' (1979), ticket buyers stayed away. Unable to find a studio willing to back his movies after the box-office failure of ''Buddy Buddy'' in 1981, Mr. Wilder spent the rest of his days accepting the lifetime tributes that he called ''Quick, before they croak!'' awards.
He received the Writers Guild Laurel Award in 1980, a tribute from the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1982, the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1986 and the Irving Thalberg Award of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1987. He had been honored by the Cannes International Film Festival in 1979; at the start of the festival in 1945, ''The Lost Weekend'' had won the top prize, the Palme d'Or.
Mr. Wilder once said that he probably would have traded all the awards for the chance to make one more picture.
With his usual candor, he acknowledged his failures in 1982 when he was saluted at Lincoln Center. ''People say, 'It wasn't your year,' '' he conceded. ''Well, it hasn't been my decade.''
In the 1990's, Andrew Lloyd Webber turned ''Sunset Boulevard'' into a stage musical that most critics felt never approached the magic of the original. ''Sabrina'' was remade in 1995 and failed with critics and audiences. Mr. Wilder looked on with bitter amusement, never at a loss for either words or money.
Roots in Mitteleuropa
Billy Wilder was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906, in Sucha, a village in Galicia, an Austro-Hungarian province that is now part of Poland. His father was Max Wilder, who ran a railway cafe, and his mother was the former Eugenia Baldinger, whose family owned a resort hotel. Recalling his childhood in a big hotel, he remarked, ''I learned many things about human nature -- none of them favorable.''
His mother, who was in love with all things American, nicknamed him Billie in honor of the Buffalo Bill Wild West show. Smart, impudent and undisciplined, he finished high school at the Realgymnasium Juranek for problem students and then, obeying his mother's wishes, entered the University of Vienna as a law student. He lasted three months.
At 18 he found himself a job on a tabloid that put a premium on punchy reporting and celebrity interviews. He was a natural in both areas. In 1926, an interview with Paul Whiteman, the American bandleader, changed Mr. Wilder's life. As a 19-year-old reporter, he became a Vienna tour guide for Whiteman, who took Mr. Wilder to Berlin, where the band was to play.
According to ''Wilder Times,'' a biography by Kevin Lally, Mr. Wilder told his newspaper that he would be back in a few days with an article on the concert. But the Berlin of the Weimar era was the most exciting city east of Paris, and Mr. Wilder had no intention of returning to Vienna.
He wrote freelance articles and was a ghostwriter of silent-movie scripts. For several months he worked as a professional dance partner to rich ladies at the Hotel Eden and then turned the experience into a newspaper series that gave him brief notoriety.
Berlin was filled with talented young men, many of them Jewish writers and filmmakers whom Mr. Wilder would meet again in Hollywood. In 1929, Paul Kohner, who represented Universal Studios in Berlin, and Joe Pasternak, a future MGM producer, gave Mr. Wilder the chance to write a script under his own name. The result, ''Der Teufelsreporter'' (''The Demon Reporter''), was an unmemorable movie about a daredevil reporter.
Mr. Wilder's next movie, ''Menschen am Sonntag'' (''People on Sunday''), was made on a shoestring. Directed by Robert Siodmak from an idea by his younger brother, Curt, the movie, with its unusual neo-Realist style, was a major avant-garde success.
After ''People on Sunday'' (1930), Mr. Wilder and Robert Siodmak were hired by UFA, the top movie studio in Germany. From 1931 to 1933 Mr. Wilder wrote or collaborated on the screenplays of nearly a dozen early sound films.
No Illusions About Hitler
When Hitler came to power in January 1933, the 26-year-old Mr. Wilder fled Germany.
''People said Hitler was a big, loud, unpleasant joke,'' Mr. Wilder once told this reporter. ''But at the UFA building, the MGM of Berlin, the elevator boy was suddenly in a storm trooper's uniform. I had a new Graham-Paige American car and a new apartment furnished in Bauhaus, and I sold everything for a few hundred dollars.''
''A lot of my friends had a fear of going to a country where they didn't speak the language, so they went to Vienna or Prague,'' he continued. ''But anybody who had listened to the speeches knew Hitler would want Austria and the Sudeten part of Czechoslovakia. I was on the train to Paris the day after the Reichstag fire.''
Fluent in French, Mr. Wilder returned to ghostwriting. But he also had a chance to be a co-director, in ''Mauvaise Graine'' (''Bad Seed''). Another shoestring production, it was about a band of young car thieves.
Joe May, a director Mr. Wilder had known at UFA, was by this time producing movies in Hollywood for Columbia. Mr. Wilder sent him a story idea that became his own ticket to Hollywood. ''Pam-Pam'' was a musical about a gang of counterfeiters who masquerade as theatrical producers. Columbia offered a one-way ticket and $150 a week.
Mr. Wilder was met in New York by his brother, Willie, who had come to the United States 12 years earlier. The Wilder brothers were now safe from the Germans; their mother, grandmother and stepfather died in Auschwitz.
Pop song titles were the only English that Mr. Wilder knew. With a translator's help, he wrote a script for ''Pam-Pam.'' Columbia hated it and he was out of a job. He was also out of time. His six-month visitor's visa had almost expired. He could apply for status as an immigrant only at a consulate outside the United States, so he crossed the border to Mexicali. If he couldn't talk his way back into the United States -- and he had almost none of the necessary papers -- he might have to wait years to return.
But words, even in broken English, were Mr. Wilder's genius. He talked the authorities into a visa; later he wrote about those terrifying days in Mexicali in his script for ''Hold Back the Dawn'' (1941), which won him the third of his 12 Oscar nominations as a writer, a record until Woody Allen received his 13th nomination for ''Deconstructing Harry'' (1997). Mr. Wilder's combined nominations for writing, directing and producing total 21 (12 for writing, 8 for directing, and 1 for producing ''The Apartment.'').
Embracing a New Country
As quickly as possible, Mr. Wilder made himself into an American. He avoided the cafes and living rooms where refugees met to drink coffee and speak German. Instead, he lay on the bed in his rented room and listened to the radio and learned 20 new English words every day.
''Most of the refugees had a secret hope that Hitler would be defeated and they could go back home,'' Mr. Wilder said in a 1990 interview. ''I never had that hope. This was home. I had a clear-cut vision: 'This is where I am going to die.' ''
Many of the German-speaking refugees from Hitler -- among them Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, Otto Preminger and Douglas Sirk -- prospered in Hollywood, but they were actors, directors, producers and composers. Virtually no writer other than Mr. Wilder could scale the language barrier.
But Mr. Wilder never trusted himself to write film scripts on his own. From his arrival in the United States, he wrote with a collaborator. In 1936 Paramount teamed him with Charles Brackett, the conservative, Harvard-educated son of a New York state senator. It was a shotgun marriage made in Hollywood heaven. Over the next 12 years, they wrote 13 screenplays and become the most successful screenwriting team of the 1940's.
Mr. Brackett and Mr. Wilder first collaborated on ''Bluebeard's Eighth Wife'' (1938) for the director who was Wilder's idol, Ernst Lubitsch. The writers' first Academy Award nomination came a year later, for Lubitsch's ''Ninotchka,'' a political satire. They were nominated again for ''Hold Back the Dawn,'' in which Charles Boyer plays a Romanian gigolo stranded in Mexico who marries Olivia de Havilland to get an American visa. Mr. Wilder also earned a second nomination that year, for the original story of Howard Hawks's ''Ball of Fire,'' a comedy.
The partnership was stormy. Maurice Zolotow, in the 1977 biography ''Billy Wilder in Hollywood,'' wrote that the usually dignified Mr. Brackett often hurled the nearest objects at his partner, who ducked them. They parted in 1950.
Mr. Wilder was a difficult partner. Raymond Chandler disliked him so much when they worked together on the screenplay for ''Double Indemnity'' that he tried to get him fired. Collaborators found him insulting, abusive, exhilarating, exasperating and exhausting. One former collaborator, Harry Kurnitz, declared, ''Billy Wilder at work is actually two people -- Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde.''
Early on in Hollywood, Mr. Wilder was infuriated by what he considered the butchering of his scripts by the director Mitchell Leisen and talked Paramount into letting him direct a movie of his own. The studio expected that he would make an arty film and fail. Instead, he took aim at the box office with the bright ''The Major and the Minor.'' In the film, Ginger Rogers pretends to be a 12-year-old because she has no money for a full-fare train ticket; Ray Milland is an Army major who, to his discomfort, finds himself falling for a child.
Masquerades are among the major themes in Wilder movies. In one of his early German films, ''Ihre Hoheit Befiehlt'' (''Her Highness's Command''), a Bavarian princess disguises herself as a manicurist while the chief of the palace guard pretends to work in a delicatessen. In another, ''Der Falsche Ehemann'' (''The Counterfeit Husband''), twin brothers switch identities. In ''Some Like It Hot,'' men must pretend to be women, and Tony Curtis, wearing women's clothing, shares a bunk with Marilyn Monroe. In Mr. Wilder's second movie as writer-director, ''Five Graves to Cairo'' (1943), the masquerade is deadly. After the British are defeated at the battle of Tobruk, a survivor (Franchot Tone) assumes the identity of a dead waiter at a hotel swarming with German officers. But the waiter was a German spy, and the disguise is doubly dangerous.
Like most of his movies, ''Five Graves to Cairo'' was an adaptation, in this case a radically changed version of a play, ''Hotel Imperial.'' But no matter what his source material, Mr. Wilder almost always transformed it.
Even critics who later accused Mr. Wilder of compromising the acidity of his films with sugar found no fault with the hardness of ''Double Indemnity.'' With a screenplay by Mr. Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the torrid movie has as its romantic leads Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who wants to murder her husband and Fred MacMurray as the insurance salesman who helps her.
It was the sort of antihero role that a half dozen male stars rejected and the kind of morally ambiguous subject that Hollywood's production code considered unsuitable for a movie in 1944, and it won Mr. Wilder the first of eight Oscar nominations as a director. Repeatedly, actors balked at playing Mr. Wilder's morally compromised characters. But Mr. Wilder always did well by his actors, and actors liked him.
''Sunset Boulevard'' -- like ''The Apartment'' and ''Ace in the Hole'' -- was an original screenplay, and Mr. Wilder daringly chose to have the movie narrated by a dead screenwriter who is first seen floating face down in the aging star's swimming pool. ''The opening wasn't logical,'' Mr. Wilder once said, ''but it was riveting. And as long as something is riveting, they will swallow it.'' It was also a typical Wilder device to start a film with voice-over narration.
''Ace in the Hole'' (1951, and also known as ''The Big Carnival''), which followed ''Sunset Boulevard,'' was Mr. Wilder's most savage satire about the greed of American free enterprise. The antihero (Kirk Douglas) is a reporter who uses a man trapped in a cave to create headlines, in the process causing the man's death. ''Americans expected a cocktail and felt I was giving them a shot of vinegar instead,'' Mr. Wilder said. A brilliant film, it was a box-office failure, and Mr. Wilder was careful never to be so downbeat again.
One reason the partnership of Brackett and Wilder had broken up was because ''Sunset Boulevard'' and ''A Foreign Affair'' (1948), a satire with Marlene Dietrich about opportunistic American officials and G.I.'s in postwar Berlin, were too dark for Mr. Brackett. From ''Ace in the Hole'' on, Mr. Wilder produced his own films.
With ''Love in the Afternoon'' (1957), a May-December romance with Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn, he found his second major collaborator, I. A. L. Diamond, who would be the co-writer for his last 12 films, including ''Some Like It Hot;'' ''One, Two, Three'' (1961), a frenetic farce with James Cagney as a Coca-Cola salesman in cold war Berlin; and ''The Fortune Cookie'' (1966), in which Mr. Wilder turned his biting wit on a shady lawyer (Walter Matthau) planning an insurance fraud.
Diamond, who wrote the unforgettable ''Nobody's perfect'' last line in ''Some Like It Hot,'' described his partner's approach to movie making as ''a Middle-European attitude, a combination of cynicism and romanticism.'' The cynicism, he said, ''is sort of disappointed romanticism at heart -- someone once described it as whipped cream that's gotten slightly curdled.''
Other movies directed by Mr. Wilder include ''The Seven Year Itch'' (1955), with its famous moment of Monroe standing over a subway grate, a rush of air from a passing train blowing her dress; ''The Spirit of St. Louis'' (1957), with James Stewart as Charles Lindbergh; and a remake of ''The Front Page'' (1974), with the team of Lemmon and Matthau.
Mr. Wilder married twice. His first marriage, to Judith Iribe, a painter, ended in divorce in 1947. They had one daughter, Victoria. In 1949 he married the former Audrey Young, a singer and actress. He is survived by his wife and daughter.
When he was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1982, he refused to be called an auteur. His goal, he insisted in his usual sardonic way, was to have audiences stay awake. ''If you can do it with style, if you can entertain them for two hours and have them talk about the picture for 15 minutes after they leave, I'm satisfied.''
Correction: March 31, 2002, Sunday An obituary of the director Billy Wilder on Friday misidentified the actor who shared a railway sleeping berth with Marilyn Monroe in Wilder's film ''Some Like It Hot.'' It was Jack Lemmon, not their co-star Tony Curtis. The obituary also misspelled the surname of an earlier Hollywood director who was denied a third Oscar in a single night, a distinction Wilder then attained. That director, who died in 1969, was Leo McCarey, not McCary.
Correction: April 19, 2002, Friday Because of an editing error, an obituary of the film director Billy Wilder on March 29 misidentified an actor who figured in an anecdote about casting the role of Jesus in a postwar German production of the Passion play when Mr. Wilder headed a United States Army program to bar former Nazis from the stage. While Anton Lang had played the role in prewar Germany, he died in 1938 and had no Nazi affiliations. It is not certain who the actor was.
Writer-Director Billy Wilder Dies
Film: The Hollywood giant's use of the language on and off screen became legendary for its pithiness and its sharp wit.
March 28, 2002, By MYRNA OLIVER, L.A. Times Staff Writer
Billy Wilder, the irascible and cynical but lovable director, writer and producer of both antic farce and serious drama who was nominated for 21 Academy Awards and won six, has died. He was 95.
Wilder, who had been in failing health for some time, died at 11 p.m. Wednesday of pneumonia at his home in Beverly Hills.
As his health declined over the last few years, Wilder began lumping his various physical problems and frailties of old age into what he called his "malady." Despite cataract surgery, he remained plagued by poor eyesight and rued in January 2000 that he had been unable to see a movie since mid-1998. In April he was hospitalized for three weeks with a urinary infection. He had also suffered from cancer.
Yet the ever-dapper Wilder continued to go to his Beverly Hills office almost daily well into his 90s, reading and keeping tabs on both the worlds of film and the world of art, where he was an extremely knowledgeable collector. And he remained an icon to those who make--and love--motion pictures around the world.
"There are few filmmakers who don't crave being compared to him. His is a tough-minded romanticism and elegance; the lack of sentimentality has left him forever relevant as an artist," wrote director Cameron Crowe in his 1999 book "Conversations with Billy Wilder."
Wilder put his indelible stamp on some 50 films, beginning in 1929 with German scripts he wrote in Berlin through his final pictures--the very American "The Front Page" in 1974, "Fedora" in 1978 and the poorly received "Buddy Buddy" in 1981. He was content to let his body of work stand, kept no prints or tapes and rarely watched his movies in his later years. When friends tried to trick him into attending a Los Angeles Conservancy showing of his "Double Indemnity" at its Last Seats on Broadway summer series in historic theaters, Wilder refused, commenting: "I don't want to see all those dead people."
"I don't like the idea of redoing," he told The Times in January 2000, when he was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences prior to a retrospective of 27 of his films presented by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and American Cinematheque. "I did the best I could at the time. I want to leave it that way."
Although he respected certain contemporary directors, including Steven Spielberg, Wilder didn't envy them and came to believe that modern audiences flock to theaters because of stars rather than directors. "The glamour of being a director is over," he said in 2000. "So is the fun."
Though Wilder arrived in this country from Europe in 1934 with minimal knowledge of English, his use of the language on and off screen became legendary for its pithiness and its sharp wit. And though he was nominated eight times by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as best director, a total bested only by William Wyler, all his films were well and truly written before they were anything else.
Wilder's words were not only stylish, they brought a wide variety of material to life. Few creators of knockabout comedies as wildly popular as "Some Like It Hot" were equally comfortable with dark and even brooding material.
But Wilder, the comic writer and director, could also be a poet of cynicism and despair. His direction of James M. Cain's "Double Indemnity" (co-written with Raymond Chandler) in 1944 resulted in a film noir classic, and he startled audiences in 1950 when his "Sunset Boulevard," perhaps Hollywood's definitive look at itself, turned out to be narrated by a corpse.
In person, Wilder's verbal thrusts could be just as incisive as the dialogue he scripted. He counseled one actor "You have Van Gogh's ear for music," advised Walter Matthau that "We're on the track of something absolutely mediocre," and wooed his wife by telling her, "I'd worship the ground you walk on if you lived in a better neighborhood."
Wilder disparaged lifetime tributes as "quick before they croak" awards, but lived to collect several: the Life Achievement Award of the Directors Guild in 1985; the Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute in 1986; and the Irving G. Thalberg Award of the Academy of Motion Pictures in 1987 for "consistently high quality of motion picture production."
His six Oscars spanned the years of his greatest success. He won two for writing and directing "The Lost Weekend" in 1945, one for writing "Sunset Boulevard" in 1950, and three for producing, writing and directing "The Apartment" in 1960.
Wilder also won the Palme d'Or, the top award from the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946, for "The Lost Weekend," which starred Ray Milland in a riveting tale of an alcoholic writer.
Samuel Wilder was born June 22, 1906 in the town of Sucha, in a section of Poland that was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His mother, Eugenia, who died in Auschwitz during World War II, had lived in the United States in her youth and nicknamed her second son "Billie" because of her fascination with the American frontier hero Buffalo Bill Cody.
After moving to Vienna with his family in 1914, young Billy developed an affinity for American jazz, Westerns and the satirical films of gifted German director Ernst Lubitsch, who preceded him to Hollywood. In 1924, Wilder spent three months in the University of Vienna's pre-law program, but dropped out to become a reporter for the newspaper Die Stunde, writing personality profiles and crime and sports stories.
In 1926, Wilder got a job in Berlin handling publicity for touring American bandleader Paul Whiteman. When that ended, he started writing for Berliner Zeitung am Mittag, called "BZ."
Wilder's colorful entry into screenwriting, as told by biographer Maurice Zolotow, occurred one night in Berlin when he agreed to help his landlady's daughter Lulu out of a jam. When her boyfriend suddenly appeared at their apartment house, Wilder agreed to hide the sometime-prostitute's client in his own room. He immediately recognized his naked guest as a man known only as Galitzenstein, the president of Maxim Films, and, introducing himself as a screenwriter, offered him a script to read.
Hearing the raging boyfriend in the next room declare that he would slit the throat of any man he caught with Lulu, Galitzenstein hefted the script in his hand and said: "I'll buy it. It feels like a good story."
Wilder was soon writing screenplays for UFA, Germany's top movie company. Although he ghostwrote several other films, Wilder considered his film debut to be "Menschen am Sonntag" ("People on Sunday") in 1929. He became popular overnight and remained much in demand until 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power and Wilder fled.
"I had a new Graham-Page American car and a new apartment furnished in Bauhaus, and I sold everything for a few hundred dollars," Wilder said many years later. "A lot of my friends had a fear of going into a country where they didn't speak the language, so they went to Vienna or Prague, which was very shortsighted. . . . I sensed that it was best to go as far as possible. I was on the train to Paris . . . "
During Wilder's 10-month stay in France, he wrote and co-directed one film, "Mauvaise Graine" ("Bad Seed,") about young auto thieves. Then he wrote the script "Pam Pam" for Columbia.
He arrived in Hollywood in 1934, hampered by not speaking English, and after a six-month contract with Columbia expired, he was out of work for two years.
"I kind of starved for a little bit," he said. "I shared a room with Peter Lorre, and we lived on a can of soup a day."
Wilder taught himself English by listening to baseball games on the radio and going to movies, forcing himself to learn 20 new words a day. For decades, he instructed his collaborators--first Charles Brackett and later I.A.L. Diamond--to correct immediately any mistake he made in writing the language.
"Most of the refugees had a secret hope: 'Hitler will be defeated and I will go back home,' " said Wilder, who became a U.S. citizen in 1939. "I never had such a thought. This was home. . . . I had a clean-cut vision: 'This is where I am going to die.' "
In 1936, Paramount hired Wilder and teamed him with Brackett, a novelist and former New Yorker drama critic. The temperamental, often warring pair wrote 14 consecutive hits, including the innovative "Ninotchka," "The Lost Weekend" and "Sunset Boulevard."
Frustrated by what other directors did with his scripts, Wilder made his own solo directing debut in 1942 with the romantic comedy "The Major and the Minor" with Milland and Ginger Rogers.
"I'm not a born director," he told Crowe. "I became a director because so many of our scripts had been screwed up . . ."
Paramount, Wilder once recalled, expected him to fail in his initial directing effort and thereafter stop interfering with its regular directors.
"But I was careful," he said. "I didn't go out to make a so-called 'artistic success.' I went out to make a commercial picture I wouldn't be ashamed of."
After that, Wilder directed all his pictures. Many critics consider "Double Indemnity" in 1944 to be the first of Wilder's major works. In the film noir classic, he cast Fred MacMurray as his corrupt insurance salesman in love with a vicious Barbara Stanwyck, with the couple murdering Stanwyck's husband only to learn they cannot collect his insurance money.
Wilder was nominated for Academy Awards for best screenplay and director for the film, but Leo McCarey's "Going My Way" swept the 1944 awards.
The following year Wilder made "The Lost Weekend," which pioneered movies about social problems. The film won Wilder his first two Oscars--for writing and directing--but not without some anxious months.
Paramount was under intense pressure to drop the completed project. Lobbyists for the liquor industry reportedly offered as much as $5 million for the print of the movie. An audience at a sneak preview in Santa Barbara laughed derisively, and some people even walked out. Paramount shelved the film indefinitely.
Wilder was so humiliated that he fled Hollywood for four months, returning to Germany to aid in the reconstruction of the German film industry, theaters and radio. It was at that time that he learned his grandmother and stepfather had been killed along with his mother at Auschwitz.
By the time Wilder returned to the U.S., Paramount had decided to release the film. It opened to critical acclaim in New York. Moviegoers packed theaters there and in California and the film's success was sealed.
Wilder directed a number of other pictures over the next five years, including the 1948 comedy "A Foreign Affair" and "The Emperor Waltz."
But of all Wilder's films, perhaps the most revered by Hollywood itself was the 1950 dark satire "Sunset Boulevard," a dark featuring Gloria Swanson as an aging silent-screen star whose fantasies of her former fame and beauty are aroused by a cynical young writer (William Holden).
At a celebrity preview, Stanwyck tearfully fell to her knees in front of Swanson and kissed the hem of her gown in tribute. Louis B. Mayer, on the other hand, stormed out of the theater cursing Paramount and shouting: "We should horsewhip this Wilder, we should throw him out of this town, he has brought disgrace on the town that is feeding him!"
The film won worldwide acclaim and brought Wilder his third Oscar for his screenplay.
In 1999, when Crowe asked Wilder to name his own favorite of the pictures he had made, Wilder mused:
"The picture maybe that has the fewest faults, obvious faults, would be 'The Apartment.' But I like the end result in 'Some Like It Hot.' It was a very successful picture. Or maybe this and 'Sunset Boulevard.' It ['Sunset'] really caught them unaware. Nobody expected a picture like it. And it's very difficult to make a picture in Hollywood about Hollywood. Because they really scrutinize you."
Wilder came to refer to his cynical 1951 drama "Ace in the Hole," starring Kirk Douglas as a ruthless reporter, as "the runt of my litter." It marked his debut as a producer, and when it proved a box-office failure, Paramount warned Wilder that his next film had to pay the expenses for both.
He rebounded in 1953 with "Stalag 17," a comedy-drama starring Holden which earned more than $10 million in its first year and was the biggest-grossing picture he ever made for Paramount. The film also won Holden his only Oscar, for best actor.
Ironically, it was "Stalag 17," about a German prisoner-of-war camp, that caused Wilder to depart Paramount. Preparing a dubbed version for German release, the studio suggested he change the Nazi spy to a Polish prisoner-of-war who had sold out to the Nazis. Wilder refused and said he would leave if the studio failed to apologize. He left in 1954 but not before making the romantic comedy "Sabrina" with Audrey Hepburn, Holden and Humphrey Bogart.
Leaving Paramount didn't dent Wilder's winning streak. He did "The Seven Year Itch," a romantic comedy with Marilyn Monroe; the May-December romance "Love in the Afternoon," with Gary Cooper and Hepburn; the courtroom drama "Witness for the Prosecution," with Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton; and then, in 1959, what many consider his masterpiece, "Some Like It Hot."
Featuring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as out-of-work musicians who masquerade as women in an all-girl band, which included Monroe as the singer, to escape Chicago gangsters, the film grossed $14 million, the highest for a comedy up to that date.
Next came "The Apartment," a dark New York comedy featuring Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and MacMurray in 1960, which won Wilder triple Oscars for best film, best screenplay and best director, and represented the zenith of his career.
"In Hollywood," wrote critic Pauline Kael, "it is now common to hear Billy Wilder called the world's greatest movie director."
Kael and others, however, frequently criticized Wilder as cynical and money-hungry.
"I am a dedicated man, not after the fast buck," he responded. "I wanted to say [in 'The Apartment'] how corrupt we are, how money-mad we are. . . . I guess that's the theme of all my pictures. Maybe my philosophy is cynical, but I have to be true to what I feel."
Yet to come was his biggest box-office success, "Irma La Douce," a comedy about a Parisian prostitute again starring Lemmon and MacLaine, in 1963, which grossed $25 million. But despite being nominated for several Oscars, including MacLaine for best actress, the film won no major awards. Wilder was nominated in 1966 for his screenplay for the biting comedy "The Fortune Cookie," for which Walter Matthau won a best supporting actor Oscar as a crooked lawyer. This film marked the first on-screen pairing of Lemmon and Matthau.
A man who loved being the center of attention, Wilder boasted that he was his own public relations agent and would jump fully clothed into a swimming pool for a dare or a laugh. A hypochondriac, he paced nervously when he worked, waving one of his collection of walking sticks that he carried because of a chronic bad back. Only in his final years did he kick a four-pack-a-day smoking habit.
He enjoyed professional sports, chess, bridge and gin rummy, classical music and gourmet cooking but hated and feared flying.
But his best known avocation unquestionably was collecting modern and contemporary art, which he pursued passionately from the beginning of his long career. In 1989 he sold 94 works by Picasso and Miro, Kirchner and others for $32.6 million.
"Whatever I made, $200 or $300 a week, I always put half or a third into a drawer for art purchases," he said during sale previews.
"I have no villa in St. Tropez. I cut down on my ballooning in Bavaria, and I stayed away from junk bonds," he continued. "I just buy nice things and sometimes swap them for better ones. I've been rather lucky in that. I bought most of the stuff a couple of weeks ahead of the big prices."
Noting that Los Angeles had few art dealers in the 1940s or 1950s, Wilder said he went on 14-hour buying sprees when on location in New York or Paris or London. In 1945, he said as an example of the bargains he found, he bought a George Grosz painting for a carton of cigarettes.
Wilder said he auctioned some of those paintings to make space on the walls of his apartment for other pieces in his vast collection and for pieces he wanted to buy.
"Besides, you know the cliche about being possessed by possessions," he said. "We worried that the people in the apartment above ours would let the bathtub overflow. And insurance--I don't have to tell you. I felt I needed a liberation from responsibility."
But Wilder was an inveterate collector and continued to buy art after the New York auction. He sold a second collection in 1993 through his long-time friend's Louis Stern Gallery in Beverly Hills.
For years after his final film, "Buddy, Buddy," starring Lemmon and Matthau, failed at the box office in 1981, Wilder continued to write and contemplate making more movies.
"Things are always cooking in the back of my mind or in the back of a drawer," he said in 1988. "There is never a day I don't write something. It's not tough to make a picture. It's tough to make a deal."
He explained the realities of the new Hollywood in the January 2000 Times interview: "It's much harder to direct now. Everything's in the hands of the money people; they dictate what has to be done. When I was making pictures, we went to the front office, told them what we wanted to do, and then we did it."
Even when Wilder was no longer wanted for new films, he and Hollywood continued their mutual love affair.
"I've been here for more than half a century," he said in 1986 when he received the American Film Institute award, "and I've watched Hollywood vacillate between despair and fear. But even if they have 5 million screens from Albania to Zanzibar, there's one little detail.
"Who will write it, who will direct it, who will act in it?" he continued. "Relax, fellow picture makers. We are not expendable. The bigger they get, the more powerful we get. Theirs is the kingdom; ours is the power and the glory."
Wilder was married twice--in 1936 to Judith Coppicus Iribe, with whom he had a daughter, Victoria (and a son; Vincent)
California Birth Index; Name: Victoria Wilder
Birth Date: 21 Dec 1939
Mother's Maiden Name: Coppicus
Birth County: Los Angeles
Name: Vincent Wilder
Social Security #: 0
Birth Date: 21 Dec 1939
Death Date: 31 Mar 1940
Death Place: Los Angeles
Mother's Maiden Name: Coppicus
Father's Surname: Wilder
and whom he divorced in 1947, and in 1949 to singer-actress Audrey Young.
Surviving other than his wife and daughter is one grandchild..( two?)
Times film critic Kenneth Turan, Times staff writer Susan King and Times art writer Suzanne Muchnic contributed to this report.
Brother: W. Lee Wilder (producer)
Wife: Judith Coppicus Iribe (m. 22-Dec-1936, div. 1946, one son, one daughter)
Son: Vincent (twin, b. 1939, d. 1939)
Daughter: Victoria (twin, b. 1939)
Girlfriend: Hedy Lamarr (actress, dated 1940s)
Wife: Audrey Young (actress, b. 1922, m. 30-Jun-1949, until his death)
|Gene Wilder (born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933) is an Academy
Award-nominated American actor who is best known for his role as Willy
Wonka, his collaborations with Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles, The
Producers, and Young Frankenstein, and his four movies with Richard
Pryor: Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and
Name: William Silberman
Home in 1930: Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Estimated birth year: about 1902
Birthplace: Russia Jewish came to the country in 1914
Relation to Head of House: Head
Spouse's name: Gean
Occupation:proprietor of a novelty store
Formal Education: no. can read and write
Rent/home value: Rent for $60
Age at first marriage: he was 26 and she was 20
Parents' birthplace: Russia
Household Members: Name Age
William Silberman 28
Gean Silberman 22 born in Illinois to Russian parents
Coranne Silberman 11/12 ( born in 1929)
Frances Obodal 18 servant (from German background).
Name: William Silberman
Home in 1920: Milwaukee Ward 10, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Age: 18 years
Estimated birth year: abt 1902
Relation to Head of House: Son
Father's name: Hyman
Father's Birth Place: Russia
Mother's name: Sarah R
Mother's Birth Place: Russia
Marital Status: Single
Year of Immigration: 1912 Naturalized in 1916
Able to read: Yes
Able to Write: Yes
Household Members: Name Age
Hyman Silberman 42 came to the country in 1904 Na in 1916 -estate
Sarah R Silberman 41 came to the country in 1912
Frank Silberman 21 came to the country in 1912 novelties
Harry Silberman 20 came to the country in 1912 novelties
William Silberman 18 came to the country in 1912
Isador Silberman 9 born in Wisconsin
Morris Silberman 6 born in Wisconsin
Louis Silberman 4 7/12 born in Wisconsin
Gertrude Silberman 15 born in Wisconsin
Julia Silberman 8/12 born in Wisconsin
Name: Hyman Silberman
County: New York
State: New York
Birth Date: 15 Mar 1878
Born in Milwaukee, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Wilder
studied drama at the University of Iowa, where he was a member of the
Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity, (Jerome "Jerry" Silberman in Milwaukee,
WI. His father manufactured miniature beer and whiskey bottles.)
Wilder began studying drama and working in summer stock while studying
at the University of Iowa graduated in 1955, and later attended the
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the UK. He served in the United
States Army from 1956 to 1958 where he served as a Medic in the
Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge Army Hospital
in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
After the Army he got a scholarship to the HB studio, supporting
himself, at first, with unemployment insurance and some savings, and
afterwards with odd jobs such as driving a limousine and teaching
fencing. His career started with the theater in various off-Broadway
shows before making it on the Great White Way. Around 1961 he became a
member of The Actors Studio and gained notoriety in the Broadway scene
with the plays "The Complaisant Lover" and "Roots", for which he
received the Clarence Derwent Award. It was several years later the
movie Mother Courage and Her Children featuring actress Anne Bancroft
was being cast in 1964 that Wilder's career received an even greater
boost. Comedian Mel Brooks, whom Bancroft was dating at the time, took
a liking to Wilder and cast him in several films.
Wilder's first big part was in Bonnie and Clyde where he played an
undertaker abducted by the couple. Perhaps his best known roles are as
Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Dr Friederich
Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein and as Leo Bloom in The Producers.
During this time he also worked as the voice of "Letterman" on the
children's educational television series The Electric Company from
1972 to 1977.
In the late 1970s and 1980s he appeared in a number of movies with
Richard Pryor, making them the most prolific inter-racial comedy
double act in movies during the period. However, Wilder later admitted
the two were not as close as people believed. He said that his
troubled co-star's drug addiction made him very difficult and
unpleasant to work with. However, he also maintains that he felt he
had a better chemistry with Pryor as a co-star than with anyone else
he has worked with. In all, they made four movies
together: Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear
No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991).
In 1979 Wilder starred alongside Harrison Ford in the comedy The
Frisco Kid. He also wrote and starred in Murder in a Small Town and
its sequel, The Lady in Question as a theater producer turned amateur
detective Larry "Cash" Carter.
Wilder was married to Saturday Night Live actress Gilda Radner from
1984 until her death from ovarian cancer in 1989. Since then he has
remained active in promoting cancer awareness and treatment and has
retired from acting. He is the co-founder of Gilda's Club, a support
group to raise awareness of cancer. One branch of Gilda's Club in
Wilder's hometown of Milwaukee. In 1998 he collaborated on the book
"Gilda's Disease" for which he shared personal experiences of Radner's
struggle with ovarian cancer.
Wilder himself was hospitalized with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1999 but
confirmed in March 2005 that his cancer was in complete remission
following a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy.
On March 1, 2005, Wilder released his highly-personal memoir Kiss Me
Like A Stranger, an account of his life covering everything from his
childhood, when his mother died of heart disease, up to his wife's
death. In early 2007 Wilder published his first novel, set during
World War I, entitled My French Whore.
On September 8, 1991, Wilder married Karen Webb (nee Boyer), whom he
met in 1988 while preparing for his role as a deaf man in the film See
No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). Webb was at the time a clinical
supervisor for the New York League for the Hard of Hearing.
Wilder is a liberal Democrat. He opposed the Vietnam War and the war
in Iraq. 
Trivia sections are discouraged under Wikipedia guidelines.
The article could be improved by integrating relevant items and
removing inappropriate ones.
Was offered the title role in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums but
declined; the role went to Gene Hackman.
In 2006, Premiere Magazine placed one of his performances on its list
of The 100 Greatest Performances:
Ranked as #9 -- Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced FRONK-en-steen)
in Young Frankenstein.
Premiere Magazine placed another Wilder role on its list of The 100
Greatest Movie Characters of All Time
Ranked as #38 -- Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Was the voice in a 1960s Alka-Seltzer commercial.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
The Producers (1968)
Start the Revolution Without Me (1970)
Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)
The Scarecrow (1972)
Blazing Saddles (1974)
The Little Prince (1974)
Young Frankenstein (1974) (also writer)
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) (also
director and writer)
Silver Streak (1976)
The World's Greatest Lover (1977) (also producer, director, and writer)
The Frisco Kid (1979)
Sunday Lovers (1980) (also director and writer)
Stir Crazy (1980)
Hanky Panky (1982)
The Woman in Red (1984) (also director and writer)
Haunted Honeymoon (1986) (also director and writer)
See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) (also writer)
Funny About Love (1990)
Another You (1991)
Murder In A Small Town (1999)
Alice in Wonderland (1999) (The Mockturtle)
The Lady In Question (1999)
Will & Grace (2002) Episode "Boardroom and a Parked Place" (Guest Star
- Mr. Stein)
Will & Grace (2003) Episode "Sex, Losers & Videotape" (Guest Star - Mr.
The Complaisant Lover (Broadway, 1962)
Mother Courage and Her Children (Broadway, 1963)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Broadway, 1963)
The White House (Broadway, 1964)
Luv (Broadway, 1966)
Laughter on the 23rd Floor (London, 1996)
Gene Wilder at the Internet Movie Database
Gene Wilder at the TCM Movie Database
Interview with Wilder on NPR's Fresh Air (March 16, 2005)
GeneWilder.net a Gene Wilder fansite
Advance Review of "My French Whore: A Love Story" The Book Standard,
October 1, 2006
Gene Wilder at TV.com
Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_Wilder"
Wackier, wierder, Wilder
GENE WILDER is talking so, so quietly, I can scarcely breathe. He
leans forward in his chair, head bent, eyes cast downwards, and it's
like watching a one-man show. I am his audience and sit completely
still because, subconsciously, when someone talks this slowly, this
powerfully, like they could tell you their life's biggest secret at
any minute, you hold your breath in the pregnant silence, waiting,
waiting for the next line. Life, death, love, sex, guilt - it's all
here as Wilder's plot unfolds. I'm right there with him, from the
start of it, in his childhood, on that hot July day in Milwaukee when
his mother's cardiologist knelt on the floor at the front door and
pulled the eight-year-old Wilder towards him, when he was so close he
could see the sweat drip on the doctor's fat cheeks, when he heard the
whispered words that changed his life. Wilder is an actor. His sense
of the dramatic is impeccable.
The Producers. Blazing Saddles. Young Frankenstein. Wilder starred in
some of the most acclaimed comedy films of his generation. He also
wrote the screenplays for some of them, and now he has turned his hand
to fiction, producing his first novel - My French Whore. It is about
Paul Peachy, an unhappily married train conductor who runs away to
sign up during the Second World War and gets posted to France. Peachy
is a coward who turns into an unlikely hero, falling in love with a
prostitute who isn't really a prostitute. It's quirky, eccentric - a
bit like Wilder. It's also gentle and slightly unworldly, which is
very like Wilder.
He is 74 this year, and the famous blonde corkscrew curls are now thin
and unruly, spiralling crazily in every direction. His eyes are a
piercing, mesmerising blue. He had just woken up before the interview.
He is tired, a little jet-lagged, but he smiles patiently. Gradually
he perks up, becoming engrossed in conversation, passionate even. He
started acting because he craved attention as a child, he admits. But
he fell in love with it when he stopped treating it as an intellectual
process and made it an emotional one.
It's better to act from your heart than your head. Imagine this, he
says. "A young woman comes to interview an actor. The actor is trying
to impress her with his great sensitivity, all the pain he has
endured. He wants to show her, and for her to perceive, that he is not
just a fly-by-night." He smiles gently. "That he is a deep human
being." His words make me smile, are touching in the way that they
seek approval so self-effacingly, so indirectly. He protects himself
by expressing what he really wants to say in an actor's language, the
language of 'let's pretend'. Let's pretend we are what we really are.
The casual blue shirt he wears is a lake of oceanic colour that
reflects in his eyes, intensifying their colour. Better, he explains,
for the actor not to intellectualise what he wants the woman to know.
He is right. She knows it anyway. She knows it because, emotionally,
he is transmitting it, and like him she is pulled more powerfully by
emotion than by intellect. The actor says that he no longer needs to
act, no longer needs attention. But instinctively the woman suspects
there is one thing Wilder still craves inwardly: understanding.
The doctor's words then. "He knelt down and he pulled me close to his
face and he said, 'Don't ever get angry with your mother. You might
kill her.' And the second thing he said was, 'Try to make her laugh.'
That was the first time I consciously tried to make someone else
laugh." Was he frightened by the doctor? "It scared the bejesus out of
me that I might kill her if I got angry. So I wouldn't get angry
except maybe twice a year when I couldn't hold it back any more."
Young Jerry Silberman, as he was then, had a complicated relationship
with his mother. His personality, his career, even his sexual
development, were influenced by her illness. Wilder, his sister and
his Russian immigrant father focused all their energy on her. Later,
Wilder would crave the attention that he felt he was denied in
childhood. He worried constantly about his mother. As a teenager, he
went through a phase where he was visited by what he calls 'the
demon', an overwhelming urge to pray that made him drop to his knees
and beg forgiveness for he knew not what. Later, he realised that he
was trying to atone for his mother's suffering. Did he love her or
just feel guilty about her? "Oh, I loved her very much, and I knew she
loved me. But sometimes, she did... destructive things... and then
apologised immediately afterwards."
When he was 13, she sent him away to military academy. All these years
later, this clearly still hurts. "I don't know why she did it. To turn
me into a gentleman, I suppose - for me to learn to play piano, to
dance, to learn about sex." But he hated it because he was the only
Jewish boy in the school, and was beaten black and blue. He wrote to
his father about the abuse, but not his mother. He always had to
protect his mother at the expense of himself.
Returning home at the holidays, his mother, a keen pianist, asked him
to play for her. "I was still wearing my uniform. I said I never
really had time to practise, but she said, 'Just play me something.' I
sat down and started to play the only piece I had practised with a
not-very-good piano teacher. I saw her face drop. She was so
disappointed, almost in tears. She left the room and went into her
bedroom." Wilder cried.
That night, the family were going out to dinner, and when Wilder took
off his uniform his mother saw his bruised body. She began to cry.
"She said, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, will you ever forgive me?'" He heard
those words repeatedly over the years. As an eight-year-old, when he
overheard the word 'fuck' and asked what it meant, she washed out his
mouth with soap until he cried. Then she cried.
As a young man, Wilder once came home and found her sitting
stony-faced on his bed with a letter in her hand, sent to him by a
female friend. "Is this what you think of me?" she demanded.
"She had opened my letter," he recalls. "I looked at it. I was very
angry. I said, 'It was not you we were talking about, but my friend's
mother.' She said, 'Forgive me, I shouldn't have. Will you ever
She was needy then? Wilder makes a 'was-she-ever?' face. His mother
dominated his early life. So I was intrigued to read how he described
her death in his memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger. Other than to say
that he insisted on carrying her coffin, which is against Jewish
custom, he does not describe one single thing about how he felt.
Wilder falls silent. "That's very observant," he says quietly. But it
isn't particularly observant. The rest of the book is so emotionally
honest, the omission is glaring by comparison.
"I knew she was very ill," says Wilder, feeling for words. "She was in
hospital many times, but the last time was just before I was drafted
into the peacetime army, and they found out she had breast cancer as
well as heart trouble. The doctor said, 'If we operate she isn't going
to survive, but we're not going to tell her that.' My father and
sister and I knew it was just a matter of time. When she died, about
ten months later, it was not a shock... Well, it was a shock, but not
that kind of shock. In some ways I would say that, unconsciously -
though I wouldn't have said it to myself at the time - I was relieved.
The burden of my guilt at her suffering was taken off my heart. That's
probably why I didn't go on about it."
It was only after his mother died that the 23-year-old Wilder felt
able to have sex. But what was the connection? I don't quite... I say,
trailing off, and then there's a flash of whimsical Wilder humour.
"You don't quite and I didn't quite..." he says drolly. "As soon as
she died, I realised that my whole attitude about sex... I always
thought, 'Friends, oh, it doesn't matter what they do.' But I knew I
couldn't, wouldn't. I wanted to. It's too simplistic to say that she
wouldn't have wanted me to. I don't think that was the case, but I
would have felt guilty feeling free, joyous, to be in ecstasy when she
was lying in bed suffering. I suppose that was the reason. When I
realised what was going on with my mother, the demons started to fade
away because there wasn't any reason for them any more." He must
indeed have loved her enormously to feel that way. "I did. I loved
her, and I resented her."
Wilder's father was less dominant. "Very affectionate, very sweet,
very gentle. He was born in Russia and came to the United States when
he was 11. A sweet man," he repeats wistfully. But he worked all the
time. "I wish he had paid me more attention. There was one time he
took me on holiday, just the two of us. We went fishing. That's my
fondest memory of him. Mother wasn't there to take all the attention,
and my sister was off at school. I liked that. It was nice."
But there was always a connection missing. When Wilder asked his
father where he was from, he used to say, "I was born between Minsk
and Pinsk." Or when Wilder said he wanted to do something, his father
would retort, "You want to play pisha paysha?" Then Wilder would say
dismissively, "Oh, Daddy," thinking he was joking. Only after his
father's death did he discover that Pinsk really existed and pisha
paysha was a card game. In his youth he would have claimed his father
didn't influence him. Now he realises that he did. "My mother was very
emotional; my father was not emotional. She got more emotional as she
got weaker and was suffering. But he influenced me with that quiet
gentle feeling, always sweet to people..."
At 11, Wilder had watched his sister act in an amateur production. The
rapt attention actors received seemed to him the closest you could get
to being God. A long period of study followed with amateur companies
and then at the University of Iowa, the Bristol Old Vic and the Actors
Studio in New York. His study was interrupted when he was drafted into
the army. He chose to serve in a psychiatric hospital in the hope that
it would help his acting. He worked in a locked ward, where every
morning the patients would gather to watch television. One day a young
man came in and knelt in front of the screen, praying. Wilder
recognised himself. "I said to myself, 'That fellow's crazy, but not
that much crazier than I am.' He was psychotic, I was neurotic. I
thought, 'When I get out of the army, I'm going to get help.'"
He went to see Margie, a psychotherapist he would visit for the next
seven years, then periodically throughout his life. He was still
suffering from overwhelming but non-specific guilt, and when telling
her what the trouble was, he said he felt the need to give away all
his money. She asked how much he had. "I owe three hundred dollars,"
he told her.
Now he sees guilt as a wasted, selfish emotion. "Instead of doing
something, you pine away. The answer to guilt is action. Do something
then." On the wall in his study, he has the words of English scientist
Thomas Huxley - "The great goal in life is not knowledge, but action."
But he needed self-knowledge to take action. While he worked with
Margie to achieve this, he made disastrous choices in his love life.
But he would change nothing, he says, because all the ripples in a
life are connected. Change one thing and you affect everything else,
and he likes where he has ended up. But his first wife, a young
English actress called Mary, ignored him sexually, like Paul Peachy's
wife does in My French Whore. When they finally divorced, he married
Mary Jo, who was bringing up her daughter Katie alone. Wilder fell for
both of them, but Katie would ultimately divide them. "Mary Jo felt
obligated to make up for the fact that Katie never saw her father. She
felt guilty, and Katie ruled the roost. She could do anything, get by
with anything, and Mary Jo would never say no."
Wilder wasn't cut out to be a disciplinarian. He was always too scared
of losing love. But he felt Katie herself grasped how destructive the
situation was. She once said to him, "Hit me, for God's sake, hit me
before it's too late." But it was already too late. It sounds terribly
self-indulgent, but Wilder admits that he left because he knew Katie
would always come first. After his divorce, he had "a bubble of panic"
when a girlfriend told him she was pregnant. He said he would support
her, but admits that he was frightened of being a father. She had an
abortion. After his childhood, he wanted the attention. He told Margie
he wouldn't stop his wife having more children, but he didn't actively
want them. Why? "Because I would be number two, and I want to be
number one." Would the marriage last? "As long as your wife adores
you," Margie told him.
But it didn't last. Later, Wilder's relationship with Katie broke
down. In adulthood, she refused to speak to him, but wouldn't say why.
Maybe, since she had already been rejected by one father, she was
angry at him leaving? Maybe she was trying to see how hard he would
fight for her? "I called, I wrote. I used to say, 'If you can't tell
me what's wrong I can't fix it. I can't even apologise. So just answer
me, swear at me, go into a rage - but answer me.' She wouldn't answer.
I think because she might have had to lose her anger, and I don't
think she wanted to lose it even though it was hurting her so much.
She did get married once - I wasn't invited - but it only lasted a
Margie suggested that Katie was actually angry with her biological
father, and Wilder was the substitute whipping boy. Then Wilder's
nephew told him that Katie thought he hadn't done enough when she was
in hospital being treated for endometriosis. But when Katie was in
hospital in New York, Wilder was in Connecticut with his third wife,
the actress Gilda Radner, who was fighting the ovarian cancer that
would eventually kill her. Wilder's nephew told him Katie had wanted
him to take care of her the way he took care of Gilda.
Gilda was what Wilder describes as a "firefly" who lit up a room.
Dazzling and exciting, but volatile, needy and exhausting. After she
died, Wilder was in despair. But then he met Karen Webb, a worker with
the deaf who advised him on his role in See No Evil, Hear No Evil.
They have now been married for 15 years. "I have never been happier in
my life," he says. But isn't there a paradox about the women he has
loved? "What?" he asks. Well, he married Gilda after thinking he
didn't want to, when she stopped clinging and suggested he holiday
alone. And then he fell for Karen when he read a poem in her kitchen
that talked of the difference between "holding a hand and chaining a
soul". In other words, he loves women who say, 'Fly, you're free,' and
yet he demands to be their emotional priority. "If someone was
dependent on me," he replies slowly, "I might have cared for them very
much, but I didn't want to marry them. But I did." It's hard not to
think that his dependent mother is buried somewhere in this
"Saying, 'Fly, you're free' means I was free to love them, but if I
really did love them then I wanted to be number one." And they were
his number one? "Yes, absolutely. I was always a one-woman man." In
fact, his life has been driven by women and the search for love.
He has finally found it, exorcised the demons. (He has no religion
now, only the philosophy 'do unto others as you would have them do
unto you'.) But has he ever reconciled all those feelings about his
mother? "I've reconciled my feelings. But I am always curious about
why she did this or did that... How could she be so wonderful and so
loving, yet hurt me so much?"
NEARLY 40 years ago, My French Whore was a film script. "I was in
Paris making a film and I was very lonely. I had an idea for a film, a
romantic story, and I thought, 'When I go back to New York I am going
to write a screenplay for myself to act in.' It wasn't a good
screenplay, but the story was very good," he says. He donated it to a
university for students to study his development as a writer. Wilder
is an exhibited artist, a writer and actor, but modern film scripts
have failed to entice him. After writing his memoir, he realised he
wanted to continue writing books. He revisited the script and six
months later had a novel.
There is something about the way he says he was very lonely in Paris.
What sparked his story all those years ago? He smiles. Silence. "Oh, I
could tell you... but I don't want to." I laugh. I had the feeling he
was going to say that. You did? he asks. I did. Wilder looks down,
absorbed. Silence. Not even a hint? "A hint," he repeats. "Well, it
was a hopeless situation. I couldn't do anything about it. And ehm...
that's why I wrote about it. I made up a story, set it in 1918, but it
was... I thought I was in love. We never even made love," he adds
gently, unexpectedly. The silence builds, crackles. "For a few
reasons," he continues. "There was nothing I could do about it. I
didn't know what to do with that pain, and I thought, 'Write it, write
a story.'" But no, she wasn't a prostitute.
A sad tale, I say. "Well, sadness, happiness, we have to have both.
Funny, dramatic - that's life. I like that part of life," he says
softly. "That's good." After Gilda died, he had his own battle with
the blood cancer non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. A stem-cell transplant has
ensured that it hasn't recurred. "People said, 'Were you just shocked,
devastated?' I wasn't. If I hadn't had that experience when Gilda was
so ill, I probably would have been. But having gone through that, and
understanding more about cancer, I wasn't shocked. I was worried about
what might happen to Karen. But I've had a wonderful career, I've got
a beautiful home in Connecticut that Gilda left me, and I have known
love. I have sadnesses. I am sad that Katie won't talk to me. But I
have no regrets and no complaints."
Imagine this. There's this actor being interviewed by a woman in a
hotel suite. His life is like the angst-laden plot of one of his own
films. The interview runs late, but the actor is generous, saying it
doesn't matter. But he is also mischievous. Downstairs, he solemnly
tells the waiting PR that he pleaded to be released but the
interviewer refused. Then he smiles. Piercing blue eyes. Crazy, unruly
curls. He is going to buy socks in the famous shop across the road. He
could be any Hollywood actor playing the rich man who buys his socks
in Harrods. But there is something substantial about his performance,
something that suggests to the woman that he is not a fly-by-night.
My French Whore, by Gene WIlder (£11.99, Old Street Publishing), is
This article: http://living.scotsman.com/books.cfm?id=769052007