(University Press of Kentucky, 464 pages, $39.95)
By Gene D. Phillips
Billy Wilder’s momentous move from the writers’ building to the director’s chair in 1942 came when Charles Boyer airily discarded pages of a scene from Wilder’s Hold Back the Dawn that called for the Frenchman to talk to a cockroach. After that, Wilder worked to ensure full control over his work, learning from those who respected his screenplays, such as Howard Hawks on Ball of Fire. For 14 years Wilder was a successful, determinedly idiosyncratic director-writer at Paramount, before becoming a pioneering independent director-writer-producer under the sympathetic auspices of the Mirisch brothers’ company in the ’50s and early ’60s.
Gene D. Phillips’ Some Like It Wilder is a critical-historical biography, with Wilder’s work very much taking primacy over his personal life. As the subtitle suggests, the life was less “controversial” than the work. Wilder was married to his second wife, Audrey, for five decades and lived quietly in an 18th-floor apartment above Wilshire Boulevard. But on the job, he spent most of the 1940s and ’50s picking fights and winning most of them — with censors, studio executives, actors (he and Humphrey Bogart didn’t get along), and even writing partners.
Phillips is particularly good on the never-ending disputes between Wilder, the Breen Office and the Catholic League of Decency, as the director fought against still-potent Eisenhower-era taboos like adultery, suicide and prostitution (none of which would have raised an eyebrow in the Weimar Berlin of Wilder’s youth, a period rather thinly covered here, as in most Wilder biographies). The Legion’s decreasing effectiveness throughout the 1950s can actually be measured using Wilder movies as milestones, and, as Phillips demonstrates, he and Otto Preminger were instrumental in undermining the Code altogether.
Phillips, who interviewed Wilder several times, has mastered the voluminous correspondence between Wilder and his antagonists and collaborators, which reveals a hidden history of studio filmmaking that often contradicts the myths. If Wilder is no more distinct to us as a man than he was before, then we still owe Phillips for the clarity and thoroughness with which he has addressed the work.
Review written by John Patterson.