Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder: A Personal Biography

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9780743217095: Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder: A Personal Biography

"'Nobody's perfect' is the line that most sums up my work," Billy Wilder told writer Charlotte Chandler. "There is no comedy, no drama about perfect people."Film is the Cinderella Art of the 20th century, and Billy Wilder was one of its most legendary figures. When he died recently, Wilder left behind an incredible celluloid legacy. "Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, The Apartment, Lost Weekend, Sabrina," and other Wilder films have become a part of our shared experience and collective memory.In "Nobody's Perfect," Billy Wilder speaks for himself, in what is as close to an autobiography as there ever will be. Charlotte Chandler, author of earlier authorized biographies of Groucho Marx and Federico Fellini, met Wilder in the mid-1970s and began a friendship that continued until his death. Over the course of more than twenty years, she interviewed not only Wilder, but many of the actors and other creative people who worked with him. The result is this remarkable book, a very personal look at one of Hollywood's true creative geniuses.In a life as dramatic as his films, Wilder survived World War I and escaped the Holocaust, though his mother and grandmother both died at Auschwitz. When he arrived in Hollywood, he found himself a writer without a language, a man without a country.Wilder's great gift as a screenwriter soon became apparent, as did his easy rapport with actors. As a writer-director, he worked with such stars as Greta Garbo, William Holden, Tony Curtis, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, Gloria Swanson, Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and Marilyn Monroe -- most of whom were interviewedfor this book.He gave Garbo her laugh, Swanson her comeback, Holden his stardom, Lemmon a career, Matthau an Oscar, and contributed greatly to Marilyn Monroe's immortality.Actors from Wilder's films talk enthusiastically about Wilder. Danielle Darrieux, the star of the first picture he directed, remembers him from 1933. Ginger Rogers tells how "The Major and the Minor" paralleled her own life. Jack Lemmon reveals how wearing a dress affected him as a man. Tony Curtis talks about what it was like to work with Billy Wilder -- and under Marilyn Monroe.Chandler's conversations with Wilder and the others began when he was still a working director and continued through the time he was retired but didn't know it. A man of the 20th century, Billy Wilder lived into the 21st century, alone from his time, a legend forever.This revealing and vastly entertaining book is a wonderful, timely tribute to this great writer-director, a legacy of Wilder's wit, insight, and remarkable wisdom.

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About the Author:

Charlotte Chandler's first book, Hello, I Must Be Going, was a national bestseller about Groucho Marx. Her second book, The Ultimate Seduction, included conversations with Mae West, Tennessee Williams, Henry Moore, Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, and others. The Tennessee Williams section became the basis of the successful stage play, Confessions of a Nightingale, and The Penguin Book of Interviews selected her section on Mae West as one of the best interviews of all time. Her next book, I, Fellini, was selected as a New York Times notable book and has been published in more than twenty-five foreign editions. Chandler was a writer and producer of the Aaron Spelling/ABC movie-of-the-week, A Stranger in the Mirror, based on the Sidney Sheldon novel. She is a member of the board of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and is active in film preservation. She lives in New York City and is at work on a book about Alfred Hitchcock.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter: Some Like It Hot

"When you are acting in movies," Tony Curtis told me, "there are those moments you can't forget. I cannot forget being under Marilyn Monroe.

"One day Billy came up to me and said, 'I've got something for you, Tony. I don't know if you can do it or not. You're gonna have to be kissed by the Monroe.'

"I said, 'I'm up to it.'

"He says, 'Are you sure? You won't be swallowed up?'

"I said, 'I'll do my best. To get swallowed up.'

Curtis, however, had already been "swallowed up" by Monroe.

"I knew Marilyn, in the biblical sense, before anyone in the picture business knew her in any sense. I got into the movies in '48, and I met her less than a year later, in '49, when she was this sweet kid hoping for a break. She and I got together sexually.

"We had some good weeks together. She was so attractive, I don't think any guy could be a good lover with her, if you know what I mean. Maybe her husbands got used to the way she was. If not, poor Marilyn, because she never got much out of it.

"It worried me that working together might be awkward because I hadn't called back. I was also worried she might not remember me, though girls usually did.

"She said, 'Hello, Tony. Have you still got it?'

"I didn't know exactly to what she was referring. She said, 'Have you still got that green convertible?'

"I had a green Buick convertible we used to make out in.

"I said, 'No, I sold it.'

"We got along just fine making Hot.

"When I first got my dress and makeup, and I was testing the guise, I invited her to go to the ladies' room with me. She did. She thought that was funny. Marilyn Monroe was a good sport."


"Before it was made, Some Like It Hot was considered too controversial to be a comedy," Wilder told me. "It had cross-dressing, inferences of homosexuality, and all those murders.

"I remember talking to [David] Selznick. He was a very smart man and a marvelous producer. I told him a little bit about Hot.

"He said, 'The Valentine's Day Murder? You're crazy. You mean real machine guns, and blood, in a comedy? It'll be a total failure.'

"I said, 'Well, I think I'll try it anyway.'"

Early casting ideas for Some Like It Hot included Danny Kaye and Bob Hope. Frank Sinatra was also discussed. The most difficult part, according to Wilder, was that of Sugar Kane.

"She was the weakest part and also the most important. I knew I had to get a very strong actress to play Sugar, a real star, and that was a big problem. She had to bring something with her that we could not just convey on paper. I considered Mitzi Gaynor, who had just come off South Pacific. Then, I got this letter from Marilyn Monroe telling me how much she enjoyed working on Seven Year Itch, and how she hoped we could work together again. Of course! She would be the perfect Sugar. I sent her an outline of the script.

"I didn't send her much, though, because I think it's bad to tell the actors, 'I'm writing this for you, and only you can play it.' They don't like that. I just say, 'I know you can interpret this part because you can play anything.' They love that.

"I also didn't want Miss Monroe to think she was being typecast. She wanted to believe she was an actress, not just a star, a personality. Nobody could play her the way she could. I wanted her to feel good, but not so good she would be impossible during the filming. There was always a delicate balance which had to be maintained in handling her. You did it the best you could, and the thing you knew was you would fail. You would tip the balance wrong, and then you would pick up the pieces, not of her, but of you.

"I also needed a good actor, and he had to be good-looking enough to have Miss Monroe fall for him. The handsomest actor I knew who was just right for the part was Tony Curtis."

"I love that," Tony Curtis told me. "I would've done anything with Billy. I didn't need to know the part or the story, just that it was Billy Wilder. We got to know each other at Paramount when I was doing Houdini and he was doing Stalag 17. My looks had some special attraction for him. I would see how he looked at me, and I understood what it was.

"He was Austrian, and I was Austrian. I was a Hungarian and Austrian, a Hungarian-Austrian Jew. The handsomest of men. And I think the fact that we were related like that gave him a lot of pleasure.

"I was so young, twenty-two, when I met him. He scared me to death. He had such a der überstandaten Führer look about him. An überstandaten Führer is like a sergeant, a blown-up minor soldier in the army. I called him that for years, and he loved it.

"He also loved talking about all the girls I went out with. The first question he'd ask me in the morning when I got on the set was, 'Well, who did you do it to last night?'

"'The girl at the bar.'

"'That girl? I never thought anybody'd get to her!'

"I kept track for him! I won't say he enjoyed it vicariously, but you know, he liked my looks and he liked the idea that I was having a good time as a man. It was hard in those days, because there were very few of us guys around that were dedicated to the woman condition. I really liked women. So, that was a pleasure for him, too, and he thought it was entertaining."

Tony Curtis recalled being approached by Wilder to play the parts of Joe, Josephine, and the millionaire playboy:

"Harold Mirisch was running a movie one night at his home, and I was invited. Mirisch says, 'Billy wants to talk to you about a movie. Come in a little earlier.' Well, I got so excited, I couldn't see straight.

"So I got to the projection room of Mr. Mirisch's house, and there was Billy. He says, 'I'm gonna make a movie about two guys, and have them dress up like women to escape from being killed. They're two musicians, a saxophone player and a bass player, and they escape town, only dressed up like girl musicians, and go out to the South, to a fancy hotel in Florida. How does that sound?'

"I said, 'You mean you want me for one of the parts? Oh, Billy!' I started to cry.

"'Take it easy. I'm gonna get Frank Sinatra and maybe Mitzi Gaynor to play the other two parts.'

"'You get anybody you want.' About four days later, I ran across Billy. He said, 'I'm not gonna use Frank. He's gonna be too much trouble, and Mitzi Gaynor is not just what I want. But I saw an actor, you know him, Jack Lemmon? I'm gonna have him play the other part, and I'm gonna get Marilyn Monroe,' who I think was then having a lot of trouble functioning, and for that reason nobody wanted to bother with her. And that's how Billy put Some Like It Hot together. That made me feel so good, to be right in on the ground works of that picture.

"The reason he didn't want to use Frank was he wanted Frank to be the Daphne role, but he wasn't sure Frank would be able to play it. Frank was a little bit cantankerous, and Billy didn't want to take a chance on that, with the big chance he took on Marilyn. He accomplished that, but he knew she was gonna be trouble for him. And she was quite troublesome."

I. A. L. Diamond told me the real reason Frank Sinatra was not in Some Like It Hot:

"With the films that turn out the way you hoped, you can always find some element of luck. The luck sometimes is something you don't get. The studio wanted Sinatra and thought he could play both parts when he couldn't play either one.

"Billy made a lunch date with Sinatra, and he went and waited and sat there, and sat there, and Sinatra never showed up. He stood up Billy. Now, that's luck."

One night at Dominick's restaurant in Los Angeles, Wilder approached Jack Lemmon. Lemmon remembered the moment very clearly, decades after he had forgotten what he had for dinner that night:

"I didn't know Billy very well at the time. We'd met at some social events. It was a little checkered-tablecloth joint. Anyhow, he sat down at my table and he said, 'Now, look. I've got this script here. You and the other fellow there with you, you are both musicians, and you witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. So now what you've gotta do is dress up like women and join an all-girl orchestra, because they know you've seen the murders, and they may come and kill you. For 85 percent of the picture, you're gonna run around in drag. So, you want to do it?'

"I was dumbstruck. I said yes. It was, after all, Billy Wilder."

Billy Wilder told a shorter version of this story. "I went up to him and I said, 'Would you like to be in a movie I'm going to make? You get to play a woman,' and he said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Are you sure? Being a woman is drafty.' He still said yes.

"Lemmon, I would describe as a ham, a fine ham, and with ham you have to trim a little fat.

"Joe E. Brown had been out of sight for quite a while. When I saw him at a Dodgers game, I thought he would be perfect as Osgood. That was one time where 'somebody's perfect.' He was also a part-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, so I got a lot of inside information about trades while we were making Hot.

"I wanted some people from the old gangster pictures, like Eddie Robinson, who I couldn't get. But George Raft, Pat O'Brien, George E. Sto

"After Marilyn saw the black and white test for Some Like It Hot, she said she wanted the picture to be shot in color. I told her, 'You will be aware of the makeup. It will come out blue for the boys because of their beards.' I reached her. She bought it. She liked color better. But black and white was right for this picture. It works.

"Diamond and I got the idea from Fanfaren der Liebe [Fanfares of Love, 1951], a German remake of an old French film, Fanfares d'Amour [1935]. Two desperate musicians will do anything to get work. They put on blackface for a jazz band. They dress up like Gypsies for a Hungarian cimbalom group. They disguise themselves as women for an all-girl orchestra and romantic complications follow. We set our film in Chicago and Miami during the Roaring Twenties because prohibition, bootleggers, speakeasies, gangland killings, Florida millionaires, jazz, and flappers are such a good background."

For Diamond, "the humor in the German movie was rather heavy-handed and teutonic, though the basic idea was good. We needed stronger motivation and more complications. It was Billy who got the idea for linking our two desperate musicians with the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. He got it one morning while he was driving to work to meet me. Billy got a lot of his ideas driving."

"When we started working on this picture," Wilder added, "I said to my friend, Mr. Diamond, we have to find the hammerlock of the story. We had to find the ironclad thing in which these two guys trapped in women's clothing cannot just take off their wigs and say, 'I'm a guy.' It had to be a question of life and death. We introduced the Valentine's Day Massacre as part of the plot, so if they get out of the women's clothes, they will be killed by the Al Capone gang or whoever it was. How could these guys ever feel safe again with the gang knowing they were witnesses? That was the important invention that made everything else possible."

"We couldn't think of a title we liked," Diamond said. "At first, we were considering Fanfares of Love as a title. Then we came up with Not Tonight, Josephine, and finally Some Like It Hot. We put it in the script. Mr. Curtis says to Miss Monroe when he first meets her on the beach as the millionaire, 'I guess some like it hot, but I prefer classical music myself.' They told us that some years before the same title had been used for a Bob Hope film, so we had a secondhand title. Then, they told us it wouldn't be a legal problem."

Wilder added, "Our Some Like It Hot is the one everyone remembers, and not because of us. Everyone was very good." Two musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and have to flee Chicago disguised as women in an all-girl band. In Florida, Joe romances one of the girls in the band, Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), pretending to be a millionaire, while also being her best girlfriend, Josephine. Meanwhile, Jerry, posing as Daphne, is romantically pursued by a real millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), who proposes marriage, and Jerry, as Daphne, considers accepting. When the Chicago mob has a convention in Miami Beach, Joe and Jerry have to flee again, this time with their new romantic partners, Joe with Sugar, Jerry with Osgood. When Jerry reveals that he is a man, Osgood replies, "Well, nobody's perfect."

What may be the most famous last line in any film wasn't always intended by Wilder and Diamond to be the last line. At the end, Jack Lemmon's lips move in a final silent muttering. "There was going to be some throwaway line, like, 'Aw, what's the use,'" Diamond told me, "back in the early days, when we thought Lemmon's character should have the curtain line, before we knew what we were going to do, before we knew what we really had. At the end of their last scene together, Joe and Sugar had to disappear in a passionate clinch on the floor of the boat so we couldn't see them. That was because Monroe couldn't be there for the final scene. As it turned out, it was much more effective just having Osgood and Jerry alone."


One Saturday, while I was staying at Groucho Marx's Hillcrest home in Los Angeles, writing a book about him, an unshaven Jack Lemmon arrived for lunch. Lemmon apologized, explaining that it was his matinee day. His part in the play Juno and the Paycock at the Mark Taper Forum, in which he was appearing with Walter Matthau, necessitated his unkempt appearance.

"I hope you won't mind my dirty fingernails," Lemmon said, displaying them for us as he sat down at the table with Groucho and me. "It's so I can be in character for the people in the first few rows. I always go into my garden and make my fingernails dirty."

His part was important to him in that special way film actors feel about their stage appearances, especially in Los Angeles, where the audiences are so often made up of their peers. He said that ordinarily he wouldn't have eaten lunch before a matinee, but he had made an exception for Groucho.

Lemmon talked about the physical ills and accidents that had plagued Walter Matthau during the run of the play. They were sharing one tiny dressing room. Lemmon was excited about the visit of Sean O'Casey's widow, Eileen, who had come to Los Angeles to attend the opening. "They served wine," Lemmon said, "and she could really put it away."

The conversation turned to Some Like It Hot, a favorite film of Groucho's. Lemmon told us that Wilder and Diamond had written Some Like It Hot as they went along. "I'd seen sixty pages that knocked me out, but Billy and Iz didn't come up with the last scene until we were almost ready to film. Well, they had to have it, because they needed it for the next day.

"I think it ...

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