I was craving something familiar, like my favorite bedtime story, so I checked into arguably the best comedy that Billy Wilder—or anybody else—ever made. I first saw it at the Berlinale in 1996 at the huge, Soviet-era theater Kino International on Karl Marx Allee. When it was over, the lights came up and, from my front-row seat, I could hear a buzz building from the back and making its way slowly to the front of the auditorium. I turned around just as Jack Lemmon passed by to take the stage and regale the audience with stories about making the picture. Heaven. Alas, no survivors of the film were there for this screening (are there any?), but after 25-plus viewings of the film, it’s still fresh.
Entries in billy wilder (10)
Horst Buchholz dies of pneumonia in Berlin, 2003. In the early 1960s, the German-born actor was up for the part of Auda Abu Tayi in David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962), a role he declined due to his commitment to filming One, Two, Three (1961) for Billy Wilder. And so, Omar Sharif headed to Jordan, Morocco and Spain to assume the role for Lean and Buchholz stayed in Germany to antagonize costar James Cagney in Wilder’s rapid-fire comedy. It’s been said that Buchholz’s behavior on the set was a big reason Cagney stayed away from making movies until his cameo in Ragtime (1981) two decades later. Wilder managed to reign in Buchholz’s antics and scene-stealing attempts to the relief of the veteran actor, who was fully prepared to “knock Buchholz on his ass, which at several points I would have been very happy to do,” Cagney wrote in his autobiography.
The story of an alcoholic writer with a propensity for hiding liquor in the most unlikely places was a big winner on Oscar night, though the Billy Wilder drama wasn’t the easiest picture to get off the ground. Paramount balked at having the alcoholic played by anything other than a matinée idol, and matinée idol Ray Milland was advised not to touch the role. Preview audiences didn’t care too much for it, the liquor industry was none too thrilled either, and Paramount released it wide only after it received rave reviews during a limited-engagement run. At the awards ceremony, The Lost Weekend received Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Milland was presented the Best Actor trophy from Ingrid Bergman, who announced, “Mr. Milland, are you nervous? It’s yours!” Quipped host Bob Hope, “I’m surprised they just handed it to him. I thought they’d hide it in the chandelier.” The next day, co-screenwriter Charles Brackett and Wilder were greeted by a congratulatory gesture from fellow scribes—a series of little booze bottles hanging from strings outside each window of Paramount’s Writers’ Building.
The Lost Weekend
Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend
Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend
Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
James Dunn, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Anne Revere, National Velvet
It was an idea that Charles Brackett and I had long before we tackled it. We wanted to do it, believe it for not, five years before we actually got around to it. We wanted to make a picture with a kind of a passé star. We wanted to do it with Mae West. That’s all I can tell you. But it didn’t come out this way.
There is no such thing as somebody sitting down and saying, “Now, all right, I’m going to make a new picture.” Not at all. You have ideas stashed away, dozens of them—good, bad or indifferent. Then you pull them out of your memory, out of your drawer, you combine them. An actor is available, and that’s the way it starts. People think when it comes to a screenplay you start with absolutely nothing. But the trouble is that you have a million ideas and you have to condense them into a thousand ideas, and you have to condense those into three hundred ideas to get it under one hat, as it were. In other words, you start with too much, not with nothing, and it can go in every kind of direction. Every possible avenue is open. Then you have to dramatize it—it is as simple as that—by omitting, by simplifying, by finding a clean theme that leads someplace.
Sunset Boulevard was a picture where everything sort of fell into my lap. I needed the Paramount studio, and we got permission to shoot at Paramount. I needed Cecil B. DeMille to play DeMille, and he played it. I needed somebody to play the part Stroheim played. Stroheim at one time had been a director and had, indeed, directed Gloria Swanson in Queen Kelly. We needed old faces and got Buster Keaton. Everything was just right.
When we made that picture with Gloria Swanson people forget that she herself was considered sort of an old bag from silent picture times. At the time when we shot the picture she was actually fifty years old, that was all. She was then three or four years younger than Audrey Hepburn is today. But it was the split, you know, the divide between sound pictures and silent pictures that made such a difference. She was actually very young for that thing. She was just forgotten because she had stopped making pictures when she was about thirty, when sound came in. But what would she be doing today? As you heard in the picture, she had those oil wells, pumping, pumping, pumping. I guess she would have four or five gigolos. She would now be living somewhere in Santa Barbara with George Hamilton.
Ray Milland is born in Neath, Wales, 1905. The actor worked for the first time with director Billy WIlder in The Major and the Minor (1942), a comedy starring Milland as an army guy who befriends a grown woman (Ginger Rogers) passing herself off as a 12-year-old girl in order to acquire a cheaper train fare. When it came time to begin filming Wilder’s 1945 release, The Lost Weekend, Wilder looked to Jose Ferrer to portray Don Birnam, an author suffering from writer’s block and an addiction to booze. Paramount vetoed Ferrer, citing the need for more of a box office draw. Cary Grant and a handful of others turned Wilder down; Ray Milland did not and got the role of his career, with Wilder predicting that the actor would win the Academy Award. “On the day it dawned, I knew I couldn't face it and made up my mind not to attend,” Milland recalled about the Oscar ceremony, where he was up for Best Actor against Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Gregory Peck and Cornel Wilde. “At breakfast, I hesitantly told [my wife] Mal of my decision. She slowly put down her fork and just examined me. I didn't know where to look. Then she said, ‘I know that you're erratic, volatile, and the possessor of a foul temper. But I never thought you were a coward!’ Then with a look as cold as a Canadian nun, she said, ‘You'll go the that ceremony tonight if we have to put you in a straitjacket.’” He won and spoke no words of thanks, but instead bowed to the audience and exited the stage.