Once again, Chandler (I, Fellini, 1995, etc.) lets an acclaimed and beloved filmmaker tell his life story largely in his own words.
When he died earlier this year at the age of 95, Billy Wilder’s artistic legacy included such classics as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment, all of which he directed and co-wrote. Born to German-speaking Jewish parents in an area of Austria-Hungary that's now part of Poland, Wilder worked as a journalist in Vienna and Berlin before becoming a screenwriter. His career in the German film industry was cut short when Hitler came to power, and he eventually wound up in the US. Although he spoke little English on his arrival, he became one of the great screenwriters of Hollywood's golden age. His films, usually written in collaboration, first with Charles Brackett, then later with I.A.L. Diamond, are noted for their sophisticated, sometimes cynical, humor and an ear for the found poetry of the American vernacular unmatched by any other filmmaker with the possible exception of Preston Sturges. Wilder was also a world-class raconteur, which proves both a strength and a weakness here. (The title, from the memorable last line of Some Like It Hot, also neatly sums up Wilder's wryly mordant worldview.) His anecdotes are fascinating and often hilarious, but many of them may already be familiar to readers of earlier accounts, most notably Cameron Crowe's Conversations with Wilder (1999). In addition, Chandler makes only the most cursory attempt to put Wilder's work into any sort of critical context, all too often simply letting him do the talking, along with various friends and collaborators, and limiting herself to potted synopses of his films and the occasional piece of necessary exposition.
Not the definitive biography that historians and fans may have hoped for, but an entertaining read as well as a bittersweet memorial to one of cinema's true originals.