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September 2000, Week 2


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Peter Rollins <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 11 Sep 2000 19:39:48 EDT
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This review is copyrighted (c) 2000 by H-Net and the
       Popular Culture and the American Culture Associations.
       It may be reproduced electronically for educational or
       scholarly use.  The Associations reserve print rights
       and permissions. (Contact: P.C.Rollins at the following
       electronic address: [log in to unmask])

Ed Sikov, _On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder_. New
York, NY: Hyperion Press, 1998. $35.00 hardcover. ISBN 0786861940; 1999.
$17.05 paper. ISBN 0786885033

As a result of director Cameron Crowe's recently published
_Conversations with Wilder_, Billy Wilder, at the age of 93, is enjoying
something of a renaissance.  Stories about the legendary Wilder have
appeared in a number of major magazines, and Crowe has been ubiquitously
promoting the book on the television and radio circuit.  Unfortunately,
a side-effect of the success of Crowe's book is that Ed Sikov's
excellent _On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder_ has
seemingly drowned in the deluge of _Conversations with Wilder's_ high

The allure of Crowe's book is that he was granted unprecedented access
to Wilder; Crowe made use of this access and modeled his book after
Truffaut's _Hitchcock_, replete with blow by blow conversations about
the majority of Wilder's films.  Conversely, Sikov's biography is
"unauthorized," meaning that he had no first hand access to Wilder.
Indeed, in his preface Sikov acknowledges that Wilder declined his
repeated interview requests, saying "the idea of sitting through an
interview made him want to throw up."  For his part, Sikov confesses
that not having to face the likely onslaught of Wilder's famous verbal
venom made him "as much relieved as disappointed."  Strangely, Wilder's
persona makes this lack of access more help than hinder.  While Wilder
is unquestionably an entertaining storyteller, he is also widely
recognized as one of Hollywood's great fabricators; for every alleged
incident, Wilder has any number of tales, each of which differs in
intent and result.  Accordingly, many of the stories recounted in
Crowe's book also find their way into Sikov's.  More importantly, Sikov
did have access to a number of people who worked with Wilder as well as
a rich body of existing film criticism.  Because of his seamless
blending of numerous first hand observations with the voluminous extant
Wilder scholarship, Sikov's book offers what is to date the most
complete portrait of Wilder's work.

Sikov structures _On Sunset Boulevard_ chronologically, beginning with
Wilder's early life and career in Europe and going right up to the
present day, during which Wilder has assumed well deserved elder
statesman status in Hollywood.  Once Wilder arrives in America (1934),
the bulk of the remaining chapters revolve around individual films.
Accordingly, we get requisite chapters on _Double Indemnity_, _Sunset
Boulevard_, _The Apartment_, etc.   Although Sikov has little to say
about Wilder's visual style, which perhaps should be expected in a work
about a filmmaker whose glory years roughly paralleled the heyday of the
classical Hollywood style, these chapters nevertheless fascinatingly
detail the genesis of his films, both his hits and his failures, from
inception, writing, and funding, to revision, filming, release, and
reception.  Of particular interest is Sikov's depiction of Wilder's
somewhat abusive relationships with his co-writers, most notably Charles
Brackett and I. A. L. Diamond.

While Sikov's account of the most successful years of Wilder's Hollywood
career is interesting, it doesn't dramatically differ from what has
already been written; but what makes _On Sunset Boulevard_ unique is
Sikov's equally intensive focus on Wilder's European career,
particularly his years as first a jazz hound reporter and then a
fledgling screenwriter learning his craft at Ufa, and the down years
following his Hollywood success.  While the early chapters frame
Wilder's development against the backdrop of the rising tide of Nazism,
the later sections recount his painful decline as he stubbornly
persisted in making films that were increasingly out of synch with
audiences who "preferred young Jedi Knights and voracious sharks" to
Wilder's often vicious character driven films.

What's missing in _On Sunset Boulevard_ is what's missing in virtually
everything written about Wilder to date; a better picture of his
personal life.  Although we learn some things about his relationships
with various women, co-workers, actors, friends, and (most
entertainingly) enemies, we are still left with something of a hole in
our knowledge of Wilder the man.  Wilder's stories, and the many stories
about him, are ceaselessly interesting.  But despite his loquaciousness,
he has remained over the years in many ways a private man, refusing to
talk about things which might give us greater insight into what Sikov
calls "the fastest, funniest, meanest mind in Hollywood."  Sikov wisely
concedes this fact, writing "_On Sunset Boulevard_ is the story of Billy
Wilder's life in motion pictures.  It focuses on what he achieved
on-screen and how he came to achieve it. . . . I hope to have done him
justice."  He has and then some.

Whitman College                                            Robert C. Sickels
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