It’s director Billy Wilder’s birthday. Here’s a David Hockney “joiner” of him lighting up a cigar. (Collected in the book, Cameraworks.)
Other than watching all of his movies, another great way to get to know Wilder is in the book, Conversations With Wilder. In between Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe spent a year interviewing his hero about his body of work. Crowe was just peaking and Wilder was retired and starting his nineties. The book chronicles their conversations and is full of hundreds beautiful black and white photos from his films and his life.
Some of my favorite Wilderisms:
- “If you have a problem in the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”
- “The one thing that keeps me alive is curiosity.”
- “The real humorist is always sad.”
- “It’s easy to talk, it’s difficult to write.”
- “There’s no “Wilderesque.” It’s just stuff.”
- “You bring your sensibility and hope that people will show up.”
Gary Kurtz, who produced the first two Star Wars movies, recalls learning about structure from Wilder:
“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down,” Kurtz said. “ ‘Empire’ was the tree on fire. The first movie was like a comic book, a fantasy, but ‘Empire’ felt darker and more compelling. It’s the one, for me, where everything went right. And it was my goodbye to a big part of my life.”
Wilder also said, “An actor entering through the door, you’ve got nothing. But if he enters through the window, you’ve got a situation.” (Reminds me of John Le Carré: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story.’”)
Wilder started collecting art when he was a newspaper man. (Freud once threw him out of his office because he hated reporters.) He told the Paris Review:
[I] only started collecting seriously when I arrived in America in 1934. Having worked every day of my life, and not owned horses or yachts or junk bonds, I put everything into art to decorate my walls. I wish I’d collected more and directed less. It’s been more fun collecting than making movies.
His advice: “Don’t collect. Buy what you like, hold onto it, enjoy it.”
“I bought a George Grosz painting for a carton of cigarettes in 1945,” he said.
In 1989 he sold his collection for $34 million.
“We’re discovering more and more,” he said, “and we know less and less.”
My favorite thing he ever said: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.”
Here’s his gravestone: