Book Review: Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe
Conversations with Wilder is Cameron Crowe's attempt to do for Billy Wilder what Francois Truffaut did for Alfred Hitchcock in his 1966 book Hitchcock/Truffaut. The young French film maker and the veteran British director had sat down and gone over Hitchcock's film career in a series of interviews for a book that would become a mine of Hitchcock quotes, and probably the best known of the many books on Hitch.
At the time that Conversations with Wilder was published, Billy Wilder was one of the last remaining great film directors of the Hollywood studio era. A former journalist, Wilder's film career had begun in Europe, before he moved to the US in the early 1930s to work as a screenwriter.
As with some later writer-directors, it was frustration with the treatment of some of his scripts that prompted him to turn to directing himself, paving the way for other writers to do the same. From the 1940s to the early 1960s, Wilder made a string of films that have gone on to almost legendary status: Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960) among them.
Quite apart from his illustrious film career, Billy Wilder was also famously witty and acerbic, and so would seem like an ideal interview subject. He certainly enjoyed a career with enough high points to make a book of interviews worthwhile.
Cameron Crowe was a music journalist who turned film maker in the 1980s, his latest film at the time this book was written being Jerry Maguire in 1996. First meeting with Wilder at his office, Crowe had originally tried to tempt him into taking a small acting role in that film, but Wilder eventually decided against it.
Instead, the two began a series of meetings, some very brief, which are described in the book. They discussed the films of Wilder and others, his family background and his experiences working with actors, collaborators and studio heads. At the same time, Wilder is allowed to run through some of his vast fund of jokes and anecdotes.
The opportunity for film makers and movie buffs to hear Billy Wilder discussing his own films and their making is too good an opportunity to miss. But, ultimately, Conversations with Wilder doesn't deliver all that it should.
|Cover for the Spanish edition of Conversations with Wilder|
The way to approach a subject like this should be obvious, as should the structure of the finished book. The interviewer should take Wilder through his career chronologically, allowing him to talk about the background, conception and making of each film. Wilder could also share his thoughts on what worked and what didn't work, and this would provide fruitful discussion between the two film makers. This is the approach taken by Francois Truffaut in Hitchcock/Truffaut.
Unfortunately, Cameron Crowe has not taken that approach in Conversations with Wilder. In fact, the book is almost totally unstructured. The author details his series of meetings with Wilder, but instead of taking a chronological approach, or any sort of structured approach, Crowe's modus operandi is just to fire off random questions at his subject.
Crowe's interview style is to flit from film to film, subject to subject, decade to decade, firing off a quick question about something-or-other, often apropos of not very much. The questions seem to come at random and he rarely pursues an idea or a line of questioning. Wilder often doesn't really answer a question or goes off at a tangent, and Crowe rarely seems bothered that he hasn't answered, as if he's no more interested in his own questions than we are.
The exception is with is rather gauche attempts at finding some "eureka" moment that will somehow explain and encapsulate Wilder's life and work in some unspecified, but fated, way. Unsurprisingly, this never comes.
Part of the motivation for Cameron Crowe seems to have been just to spend time with Billy Wilder, and perhaps he's hoping he will become a better writer and director by absorbing his talents through some kind of osmosis. Ironically, the two men do talk about structure in writing, and this is obviously a lesson that Crowe could profitably have applied to his own book.
While Crowe mostly knows and loves the films, the book does expect a similarly high level of familiarity from its readers with each title. Discussions can often be on quite specific points of individual scenes in a given film and, given the author's scattershot approach to questioning, these will suddenly crop up at random. Crowe's ideas are also sometimes a little offbeat, as when he seems to think that Wilder's 1943 film Five Graves to Cairo, a small-scale thriller set in a desert hotel, is a forerunner of Indiana Jones.
Occasionally Cameron Crowe goes completely off-topic and fires off questions on random and sometimes unrelated subjects. He persists in asking what Wilder thinks of other films, particularly recent ones, television programmes and even rock music. Hey Cameron, Billy Wilder is 90 years old - how do you think he feels about rock music? (Spoiler: 90 year old Billy Wilder doesn't like rock music.) But the book does offer the worrying revelation that Wilder's favourite recent film was Forrest Gump, which might have been better glossed over.
There's always a sense that Wilder is entering into this project somewhat reluctantly, which doesn't encourage Crowe to delve any deeper, and the conversation is mostly kept on a superficial level. It's not helped by the fact that some of Crowe's questions are odd and often glib.
When it comes to anything beyond superficial anecdote, Wilder usually doesn't want to play along anyway, resisting most of Crowe's efforts at analysis of his films, and certainly of himself. He is reluctant to think too deeply about the films and regards each one as "just a picture". He's happiest making jokes and sharing his own anecdotes, as well as other people's (probably apocryphal) stories, but Crowe is unable to get enough substance out of his conversations. When he does find an interesting point or question, he rarely follows it up and often leaves unanswered questions hanging.
Wilder is also much more interested in talking about his hits than his misses and prefers to forget even about good films that failed to connect, or that got a rough ride for one reason or another when they were new. Which means that the book covers quite familiar ground and doesn't take advantage of the unrivalled opportunity to ask Wilder about his less celebrated films.
When he does talk about one, as with the re-editing of 1970's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, he and Crowe manage to leave many questions unanswered and the reasons for the film's butchering are not clearly explored or explained. Wilder blames it on the editor cutting the film while he was away, but the editor would not have the authority to decide which version of Wilder's film was released, so this is far from being the whole story.
The author is also too eager to insert himself into the picture and much of the book is padded with irrelevancies about the details of his meetings with Billy Wilder. Although Wilder is initially very wary of Crowe and reluctant to be interviewed, he does seem to warm to him over time, and the author is keen to make sure we know that they are now best buddies. There are descriptions of their meals out together, chats with Wilder's wife and even a bizarre Q & A that takes place while Wilder is doing exercises with his physical therapist. Often Cameron Crowe seems to be more interested in the not very exciting day-to-day life of an elderly retired film director than in looking very deeply at the films he made.
Very belatedly, the author tries to impose some order on the book, with a chronological rundown of the films themselves at the end, although this is mostly a repeat of what Wilder (and Crowe) have already said. The book is heavy with photos, some of them interesting and relevant and some of them not.
For Wilder fans, or anyone with an interest in the Hollywood studio era, the chance to listen to Billy Wilder talking about his work and experiences in the film business seems too good to miss. But Crowe's approach is so superficial that even casual fans are unlikely to learn much, and the author's haphazard and often random questioning soon becomes frustrating. The result is a book that's occasionally interesting, but more often rambling, repetitive, fragmented and sometimes bewildering.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Cameron Crowe is not a film historian or a film maker approaching the stature of Billy Wilder. What's more surprising is that a former journalist and interviewer should show so little aptitude for organising a book of interviews with a famous subject.
While there's some useful and interesting information here, it's a bit of a slog to get to it and, unfortunately, Conversations with Wilder is a disappointment. To see this kind of thing done much better with other famous film directors, Francois Truffaut's fascinating Hitchcock/Truffaut and the excellent David Lean by Kevin Brownlow are recommended.