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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 was 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
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 pushes 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 that are a little bewildering. He persists in asking what Wilder thinks of other films, particularly recent ones, television 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.   

Comments

  1. It's unfortunate that this book isn't so good. I was looking for a good book on my favorite filmmaker. On Amazon it is touted as being as good as Truffaut's book on Hitchcock. Apparently not. :)

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    1. Yeah ... it's definitely not on that level. There are several books on Wilder, but I don't know which is the best. There is one composed of different interviews and there are various biographies. A biography may be better as I'm not sure he was the most reliable interviewee.

      What are your favourite Wilder films?


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    2. Probably the easier question would be, what are not my favorite Wilder films? But I would put Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity and Ace in the Hole on top. I could never quite warm up to The Apartment, which so many people seem to love.

      Really high on my list though is One, Two, Three. It so perfectly nails East-West relations back then, the political realities in a divided city. Wilder had the uncanny ability to put his finger on the pulse of what really motivated people to act the way they do, be the Capitalists of Communists. And he did this with unerring clarity of vision. Money talks, in every language. :)

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    3. I should really watch One, Two, Three again, I haven't seen it for ages.

      I do like The Apartment, as well as the other three you mentioned, and especially Witness for the Prosecution and the Sherlock Holmes film. I would love to see the full version of that, but it seems some of the missing bits may not exist anymore. A Foreign Affair is good too, although a lesser known one.

      What are your least favourites? Wilder is particularly dismissive of The Emperor Waltz. Have you seen the last one, Buddy Buddy?

      Wilder is surprisingly sweary in the book, and still enthusiastic about dirty jokes and so on, for a 90 year old. I think he probably benefited from working in a more restrictive era. There is a sense of him losing his bearings a little from the early '60s on .

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    4. Yes, Witness for the Prosecution is very good and A Foreign Affair is seriously underrated. Another lesser-known but good one is Five Graves to Cairo.

      I actually haven't seen Buddy, Buddy or The Emperor Waltz. I should really check them out. Both have fairly bad reputations.
      Looking again at his filmography, there's actually a few movies I'm not crazy about. Kiss Me, Stupid comes to mind. All in all, I guess I prefer his earlier work.

      I didn't know he liked to swear so much. You may be right when you say he might have benefitted from the enforcement of the Code. It reined certain excesses in. :)

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    5. Not that I'm a fan of the Code any more than you are. I think it stunted American cinema in many ways and was certainly too strict, even for the time. Some other countries weren't so bad, although it could still have an effect if the makers were hoping for US distribution. Maybe in Wilder's case he had got used to having to get around it, rather than self-censor, and hadn't developed enough restraint as a result.

      I like Five Graves to Cairo as well and Stalag 17. It's a shame he didn't do more on WWII, he created good Nazi bad guys. Or maybe he just cast them well. Interesting that Stroheim (Five Graves) and Preminger (Stalag 17) were both directors too.

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  2. I liked the book, I have it in my collection, but I agree, it isn't all that interesting. The problem is that Crowe isn't as knowledgeable about Wilder as Truffaut was about Hitch, and it shows. Like Hitch, Wilder was an auteur ("deception" is a recurrent motif in many of his movies), so it's a pity that the book doesn't have many in depth discussions. Also, I hate to say this, but by many accounts, Wilder wasn't a very nice person and his unpleasant personality gets old quickly. "Hitchcock/Truffaut" and "Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversations with Stig Bjorkman" are better...

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    1. You've got me thinking about the deception thing now, and I can definitely see that.

      It's interesting that you say he wasn't that nice a person, because there's something about his caginess in the book, and the fact that he's so obviously interested in sex, that makes me wonder about that, especially given the themes of some of his films.

      I did read the Truffaut book fairly recently and enjoyed it. I like that he's enthusiastic, but honest about the films he doesn't think work so well. I don't know the Allen one, so I might check it out

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