Monday, March 30, 2009

Quote of the Day (Billy Wilder, on Marilyn Monroe)

"I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and my accountant, and they tell me I am too old and too rich to go through this again."—Writer-director Billy Wilder, on working with the chronically late Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, quoted in Paul Peachey, “Billy Wilder, The Gruff Filmmaker Who Gave Marilyn Monroe Her Best Roles, Dies at 95,” The Independent, March 29, 2002

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Seven Like It Hot, voted as the number-one comedy of all time two years ago by the American Film Institute—and #14 among films of all kinds by AFI. I’m not sure it would get my vote—Wilder’s own The Apartment, a satire of postwar office business and sexual politics, cuts deeper, as sharp in its way as Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road or cable TV’s Mad Men, and yet offers a more positive take on the transformation wrought by love.

But Wilder’s 1959 breakneck comedy about two jazz musicians (played to uproarious effect by Tony Curtis and especially Jack Lemmon), disguising themselves as women to avoid the Chicago mob following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, might pack more enjoyment per frame than any other comedy I can recall.

For a movie filled with so much fun, its production was grueling—much of it courtesy of Monroe, still at the height of her popularity and allure, but already beginning the descent that ended in her death three years later.

Seldom has any actress been trashed so thoroughly by her director and male co-star as Monroe was by Wilder and Curtis. Time, however, can permit perspective, self-knowledge, candor and occasionally forgiveness. In later years, both Wilder and Curtis would speak of Monroe with a rueful recognition that, no matter how aggravating Monroe could be, she was also instrumental in the enduring popularity of one of the true milestones in their filmographies.

Wilder might have been spoiled by working twice (Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon) with Audrey Hepburn, whose talent was only exceeded by a professionalism and warmth that made virtually every man on the set—from the lowliest gaffer to the leading man—fall in love with her.

In contrast, Monroe’s tardiness added to the cost of filming, and her groggy inability to recall lines when she did arrive on the set complicated every scene. (It didn’t help that Monroe was pregnant during filming. Sadly, it ended, as with her other pregnancies, in a miscarriage.)

The difficulties created by Monroe were legion—the two- and three-hour morning waits; the 50-plus takes of single scenes; the filming at the Hotel Coronado in San Diego (so that Monroe would not consume even more time by being transported to the set).

Wilder’s revenge didn’t end with her banishment from the wrap party at the end of filming. He immediately let loose with comments like the one above, and The Apartment contains a caricature so obvious that, even with a blonde with a breathy voice, the filmmaker felt it necessary to have one character say: “I can’t pass this up—she looks like Marilyn Monroe.”

After her death, Wilder had reason to think better of the actress that had so exasperated him. He started by admitting that, despite her weaknesses, the camera loved her. Later still, he noted: “She was an absolute genius as a comedic actress, with an extraordinary sense for comedic dialogue. It was a God-given gift. Believe me, in the last fifteen years there were ten projects that came to me, and I'd start working on them and I'd think, 'It's not going to work, it needs Marilyn Monroe.' Nobody else is in that orbit; everyone else is earthbound by comparison.”

Monroe’s pre-Some Like It Hot history with Curtis was complicated by a different factor from the director’s: the two had had an affair nearly 10 years before. Post-production on their classic, when asked what it was like to work with her, the actor said, in one of the most famous judgments ever rendered by one actor on his female co-star, that kissing her was “like kissing Hitler.”

Long after her death, Curtis admitted he had made the remark as a joke in reaction to what he thought of as a stupid question. Maybe some of his feelings about her at the time owed to sexual frustration, as he admitted in his autobiography that during their romantic yacht scene, Monroe made extra sure he was aroused.

Innocence was displayed as much in Monroe’s performance as it had been four years earlier in her prior collaboration with Wilder, The Seven-Year Itch, but her frothiness in the previous film had been replaced this time by vulnerability, at its height during her delivery of “I’m Through With Love.”

Like another blonde who died at age 36, Princess Diana, Monroe became as known for that vulnerability—a private life filled with torment, and dread of the media machine she had previously fed—as she was for her glamour.

It was natural that Elton John would adapt the Bernie Taupin lyrics to their song “Candle in the Wind” for the occasion when “the people’s princess” was buried. To his credit, Elton early on—as Wilder and Curtis eventually did—came to see the screen goddess as “something more than sexual,/More than just our Marilyn Monroe.”

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