On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder by Ed Sikov is an in-depth biography of the late Oscar winning filmmaker, who died in 2002.
When Ernst Lubitsch died in 1947, all of his secrets went to the grave. But who was there to succeed him in terms of his style of filmmaking? The answer to the question comes in the form of another filmmaker from the Continent, Billy Wilder.
Double Indemnity. The Lost Weekend. Sunset Boulevard. Ace in the Hole. Some Like It Hot. The Apartment. The list of films goes on and on.
Sikov covers every film in Wilder’s filmography–some more in-depth then others. With some of these films, there were certainly battles with the censors. If you’re familiar with classic movies, you should also be familiar with the Production Code and their rules. Take Double Indemnity, for example. This is a film considered to be unfilmable because of how the book depicts a crime being committed. In order to please the censors, there had to be some changes for the big screen. Similarly, the Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend had to make major changes to see the big screen. While the film is also about an alcoholic, it loses a big plot point from the novel. The major point being that Ray Milland’s character is closeted in the book.
We get into the relationship between Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. The two were prolific writers together but were also polar opposites. Wilder would team up with other writers but I.A.L. Diamond would be the only other major writing partner up to the end.
Going into the late 1950s, there was a healthy mix of comedy and drama in Wilder’s filmography. After 1960, it’s nothing but comedy. There are several films starring Jack Lemmon as the duo frequently worked together of the final 20 years of Wilder’s directing career. Wilder also directed Lemmon and Walter Matthau in a few of their team-ups. In another universe, it would have been Wilder behind the camera for The Odd Couple.
I’ve often read how Wilder was interested in adapting Schindler’s List for the big screen. At one point, there was talk of maybe Steven Spielberg producing while Wilder directed or vice versa. Spielberg ended up directing the film and winning the Oscar. But just think what could have been–to have gone out on a high rather than with Buddy Buddy.
The most disappointing thing about the book is that Wilder doesn’t do any new interviews with Sikov. In the epilogue, new for the paperback edition, the filmmaker wonders why he wasn’t contacted. The truth is that he was but declined. Regardless of the matter, the book features plenty of quotes from other source material. I do feel that this is a definitive biography as we get the story of his life from his 1906 birth up to the very end in 2002.
On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder is a solid addition to the canon of books about the best filmmakers in history.