Tuesday, September 20, 2011
No, I'm not talking about Billy Wilder's "The Apartment". I'm talking about his apartment. The one he and Audrey lived in together from 1957 until his death in 2002. (I believe she still lives there). That's what I'm talking about here. Not interested? Then don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out of the Wilshire Terrace.
For some reason, the living quarters of Billy Wilder--my personal movie God--always fascinated me. From a young age I knew that he resided in an building on the corner of Wilshire Blvd. and Beverly Glen known as the Wilshire Terrace. The question is: why?
Aren't famed movie directors supposed to live in lavish spreads with guest houses, detatched projection facilities, manicured lawns and unused swimming pools (or in the case of Wilder perhaps one with a dead body floating face down in it?) Isn't the whole idea of having money in LA to spend it on a house that publicly trumpets your taste, personality and I'm-a-success-in-the-movie-business status? What was a public and successful figure like Wilder doing living in an apartment building for all those years?
The truth is, I don't know. But I've always enjoyed speculating on the reasons. Money isn't a factor as the Wilshire Terrace has always been a top-dollar real estate attraction that fussily insists on full payment for your condo up front plus a healthy annual
maintenance fee. Wilder was always a well-salaried man and over the years amassed one of the country's major art collections which he eventually sold for something north of sixty million dollars. Perhaps it was all that art hanging on his walls that caused him to opt for 24 hour security?
There's a clue, though, in a description of Wilder from Maurice Zolotow's book "Billy Wilder in Hollywood". Zolotow describes Wilder as having personal tastes that "veer toward fin de siecle decadence." What does this mean, though? Well, according to my friend J. Fred Wikipedia:
Fin de siècle (French pronunciation: [fɛ̃ də sjɛkl]) is French for "end of the century". The expression fin de siècle usually refers to the end of the 19th century, in Europe, France and/or Paris. It has connotations of decadence, which are seen as typical for the last years of a culturally vibrant period (La Belle Époque at the turn of the 19th century and until World War I), and of anticipative excitement about, or despair facing, impending change, or both, that is generally expected when a century or time period draws to a close. That the expression is in French probably comes from the fact that the fin de siècle is particularly associated with certain late 19th-century French-speaking circles in Paris and Brussels, exemplified by artists like Stéphane Mallarmé and Claude Debussy, movements like Symbolism, and in works like Oscar Wilde's Salomé (originally written in French and premiered in Paris)—which connects the idea of the fin de siècle also to the Aesthetic movement.
Well, that explains everything. Actually I see what Zolotow means. What could be more decadent than being a top-of-the-food-chain filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles but who chooses to live in an apartment building? It's as if he was saying: who cares where I am--what does it matter? Who cares what you think of my status? Or what I think of it for that matter? Who has time for gardening--or for paying others to garden? Why bother with public displays of lavishness? Why bother with taking out your own garbage? For a Euro cosmopolite like Wilder--whose interests in life were writing, paintings, collecting object d'art and acquiring masses of Bass Wejuns (a loafer he particularly enjoyed)--apartment life might appear not only attractive but absolutely necessary. The availability of full staff service, the slyness inherent in the modesty of the surroundngs being belied by the fifty-million dollars of art on the walls--all of these things are very Wilderian. Add to that the lack of children (he had a daughter from a previous marriage but no children with Audrey) and you have a lifestyle that feels very Bob Newhart/Suzanne Pleshette. A groovy couple, a groovy apartment. Dinners out at The Bistro or Romanoffs. A swinging couple leading a swinging life in LA in the swinging 50's and 60's (and 70's and for that matter 80's and 90's and...Jesus Wilder lived a long time...)
But what kind of apartment did the Wilder's live in? Descriptions are few and far between which always led me to believe that it was small. Then again the Wilshire Terrace appears from the exterior to contain duplexes with double height ceilings.
All of this has finally been solved, thank God, with the appearence of a floor plan of Wilshire Terrace apartment. The plan shows what is clearly the Wilder apartment which is quite spacious--but not a duplex. Indeed the two-story effect as perceived from the exterior is precisely that--an effect, and a very mid-century modern one at that. Apparently the terraces are two stories but the apartments are one. On every other floor a smaller apartment--which sits atop one that opens onto the terrace--has rooms that look over the terrace below but which are somehow blocked from seeing down by means of clever sightlines. Read all about it in that very interesting link above. Indeed you'll know more than you ever needed to know about the Wilshire Terrace once you've done so.
The Wilder apartment, as you'll see on the floorplan, is a three bedroom though one of those bedrooms is a narrow maids room. The public spaces are surprisingly spacious and have an open-floorplan flow that feels more like a hilltop poolside house than an aparment. The two-story terrace must have also provided a rush of drama once it was revealed to visitors. The kitchen is narrow and windowless--but even this kind of works. Would the WIlder's ever be the types to have an eat-in-kitchen? I won't bother answering that question. Just look at the couple pictured above.
Billy Wilder and his apartment can be seen together in the below clips from Michel Ciment's 1982 documentary about the director. We are clearly in the den/office which is sighted dead-center in the floorplan--note the funny indoor trellis that Ciment is sitting against (Part 2, 10:45). Much art is visible (part 2, 9:31) and the place is cluttered in a pleasing way. By no means is the house intimidating--it is causal, elegant and filled with expensive stuff. Note also a shot of Billy and Audrey breakfasting on their terrace (Part 1, 3:28). Tres chic. From this film we also learn that he drove a silver Mercedes (Part 2, 9:05) and at that time in his life was smoking cigars (part 1, 3:45). Wilder had been a rabid cigarette smoker most of his life--indeed there are few pictures of Wilder pre-1970 in which he isn't holding a cigarette) but appears to be satisfied here with his Panatelas. Later in life he quit all forms of tobacco and chewed tic-tacs.
Wilder also had an office in the Writers and Artist building in Beverly HIlls and a house in Malibu--again rather more modest than you might expect. Both are also visible in the Ciment documentary. In the Malibu section we learn that Wilder was expert at flying a box kite. But we'll discuss that another time...
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 10:15 AM
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Meet Miss Brown, a Pittsburgh public school teacher who, along with a young Italian boy named Dominick, found herself the subject of an NBC news documentary which aired in 1963. The film, "An Experiment In Excellence", was directed by my father Frank De Felitta and it's my pleasure to share it with you below (I've posted the first half--the entire thing will be up over the next few days).
Like most of my fathers other NBC documentaries, the film is both a stirring emotional journey as well as a time capsule of the era in which it was made. The films were made between 1962-1968 and thus collectively serve as a record of a very specific era
in American history. Whether covering the generation's artists ("The American Image"), the life of a young intern ("Emergency Ward") or the struggles of the south during the civil rights era ("Mississippi: A Self Portrait"), the sense of the times is alive and beautifully rendered in all of them.
In this film you get a look at the public school system of a typical American city in the mid-sixties. The films premise is that America has juiced up its educational efforts in a bid to compete with the Russians (Sputnik is referenced in the films opening seconds). In spite of all the new high tech advances that have been made (which appears to be limited to flashcards), the simple excellence of a devoted teacher has been forgotten. Miss Brown is retiring this year. And the film chronicles her devotion to spending extra time and effort teaching one nine year old with learning problems, Dominik.
You may find Miss Brown charmless and her teaching methods a tad insensitive (Dominick is forced to demonstrate his lack of reading ability to the class. Miss Brown then compounds this cruelty by making the smart kid--a little jerk named Kirk--read the sentence properly). Nonetheless, she is a good old-fashioned teacher with a real devotion to advancing this boy's opportunities in his new country (his family is from Italy and speaks little or no English at home. This is explained as the reason for Dominicks slowness though to my eyes there's a touch of Asperger's going on as well).
It's a lovely film about a forgotten style of "learning" and the simple dignity of Miss Brown and the sadness in the eyes of her
nine year old student is unutterably moving. In the words of Orson Welles (describing "Make Way For Tomorrow"): "it could make a stone cry."
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 1:07 PM