Tuesday, February 21, 2012

BILLY WILDER ON SUNSET BLVD. (NOT HIS MOVIE...HIS HOUSE ON SUNSET, DUMBKOPF!)



In the late 1940's, Billy Wilder was involved with two projects having to do with Sunset Blvd. Yes, yes, one was the movie--which takes place in a 1920's Spanish Mansion at 10036 Sunset Blvd. (this is the address William Holden gives to Nancy Olsen at the end when he invites her over to witness his real--er--situation). (By the way, the house in the movie was located nowhere near that address--it was, in fact, situated on the unlikely corner of Wilshire Blvd. and Western Ave, and was owned by a former wife of J. Paul Getty--if that's your idea of a good time). The other Wilder/Sunset Blvd. project also involved a house--one that he commissioned Charles and Ray Eames to build for him on a three acre parcel of land located at Sunset and Foothill Drive in Beverly Hills.

Exactly when the house was commissioned and for what reason it was never built remain something of a mystery. But read this excellent Architectural Digest piece to know more about the house itself. "A House For Billy Wilder", as the Eames--in a fit of mad whimsy--named their design, is a mostly glass affair of 4600 square feet that appears to sit in the middle of the three acre site that Wilder had purchased. The article plays up Wilder's then brand-new union with his second wife, the jazzy/classy/sharp- as-a-fresh-cut-diamond Audrey Wilder (still with us in that same apartment I wrote about a few months ago) as the inspiration of the house. It was Wilder's turn for the mid-life-change-of-house-decor-wife phase of life and this house was to personify the then 44 year old directors "new look". Only before things got underway, according to the article, Audrey Wilder nixed the whole project on account of their being too much glass in the house to keep clean.

This seems plausible until you read it back to yourself a few times and realize how little sense it makes. Who would be cleaning the glass--her? And how often do people with houses with walls of glass need to get them cleaned anyway? The big question for me having to do with the Eames's design has to do with Wilder's legendary and rapidly growing art collection. Where does it go? There a smattering of wall space, but not nearly enough to display the entire booty. And lovely as it to imagine the above house alight in the Beverly Hills nightime with works by Picasso and Braque and Matisse and Calder and Chagall a-glowing from within, it does feel a little...exposed. Doesn't it? Even if surrounded by high hedged walls and gates, the glass house as a display case for a modern art collection has me worried. I suppose I would agree with the Wilder's and go for the twenty-four-hour-security-building-on-Wilshire option.

But there's another story about this "house that never was" lurking out there that I find intriguing enough to waste your and my time with. (It won't take long). It involves the first Mrs. Wilder--a woman named Judith Badner (who was mother to Wilder's only child) and a show-biz journalist named Maurice Zolotow. It goes like this:

Back in the 1970's, before Cameron Crowe made it cool for everybody to like Billy Wilder again, Billy Wilder was a once-revered now in eclipse filmmaker, walking the streets of Beverly Hills, malacca cane in hand, playing the part of a still energetic moviemaker waiting quasi-patiently for the world to rediscover him. Indeed there was something of the Norma Desmond about the 70's era Wilder--with his natty blazers and Fedoras, his vintage Mercedes, his art-filled penthouse and provocative yarns of Hollywood's yesteryears, he was defiantly--almost proudly--out of touch. "We didn't need words, we had faces then", intones Norma. Whereas Wilder might have said: "We didn't need faces, we had words then". (I was recently reminded of a delightful example of the Wilderian way with words from his and Brackett's "Ninotchka" script: Melyvn Douglas suggests going out. Garbo says it's too late--"it's twelve o'clock." "No," purrs Douglas, "it's midnight.") Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were still in there pitching--but if the project didn't have Lemmon and Matthau attached then it seemed unlikely to get made.

Then one day an old acquaintance knocks on his door--show-biz journalist Maurice Zolotow, a guy who'd been writing about Broadway and Hollywood personalities since the '40's and had several quite enjoyable books to his credit. (My favorite is an early collection of profiles called "There's No People Like Show People"). Zolotow is a true believer and sees in Wilder a fascinating biographical subject--a living history of Hollywood as well as a singular personality and artist. He proposes a book on Wilder's life. Wilder agrees. And soon, apparently, things begin to go wrong. In the finished book, "Billy Wilder in Hollywood" (published in 1977) Zolotow writes about how difficult Wilder's barbed attacks were for him to withstand.

"He said I had no feeling for a gag. Every time I tried to report one of his gags, I ruined the punch line. He just took me apart right there in the his office. He took me apart culturally and as a human being. I finally said, "Billy, when I leave here, the way I feel, I think I"m going to drive my car over a cliff and kill myself." "Aaagh," he said leering at me, "you make my mouth water."

Twenty some years later, Wilder had his own point of view about what was going on with his erstwhile friend/biographer. As he told Cameron Crowe:

"Well, when you saw him (Zolotow) he was so haggard you wanted to cry. He was in AA. He wanted to make a drunk out of me. No way I can drink more than two martinis. I don't know, I just threw him out of the office after the first two weeks. Then he came back. But fortunately very few people read it, and once they read it, they didn't believe it because I'm not like this...I just didn't want to have that book around me. I just hated it."

In Zolotow's defense, I must say that it was the first book I read on Wilder and that it made the unusual nature of this fascinating man come quite alive to this particular adolescent. It also made me look at the world in the way that he describes Wilder looking at it--Wilder saw art in all things, from paintings to razors to ashtrays to sculpture to furniture to NFL football to how to properly mix oil and vinegar and salt and apply it to a fresh piece of bread.

Now what has all this to do with the Eames house? Well, Zolotow writes a moving chapter about Wilder's first marriage, speaking of how he and Judith--a strikingly elegant, sophisticated dame--grew apart during the war years:

"When they met and fell in love, Judith had been a woman with an eye for fashion and a love of exterior and interior decoration. But now...all these aspects of high living were empty. She had been shaken by the war. While the war had made Billy conscious of life's slender thread so that he clung more intensely to sensual joys, she began seeking new values, different roads."

One of the areas of disagreement in the marriage had to do with where they lived. Their house was located at the top of Coldwater Canyon in an area known as Hidden Valley. Although no longer considered remote by any standards, in the 1940's it was something of an outpost--a dusty, distant canyon area filled with ranches, gardens, ducks (I suppose) and all that. Judith liked it--she seems to have been turning into something of an early "organimaniac". Wilder disliked it--it was too far from the Beverly Hills cafe society haunts that he always preferred. The Eames house, according to Zolotow, was conceived as a potential solution to the faltering marriage.

"He (Wilder) bought three acres on Sunset Boulevard and Foothill Drive. It was an unbelievable parcel of the the best land in one of the best neighborhoods in the country. It was large enough so Judith could have her gardens. And yet he would be near his friends and parties... only the house was never built."

The Wilder's divorced in 1947. By then they'd moved from Hidden Valley to a house in the flats of Beverly Hills (704 North Beverly--if you must know...) and Judith decamped with their eight year old daughter for Brooklyn Heights, New York. (To raise money for Ukrainian immigrants perhaps?) Wilder had met Audrey Young several years earlier when she appeared as a bit player in "The Lost Weekend". They married in 1949. And that's when the Eames house project seems to have been revived. Why, though? Perhaps it was a case of salvaging a good project that had been developed for faulty reasons and in the bargain reinvigorating it with fresh purpose--in this case Wilder's new marriage to the woman who would remain the love of his life.

Only once Audrey got a load of all that glass, all bets were off. Really?

Do we believe the much younger than her new husband Audrey--a former big-band singer and occasional actress--was really all that tough and sophisticated? Or underneath the veneer was she a bit wide-eyed and perhaps miserably aware that she was trying to fill some very big shoes? Indeed, was Audrey's worldly predecessor--the stylish and unknowably remote Judith--a tad too similar to the unseen heroine of a non-Wilder film, in this case Hitchcock's "Rebecca"?

And would this have made the unbuilt (but planned for Judith) Eames house a mid-century Mandalay? Even if it remained only an enticing set of plans? Do we buy the "too much windex" story or do we go with the "rid all memories of the previous wife" story? Am I being too obvious? One of my favorite Wilder aphorisms is: "In movies everything must be obvious." To which a collaborator responded: "But Billy, what about subtleties?" "Make the subtleties obvious also", barked Wilder.

In any case the house was never built and a few years later the Wilder's decamped to their charmingly modest apartment digs. But here's a strange thing: though Wilder sold off two acres of the lot, he kept one acre and left it vacant and untended. And it was the one that fronted right on Sunset Blvd. I remember passing by it for many years as a kid, wondering why in the midst of lush B.H. there was a single weed-choked lot. Perhaps retaining the last remains of the "house that never was" was Wilder's way of retaining the last memory of the union that couldn't last. And he made sure to keep the parcel that could" be easily seen by him every time he drove down Sunset Boulevard.



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