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BILLY WILDER WAS NEARLY READY FOR HIS CLOSE UP

Ever the rebel, Billy Wilder was determined to take a florid story by Tom Tryon and turn it into a movie that would go against the Hollywood grain--which meant no nudity or special effects and not even one Sue Mengers client. My New York Times interview with the great man was published on 9/3/76. --Guy Flatley

Billy Wilder, who applied a wicked scalpel to the underbelly of Hollywood in the classic "Sunset Boulevard," is at it again. He and his collaborator, I.A. L. Diamond, are now writing an adaptation of "Fedora," one of four kinky tales of Hollywood horror that comprise Thomas Tryon’s novel, "Crowned Heads," in which the central character, an eerily ageless movie queen, is a cross between Greta Garbo and "Sunset Boulevard’s" Norma Desmond. The other day, the 70-year-old director of such enduring films as "Double Indemnity," "The Lost Weekend," "Ace in the Hole," "Love in the Afternoon," "Witness for the Prosecution," "Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment" and "The Fortune Cookie," took a break and talked about his latest project.

"I know that some of our literary epicures pooh-pooh Tom Tryon’s book," he said. "It’s just too entertaining for their ascetic tastes. Of course, I realize that the whole caboodle may crumble at the first preview, but let’s just say the blueprints look very promising. There is no cast yet. We need Garbo, age 35, and Spencer Tracy, age 50. Any ideas?


"The picture is set mostly in Greece and in Paris, but we plan to do all the interiors right here in Hollywood. It’s more comfortable and a lot cheaper. One martini at the Plaza Athenee in Paris is $6. The olive is optional. We’ll start shooting at the end of January, for the simple reason that I never shoot until after the Superbowl. And I make absolutely sure to finish before the World Series. Like one of Caesar Chavez’s grapepickers, I consider moviemaking a seasonal employment.

"What makes 'Fedora' very special among today’s movies is that it has no special effects, no stunts, no demonic possession, no nudity--frontal or otherwise--and a conspicuous absence of orgasms and Sensurround. It is not even a sequel, although we were seriously considering calling it 'Fedora II.' And since Universal is a well-to-do company, we have no problems with financing, which is not the case with even the richest independent producers today. To make a picture bankable, they had better come up with the double-barreled combination of Redford and Newman or Newman and McQueen or McQueen and Hoffman or Hoffman and Redford--all variations on a theme by the agent Sue Mengers.

"But Dino De Laurentiis is a smart cookie who would not go for the prices or the percentages being asked by those stars. So he simply built his monster, King Kong. It cost him $8 million, but there will be no 15 percent of the gross for the big ape and, of course, Dino has got him for all the sequels. However, I think that the good Neopolitan lawyer outsmarted himself by not giving King Kong any sex organs. This means there will be no ‘Son of King Kong’ or ‘King Kong Meets Deep Throat.’ "

Where will all the Hollywood folly end?

"Now that the agents are running the business, it’s as if the barbers’ union decided to expand into brain surgery," says the cheerfully cynical Mr. Wilder. "And with all of these cycles and recycles, and the audiences narrowing and the San Andreas fault widening, I have the feeling that we are heading for ‘The Last Days of Pompeii II.’"

 

Editor's Note: Wilder eventually picked Marthe Keller and William Holden to play the Garbo and Tracy-like characters in "Fedora," which was released to so-so reviews in 1978.