Billy Wilder, Dudley Moore

When you live in LA, you hear stories about famous
people. Strange little stories, anecdotes and rumors, many of which
don’t make it into the gossip columns or tabloids, but wander around
town with the defiance of a thick neighborhood stray cat. And because
we live so close to the subjects-sometimes blocks away, sometimes
on the other side of a taco stand-the stories somehow feel more
authentic because a friend of a friend of an associate was actually
there. The rest of the world wonders who Halle Berry was
talking about on Barbara Walters when she refused to name the movie
star ex-beau who hit her so hard that she has lost partial hearing.
If you live in LA, toss a Tic Tac and it’ll bounce off three people
who can tell you with great certainty who she was sniping at.

Dudley Moore (1935 – 2002)

For years, everyone in town “knew” that Dudley Moore
had deteriorated into a forgetful, stumbling drunk. The most public
whisper involved him getting fired from the set of what could have
been his comeback role-as Barbra Streisand’s male confidante in
The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). He was hurriedly replaced
by George Segal. In 1979, Moore had, in fact, replaced Segal after
the latter walked off the set of Blake Edwards’ 10. If Hollywood
is anything, it’s ironic. An acquaintance told me similar sad stories
from the set of Dudley, Moore’s short-lived 1993 TV series.
Still another comrade spoke to me with regret about Moore’s “drunken”
state in 1995 at a tribute to his recently deceased friend and Bedazzled
collaborator, Peter Cook.

But Dudley wasn’t drunk. Yes he was slurring his
words, falling and unable to remember the very lines he had memorized,
but he wasn’t drunk. In 1996, after performing a troubling piano
concert in Australia where he couldn’t quite get his fingers to
do what he wanted, he finally decided to see a doctor. After much
head scratching, a specialist diagnosed Dudley with PSP, progressive
supranuclear palsy, a disease similar to Parkinson’s. We all owed
him a big apology for thinking him a drunk. We should have known
it was all too neat to believe that Dudley had become Arthur Bach,
the character he so brilliantly realized in Arthur (1981),
for which he received a much-deserved Oscar nomination.

Moore won the Golden Globe for Arthur, as
he did two years later for his underappreciated high wire act
in Blake Edwards’ risky Micki and Maude, a confoundingly
sweet comedy about a bigamist with not only two wives, but two
pregnancies as well. There’s a sequence of true comic danger in
an OB-Gyn’s office that Moore performs so impeccably, it must
be seen. But wait for the inevitable widescreen DVD since Edwards’
comic use of the full cinemascope frame suffers terribly in the
“pan & scan” video format. Between those two films, though,
and for years afterward, Moore’s filmography could represent a
community college course in Wrong Movie Choices 101.

Oddly, Dudley Moore would have been the perfect
actor for Billy Wilder to rescue, if only their careers had crisscrossed.
There is certainly more than a little of Jack Lemmon’s seminal
C.C. Baxter from The Apartment in Moore’s overall appeal.
Although Moore was a working actor, musician and stage comedian
for more than 10 years before 10, Wilder’s shining career
was indeed played out by the time he made his painful anti-comedy,
Buddy, Buddy in 1981.

Yet how can you quibble with one turkey when the
same man delivered the ultimate film noirs Double Indemnity
and Sunset Boulevard (yes, it is a film noir) before the
term was even coined? And this is to say nothing of his dramatic
powerhouses like Ace in the Hole (Kirk Douglas at his most
dynamic), Stalag 17 and The Lost Weekend. As well
as such pantheon romantic comedies as Some Like It Hot,
The Apartment and Love in the Afternoon, which all
offer up Wilder’s grudging-and thus all the more affecting-romanticism.
None of these have shown even the slightest signs of age, either…
with the possible exception of The Lost Weekend, arguably
the least Wilder Wilder movie.

Yet what registers most profoundly
about his movies is something so many filmmakers strive for, yet
Wilder achieved: he figured us humans out. In doing so, he could
seamlessly segue (whether from film to film or scene to scene)
from comedy to drama, from cynicism to romance, from a final gunshot
to a closing one-liner, from heartbreak to the triumph of odds-defying
love. He could make you love a bastard or hate the guy with “principles.”
He showed us that the only consistency among humans is their inconsistency,
the contradictions housed in one soul, the stuff that development
people hate but audiences have always understood when served with
Wilder’s level of craft and insight.

Billy Wilder (1906 – 2002)

Like Moore, Wilder ultimately succumbed to pneumonia
after battling a list of illnesses. Since his death, much has been
written about his unfathomably exceptional body of work, his tragic
youth, (during which his mother and stepfather died in the Auschwitz
concentration camp), his famous quotes about Hollywood in specific
and life in general, his lucrative art collecting, his extensive
wardrobe and his daily religious pilgrimage to his Beverly Hills
office well into his 90s.

But I have a strange little LA story you haven’t
heard…

In 1998, the venerable, indestructible American
Cinematheque was finally going to move from its road show screening
facilities to a permanent home at the newly restored Egyptian
Theatre, which it had worked tirelessly to bring about. A commemorative
booklet was created and Hollywood notables were asked for quotes
of endorsement. Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Spike Lee, execs
like Eisner, Diller and Sheinberg all offered sincere but standard
“We need the American Cinematheque because…” testimonials.

On January 14, 1998, Cinematheque programmer Dennis
Bartok was sitting in his office. Billy Wilder, all of 91 years
old, walked in with his equally ancient assistant and asked, “Young
man, do you take dictation?” Dennis said yes, and began to write
Wilder’s Cinematheque endorsement. It reads: “Once upon a time,
I knew a blind director.

He was legally blind. He didn’t want any guide,
anybody with a white cane or a seeing-eye dog. He directed a few
good pictures, really remarkable for a blind man. Then one day-wonder
of wonders-he saw. The idea that he could now see what he directed
before, instead of just shadows and walls. What’s more, he could
write. Boy, did he rewrite! Two pictures altogether-one is still
on the shelf at the studio, the other went straight to the toilet.
He died before he was 70. Poor schnook!” Wilder proofread it,
adamantly detailed every bit of punctuation and underlining, dated
it, signed it and then he left.

Was he writing a parable about himself? Fears that
once he recognized what “A Billy Wilder Film” was, he could no
longer make one? Or was it all just a lark? I certainly don’t
know, but it’s a story you’ve now heard, as I did, from the source.
In LA, you hear stories about famous people. Take it in like the
whispers we all heard about Dudley Moore. Maybe it means something,
maybe it doesn’t. Us poor schnooks!? MM

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