From Publishers Weekly:
German-born Billy Wilder (b. 1906) is one of the last survivors of Hollywood's Golden Age, the writer and director of seminal films like Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot and his masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard. By naming this attempt at a definitive Wilder biography after the savagely humorous 1950 classic, Sikov (Laughing Hysterically: American Screen Comedy of the 1950s) invites a risky comparisonAand pulls it off with a broad, well-documented overview of Wilder's life and work. Considering Wilder "the fastest, funniest, meanest mind in Hollywood," Sikov admires his subject without succumbing to reverence. Wilder is an infamous raconteur, and Sikov wisely lets him hold forth on his self-made legend, including his acerbic assessments of fellow Hollywood players, his outrageous and wrenching accounts of Europe before and after WWII and his steely insights into American culture. Though the preface acknowledges that the work is "unauthorized," it presents so many Wilder quotes (of Raymond Chandler, "I was all that he hated about Hollywood"; of Audrey Hepburn, "After so many drive-in waitresses...here is class") and authoritative accounts of his comings and goings that it reads almost as if Wilder's own hand were behind it. The book's film criticism works best as a tool for gleaning Wilder's sensibility from his scripts and direction. The often irascible, always witty Wilder emerges from these pages as shrewd, eminent and, especially in comparison with today's tepid Hollywood fare, daringly authentic.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Sikov's unauthorized biography of moviemaker Billy Wilder is better written than Kevin Lally's Wilder Times (1996). Otherwise, it is remarkably similar, despite Lally's greater access to Wilder (Sikov confesses he shared Wilder's reaction to the prospect of interviewing for the book: "the idea . . . made him want to throw up"). Both books concentrate on Wilder's movies and their humorous cynicism and sullied idealism about life and love. Sikov places greater emphasis on Wilder's seeming mission to confront American pretensions to virtue with the seamy truth as he saw it; the central Wilder film, then, is the bitter Ace in the Hole, in which an opportunistic reporter transforms an accident into a media circus. Sikov also stresses Wilder's obsession with sexual vulgarity and depicts him as flouting respectability because he felt--prophetically, it turned out--that greater sexual candor onscreen was inevitable as well as honest. Like Lally, Sikov doesn't visually analyze Wilder's movies, and he can't make Wilder personally appealing, either. Still, Sikov's is the better overall appreciation of the monstrously amusing filmmaker. Ray Olson
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