Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Monday, March 14, 2016
That Extra Five Yards
Let me back up for a minute. Near the end of the year I started paying visits to Billy Wilder at the cemetery where he resides in Westwood. There were reasons for doing this, which I’d mostly rather keep to myself, and there was something strangely helpful about it. It was like I needed to be there talking to him, pouring out all my troubles to the legend. I pictured him rolling his eyes at it all and not really caring about what I was saying, but it felt good anyway. I even read him the blog piece I was working on at the time (meant to be a ‘final one’ just in case I decided not to do this anymore, but so much for that), imagining him slightly annoyed that it wasn’t quite as finished as I first claimed but he allowed that there was at least a spine to it--you can go read it again to see if he was right--and that imagined encouragement helped me finish it a few days later.
This is all a roundabout sort of way of getting at my recent mindset and why I haven’t been writing lately. For a lot of January I pretty much watched only Billy Wilder films, several multiple times, all of them I’d seen before of course. I guess I was looking for something in them, while also considering the inherent cynicism in those films along with how I was feeling. Are some of them really that contemptuous of humanity or just simply reporting the way it is? Deep down, does anyone really expect their own Miss Kubelik to show up just past midnight on New Year’s Eve? I’d rather not get a definitive answer to that question so for now, I’ll just focus on one of those multiple Wilder films I spent the month watching, maybe one of the nastier ones. THE FORTUNE COOKIE is an interesting case, the film that paired Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau for the first time, gave Matthau his Oscar and solidified his movie star status yet still feels a little like one of Wilder’s problem films. As enjoyable in its own acidic way that you’d expect, the result is maybe too blunt at times almost as if Wilder is trying to smother any pleasure the laughs are giving us in an attempt to get at the truth of what’s going on. He was even surprisingly critical about the film in interviews later on saying, “It didn't impress the critics and didn't make money and it disappeared in the big garbage pit along with a year of my life.” Which is maybe a little harsh but he’s entitled to think that even if it did get an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, the last one Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond ever received. The film came just a few years after the flop of his sex farce KISS ME, STUPID and it almost feels like THE FORTUNE COOKIE is the work of someone who has just gone through an extreme trauma like a divorce (which, for the record, he hadn’t) and this was his ferocious shout back at the world in response. It’s still pretty funny, and pointed, at least in parts. It’s Billy Wilder.
After television cameraman Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is accidentally injured during a Cleveland Browns game when running back Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich) accidentally crashes into him, brother-in-law “Whiplash” Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau) comes up with a plan to fake Harry’s injuries for a major lawsuit, getting as much money as possible. Harry, knowing Willie all too well, wants no part of the plan until the possibility of the return of his ex-wife Sandy (Judi West), anxious to get part of any payout herself, is dangled in front of him. So he goes along with it, strapping himself into a corset and wheelchair and not moving with the guilt stricken Boom Boom tending to his every need while awaiting Sandy’s return. But while Willie turns the screws on the lawyers who are doing everything they can to prove the whole thing is a fake, Harry begins to see what it’s all doing to Boom Boom, putting Willie’s carefully developed plan to get as much money as possible from the insurance company in jeopardy.
THE APARTMENT may or may not have been Wilder’s greatest work (hell, it may or may not be one of my three favorite films of all time—actually, it definitely is) but it also laid out his stylistic approach for much of the 60s: stark visuals in widescreen by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle defiantly resisting Technicolor, cynicism coursing through the veins of seemingly every single person, the lead character concealing the dirty business that’s really going on, the folly of living without any consequences. Written of course by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, the structure of THE FORTUNE COOKIE seems to strip away all but the basic essentials to get the plot across with chapter titles to each section laying out the bones of the scheme, simple white-on-black credits and even the sets feel deliberately bare giving the whole thing a no-nonsense, just-the-dirty-facts approach. It could even be considered the third in a Wilder-American Dream trilogy closing out the themes that were first explored in THE APARTMENT and KISS ME, STUPID (the international scope of ONE, TWO, THREE seems slightly removed). The greyness of the Cleveland working class vistas that we get glimpses of even contrast nicely with the steel towers of Manhattan in THE APARTMENT and the barren desert town of KISS ME, STUPID. The threads of deception and fraud familiar from so much of Wilder seem to come to a head here with the emotional wreckage bound to occur from it all.
The plot device of why nice guy Jack Lemmon would ever go along with such a scheme (Gingrich says the two of them are in it together, “Straight down the line,” using a phrase from DOUBLE INDEMNITY) is explained by the possibility of winning back his nightmare of an ex-wife who couldn’t care less about him. It’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t already know this deep down but in the world of THE FORTUNE COOKIE it doesn’t matter. It’s saying that all of humanity is just waiting for that one false brass ring to grab on to get our dreams back, the ones that long ago flew away, those few extra yards Boom Boom was going for that caused the accident in the first place (“Everybody tries for that extra five yards and sometimes people get in our way,” Sandy replies when she hears the story). Happiness is a mirage, the film is saying, to try for that instead of a straight payout is just being a chump. Even the recurring use of the song “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” isn’t based on any genuine feelings beyond Harry’s hollow dreams of his wife returning. From the guilt Boom Boom feels for reasons that are a fraud to the guilt Harry feels over that almost nothing is real that could result in actual pleasure, any sort of connection to anyone else is bound to be a lie.
While Lemmon is playing what could be the flawed Wilder surrogate caught between good and evil, valiantly trying to be the ‘mensch’ that Dr. Dreyfus tells him to be in THE APARTMENT, Matthau is just as plainly Wilder as he sees the world that really is—cold, calculating, knowing all the angles, the embodiment of the worldview the movie really has. The result contains some of Wilder/Diamond’s most incisive and underappreciated dialogue (“Do you suppose he’s telling the truth?” “I wouldn’t put anything past him.”) that continually seems determined to cut through the needed laughs while going for the jugular. Almost everyone is figuring out their own angles beyond any concern for Harry’s supposed condition and it’s all simply business, nothing more. Even the nuns in the hospital are betting on the big game. The overall coarseness almost seems like an ultimate statement on humanity by Wilder, minus one key element. “It’s about greed, love, compassion, human understanding, but not sex,” Wilder told Army Archerd in Variety at the time, presumably a reaction to the flop of KISS ME, STUPID and there’s barely even the thought of it beyond Willie worrying about what’s going to happen in Harry’s apartment during Sandy’s first night there.
That lack of passion in THE FORTUNE COOKIE seems part of the point but it also makes the film as constricted as the brace Willie forces Harry to wear. THE FORTUNE COOKIE is allowed to break out from that feeling mainly through Matthau’s joy in the scheme, humming classical music for his own pleasure and along with the bouncy Andre Previn music feels like the whole thing feels like it could have moved just a bit more fleetingly. It feels a little too cooped up in the bland apartment where much of the second half takes place, never becoming its own character the way the titular dwelling did in THE APARTMENT. It’s funny but also deliberately stifling, the laughs come with a bucket of ice water poured over the head, we’re aware of the pain that’s really going on behind that charade. For Wilder, it’s a world where genuine tragedy is nothing more than a brief story on the news before the commercial. Everyone is a fake to one degree or another, the film is saying. When Harry opens up the fortune cookie of the title to find the old “You can fool all of the people some of the time…” quote (a lot to fit on there, not that I imagine it was a big concern for Wilder) and as far as the film is concerned, even if you can fool all of the people all of the time, so what? If THE APARTMENT was about learning how to be a mensch, a “human being”, THE FORTUNE COOKIE is about finally building enough character, enough guts, to admit the truth, whatever that really is. Otherwise you’re just another chump in a corset which is no way to go through life. Of course, in getting this message across it’s no THE APARTMENT but, in fairness, few films are.
The one thing that anyone seems to agree on when it comes to THE FORTUNE COOKIE is Walter Matthau and his dynamic portrayal of Whiplash Willie, following up his recent scene stealing work in MIRAGE from the previous year and his success on Broadway in THE ODD COUPLE. He takes what is essentially a supporting character and makes the whole movie revolve around him, even to the point that it was released in the UK as MEET WHIPLASH WILLIE. Matthau doesn’t take control of the film he takes control of the world of the film, fitting in perfectly with the harsh black & white look as if he won’t let someone so much as leave the frame without his permission to fleece something off them. As Gingrich sees the scheme in front of him plain as day there’s joy in simply watching Matthau work things out in his head. As expected, there’s even enormous pleasure in listening to him answer a phone. Top-billed Jack Lemmon obviously cedes the focus to him since it’s clear who has the better part but he still grounds the film in his everyman quality. It’s almost as if he wants to be the lead in the nice Jack Lemmon Technicolor romantic comedy of the time, he just can’t admit that he isn’t and this whole thing is as much his fault as anyone, making his bitterness grow as things get deeper into the plot and deeper.
There’s added interest in the supporting roles but it’s also where some of the problems turn up. Ron Rich as Boom Boom is likable but that’s about it. In one of the few substantial African-American roles in Wilder’s filmography it feels a little like the director trying to engage more with the outside world of 1966 and not quite nailing it. With multiple girls scattered across the country Boom Boom isn’t even meant to be a total innocent but he comes off as so nice and guilt-ridden that something else is needed, either in the performance or on the page, some extra level of bite so he makes sense in this world. There are even a few comments that Harry makes, expecting the chicken dinner Boom Boom is preparing to be fried, where it’s tough to know if Wilder is making a comment on Harry’s tone deafness to the situation of if it’s just the film doing that. Judi West, playing essentially an unrepentant bitch as the ex-wife, brings to the role as many layers as she can but there’s just not enough to her on the page and even when I first saw the film long ago, young and stupid(er), I thought the character might be a bit much. Watching it now the character and her behavior makes more sense to me but it still doesn’t feel like enough. Even ultra-cynical nastiness has to be fully clarified, after all. I can’t help but imagine what a still-alive Marilyn Monroe in 1966 willing to demolish her image could have done with this role, built up to more of a co-lead. The shifting focus might also be a problem with the film—it bounces back and forth between Harry/Willie, Harry/ Boom Boom and Harry/Sandy so much that it never fully becomes about any of them. Or maybe we just want more of Walter Matthau.
Some of the smaller roles work better as if Wilder knows exactly what to do with these actors to make his points. Cliff Osmond is given a Hitler mustache as the private detective trying to prove the scheme is a fake, Harry Davis as a concerned doctor, Sig Rumann (who goes all the way back to NINOTCHKA with Wilder) as a disbelieving specialist along with early appearances by William Christopher of M*A*S*H and Robert Doqui, later in NASHVILLE and ROBOCOP. Character actor Billy Beck, a familiar face from several bit parts in Wilder films, appears briefly near the end in a scene with two stadium workers playing a game with numbers on the jerseys, proving another example of how everyone always has an angle, they’re always willing to do whatever necessary for just one small victory. THE FORTUNE COOKIE isn’t one of Wilder’s best but maybe like other films by great directors that fall just short it still feels essential to his world view and what once felt almost too nasty just plays in my own personal world of 2016 as pragmatic, the way it really is. But, like I’ve already indicated, maybe that’s my mood. An early beat of the marching band at the game starting up right after Harry is injured says it all, it’s a world of trying to avoid the reality of what’s really going on with music as loud as possible. Ultimately, the reality of it all only hurts as we try to convince ourselves that things aren’t the way they really are. Painful truths are withheld. Beautiful blondes cut you out of life with the deepest insults imaginable. All you’re left with are the depths of self-hatred followed by the darkness which consumes you. And there’s not much that can be done about that. Except go talk to Billy Wilder about it, I suppose.
Which is something I did again on New Year’s Eve, a holiday forever associated with Wilder thanks to SUNSET BOULEVARD and THE APARTMENT. As I stood there thinking about his films and all the other crap that was in my mind I suddenly heard a brief, valuable piece of advice in his voice that seemed like it was meant to help get me through the coming year. I’ll keep it to myself for now, but it meant something. And I’m actually not sure if continuing to write this blog goes against it or not. I’ve actually gone again a few more times since including on Oscar Day, a few hours before the show started. It seemed appropriate somehow. Unfortunately the section he’s in (along with Jack Lemmon and a few other notables) was taped off, it seemed due to some landscaping work. I tried to stand outside the area and converse with him, but no good. It was too far away. Sometimes you have no choice but to stand outside of it all, keeping your feelings to yourself and not much can be done about that, except maybe just watch a few more Billy Wilder films looking for that one ray of hope. But you do what you have to do. Even at your very best, you can only be who you are.