Oct 13, 2021

Book Review--Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge


Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge 
Joseph McBride 
Columbia University Press, 2021 

One of the greatest strengths of Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge is that author Joseph McBride was able to speak to so many key sources over several decades. This includes several conversations with Wilder and the especially valuable insights of Paul Diamond, son of Wilder’s frequent writing partner I.A.L. Diamond and a screenwriter himself. 

This exploration of Wilder’s work focuses on influences in his early life in Europe and his working relationship with Diamond and Charles Brackett, the two key collaborators in his Hollywood career. McBride also dives into public perception of the director and writer. His primary argument: while Billy Wilder has long been known as a cynic, he’s actually a disappointed romantic. 

McBride was wise to focus on Wilder’s partnerships with Brackett and Diamond, because he would not have had a career without their input, not to mention the language help they offered this non-native English speaker. He digs into the contrast between the men, from the conservative Brackett to the more liberal and open-minded Diamond. While it is clear that Wilder is the driving force of both partnerships, both men had their own brilliance, though it seemed to come out chiefly with Billy. 

Wilder scrambled to survive as a reporter in pre-war Europe and struggled to learn the language of his adopted country when he came to America. McBride explores the filmmaker’s feelings of being an outsider due to these circumstances, his survivor’s guilt as a refugee (he never got over his failure to convince his mother to flee Europe in the World War II years), and how it molded his work. He also dives into Wilder’s love for American culture and how he combined it with his own Weimar sophistication and world experience. 

This is an engrossing and revealing exploration of one of the best Hollywood filmmakers. It offers intimate insight and a welcome in-depth look at Wilder’s less celebrated later films, such Avanti! (1972) and Fedora (1978), in addition to his more popular early classics. By focusing on the work, McBride explains a lot about the man. 

Many thanks to Columbia University Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

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