27 August 2007

Billy Wilder: "A little bit less"

I’m having a ball reading Cameron Crowe’s book of interviews with the great Billy Wilder. The book is a fount of hilarious stories and sharp observations from one of the funniest and sharpest men who ever worked in Hollywood.

This from a man who was then past ninety years old. He sounded like he still had a few films in him even then.

He is talking about Jack Lemmon, who was one of the great comic actors but whose broad, busy style is out of fashion now. Young Jack is working on his first movie with old pro George Cukor, and he’s trying a bit too hard.

His first day on a sound stage, with George Cukor directing, he’s all revved up. He rattles down half a page of dialogue – and then there’s “Cut!” and he looks at Cukor. Cukor comes up to him and says, “It was just wonderful, you’re going to be a big, big star. However… when it comes to that big speech, please, please, a little less, a little bit less. You know, in the theatre, we’re back in a long shot and you have to pour it on. But in film, you cut to close up and you cannot be that strong.”

So he does it again, less. And again Cukor says, “Wonderful! Absolutely marvellous. Now let’s do it again, a little bit less.” Now after ten or eleven times, Mr Cukor admonishing him “a little less,” Mr Lemmon says, “Mr Cukor, for God’s sake, you know pretty soon I won’t be acting at all.”

Cukor says, “Now you’re getting the idea.”

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