LUNCH AT THE DORCHESTER
Alvin Rakoff (c)
“Vaiter!” the voice dominated the many other sounds in the lavish dining room of the Dorchester Hotel. “Vaiter! Vaiter!”
The man shouting was Marcel Hellman, former film producer from Hungary. He had fled from the Nazis and taken refuge in England, where he formed a company with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, no less. His active days were long over but he enjoyed keeping in touch with film events as much as possible. Which meant the occasional free lunch for me. At the Dorchester.
No ‘vaiter’ appeared. Instead a short white-haired man approached our table. “Marcel,” said the man, “why are you shouting?”
“It’s his.” Marcel pointed to me, “birt’day! He just told me. Vhy did you keep it quiet? Vee must celebrate. No?”
A waiter finally appeared. Marcel ordered champagne.
“Happy Birthday.” said the white-haired man, who had now expansively joined our table. “Are you in the business?” he continued.
“Yes,” I replied.
“What do you do?” he asked.
“I’m a director.”
“A director? Hmm. Made any films?”
“Yes, I have”
“Two,” I replied. By now I was getting a bit annoyed with this questioning little guy. So I asked him, “How many have you made?”
He smiled. A picture of patience. I“Fifty-three” he said. “My name’s Billy Wilder. What’s yours?”
Jaw-drops. Eyes-pop. Thunderstruck. All the cliches apply to me after hearing that name.
“Oh, Mr Wilder! Mr Wilder!” I gushed, “I’m one of your greatest fans. I am. I am! I think Some Like It Hot is one of the greatest films ever.”
And then we talked. And talked and talked and talked. About writing for the screen. About his Oscar-winning scripts. Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity and so many more. About directing films. And more Oscars. Witness For The Prosecution, Stalag 17, Hold Back The Dawn, And on and on. I assured him he was a giant among the giants of film making.
“It was on board the SS United States en route to New York that i first saw Some Like It Hot,” I said.
“Tell me more,” he said.
“it was my wife’s first visit to America”, I said, “the ‘Excited States’- she called them. We decided to skip British liners. Taste America immediately on an American ship. Mistake. The room was mediocre. The service mediocre. The food less than that. Compensation was a lavish arm-chaired cinema. And all the films to be screened were on pre-release.
Two hours out of Le Havre, the ship began to pitch and rock. Storms. Nevertheless we went to the cinema on the first night. And left minutes later. The film showing was, to use that word again, mediocre. I can’t even remember the title. The swaying seats were uninviting. The atmosphere tense. By the half way point, the cinema was empty.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner, on that voyage were only for the brave. Or those determined to get their money’s worth out of this trip no-matter-what. Some Like It Hot was screened on the last night. Despite the heaving and deck-splashing, the cinema was packed. Word-of-mouth about the film was more than mildly approving. And with that cast – Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon – passengers decided to take a chance.
The screen pressed itself to and from the audience. One moment wide. Next moment narrow. Seats banged fiercely down on the ocean waves below from time to time. Howling wind fought the soundtrack. But –
At first just snickers and smiles. Chuckles. Chortles. Then howls. Then gales of joy. In waves as if to rival the waters below. That gift from the gods. Laughter. Laugh, after laugh, after laugh. Laughter. Right up unto that final brilliant exchange of dialogue when Jack Lemon, whips off his girlish wig, explains to Joe E Brown why he can’t marry him by declaring, ‘i’m a man!’ And Joe E Brown Jr replies, ‘Nobody’s Perfect’.
The movie ended. House lights came on. The audience, subdued, smiling, entertained despite the storm, began to file out. Then one passenger turned to the screen, and applauded. Another joined him. And another. Then more. And more. The entire audience was now standing and applauding the blank wavering screen.”
I stopped talking. Wilder was smiling at me. Nodded.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’m glad I heard that story.”
“Mr Wilder,” I said, “I’m glad that I could tell it directly to you.”
We shook hands.
“I’m filming in Berlin next week,” he said, “if you have nothing better to do, come along.”
I definitely had nothing better to do. The following week-end I scrambled to Berlin. The film was One, Two, Three. In the studio I gratefully stood to one side and watched Billy Wilder direct.
Directors rarely get a chance to see other directors at work. Carpenters, writers, actors – all these others can see each other at work creating. But not fellow directors. I relished this opportunity.
Precision. That word most defines Wilder directing. Precision of all moves the camera makes. All moves the actor makes. Precision that each line was spoken as worded. Precision of the timing of exchanged looks, of pauses, of mannerisms. Precise. Neat. As planned. He did not go so far as to give the actor a reading of each line in the scene. Almost. But not quite. Considering the lead actor was James Cagney, an ancient warrior, it was interesting to see how all the cast were guided by this director, without questioning.
To me the most surprising moment was when during a take, Wilder turned his back on the action. Took out a stop-watch, looked only at the watch not at the scene. And called ‘cut’ still looking at his watch. “Timing,” he said to me. “in comedy timing is everything. Don’t you think?”
“I don’t do much comedy,” I said.
“Wise. Respect the old saying, ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard’” he paused. “No director can do everything. I always wanted to do a musical. With Gene Kelly or Astaire. Singing In The Rain. The Wizard Of Oz. I tried. Failed. Can’t do music.”
I debated about arguing with him, about assuring him that with his genius he could do everything. Instead I simply said that fabulous last line from Some Like It Hot, “Nobody’s perfect.”
Recalling his roar of laughter on hearing that quote, sits happily among my memories.
© Alvin Rakoff