"If I ever lost this guy," director Billy Wilder once quipped, "I'd feel like Abercrombie without Fitch." He was speaking of I.A.L. ("Iz") Diamond, and he wasn't kidding. In more than 30 years of collaboration, ebullient Billy and inscrutable Iz have co-authored a string of historic hits, among them Love in the Afternoon, Irma La Douce, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, which won Diamond an Oscar for best original screenplay.
Now 66 and saddened by Hollywood's flight from sophisticated comedy into puerile fantasy, Diamond sat recently in the book-stuffed den of his Beverly Hills home and, wreathed in cigarette smoke like some gloomy sibyl, pondered the decline and fall of creative intelligence in movieland.
I think we are in terrible trouble. I see pictures these days with good scenes, but they never seem to add up to good pictures. The people who run the studios today are lawyers and agents hired by the conglomerates who own the studios. They know little about pictures and care less. The old movie moguls were poor boys who struck it rich and really were interested in doing prestige pictures because they wanted to acquire class. This new managerial group comes from the Harvard Law School or the Wharton School, and they think they've already got class. The only thing they're interested in is money, so they can serve a better grade of coke than the record producer who lives next door.
All these people know about is selling 10 percent more product next year and making 15 percent more profit. But movies are not Campbell's soup, where you say, "The noodle soup is selling and the rice soup isn't, so let's get rid of the rice soup." Each picture is a whole different adventure.
Part of the problem is that there are no writers left in this business; there are only would-be directors. The kids coming out of film school have learned that the best way to get a crack at directing, which is all they want to do, is to write a script. But most don't have the vaguest talent as writers. They see writing as a phase they have to pass through, like adolescent acne. They never bother to learn their craft. I think that explains why there are so many rip-offs and remakes and sequels. After they write that compulsory kids-in-heat picture, they run out of ideas, so they start on science fiction or fantasy because they can't be held to any standards of credibility. Even when they cannibalize the old plots, they get them subtly wrong, because they don't quite understand what made them work in the first place. More directors have ruined their careers by writing their own scripts than by fooling around with the leading lady.
In the old days, there was studio nepotism—the idiot nephew was made a producer. Now there are little mafias—the UCLA film school mafia, the USC film school mafia. It's tough. I would not like to be out there trying to break in these days.
Forty years ago, with people like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder and Joe Mankiewicz, this business reached a sophistication that has not been matched since. And this was back in the bad old days of major studios and censorship, when we were being accused of writing for 12-year-old minds. If you wrote for 12-year-old minds today, it would be over the heads of most of the audience and maybe even some of the filmmakers. It's very dumb out there. That's what I think of movies today—beautiful but dumb.
When I came out to Hollywood, moviemaking was a lot more fun. It was not a life-and-death matter. The studio was like a college campus, and the writers' building was like a fraternity house. If you got stuck on a story, you could always knock on someone's door and he would drop whatever he was doing and try to help you solve your problem. The writers had their own tables at the studio commissaries—at MGM there were two tables, one for the conservative writers and one for the liberal writers. Today, writers work out of their own homes and rarely get to meet other writers. It's a pity.
Not that everything was wonderful back then. Writers under the studio system had to report to work every day and half a day on Saturday. There was a policeman at the gate who wrote down what time you came in and what time you left. If you went out to buy a cup of coffee, he wrote that down, too. You often had to write scripts you didn't want to write. If you turned something down, they would put you on layoff, which meant no salary and that you couldn't work anywhere else, or they would give you something worse than what you had turned down. In those days three scripts would be prepared for every one that was made, the idea being that you had to have three scripts ready for Gable so he could pick one. What's more, you had no control over the material once it left your hands. Anybody could change it and everybody did.
We took our work seriously but not ourselves. The directors of that era, who had to make a certain number of pictures for their studios, never called themselves artists. They were interested in fishing and drinking and screwing around. Some of them never read anything but the racing form—when I worked for Howard Hawks, I could see him only on Mondays because that's the day the track was closed. There was no deep-dish analysis of a project. We were simple storytellers. Directors considered themselves craftsmen, and they did a hell of a job. John Ford used to finish a picture and leave it to his cutter. He knew there was only one way to put the film together—the way he had shot it. It was all cut in the camera. It's only the kids who are unsure of themselves who shoot everything from every angle because they don't really know what they want. Then they go into the cutting room for six months or a year and try to find their picture there. If you don't walk on the set in the morning with a concept in your head, you're certainly not going to find it a year later in the cutting room.
Another problem is the cost of making a movie these days. Some Like It Hot was made on a $2.8 million budget, about one-third of what an advertising campaign alone costs now. The whole thing has become ridiculous. The average film today costs $18 million. That means moviemakers spend more time getting financing than they do writing and shooting movies. Fellini and Kurosawa are going around with their hats in their hands, trying to get financing for a picture. It's shameful. Today, people are making big films with B-picture plots and spending millions of dollars on special effects and stuntmen.
The taste of today's audiences runs basically to comic strips—pictures full of mindless violence and witless humor, cardboard spaceships and wooden actors. The most interesting character on the screen these days is usually a helicopter. If somebody is throwing up green or being chewed by a shark, the audience sits still for that. The rest of the time they wander up and down the aisles or talk to their friends. Their attention span has been fragmented by television and dope. I don't think they can follow more than 10 minutes of film at a time. Most comedies today are primitive, naive, corny. Four-letter words substitute for wit.
Everything that has lasted through the years—Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Philadelphia Story—has that basic storytelling thing: What happens next? I see pictures today where nothing happens, really. You could switch the order of the scenes, and nobody would notice. Who knows about those things these days? Not the lawyers and agents who run the studios, not the subliterate sub-teenagers who form the bulk of the audience. And certainly not those clowns on television who call themselves critics. As Penelope Gilliatt of the New Yorker has said, "Filmmaking has now reached the same stage as sex—it's all technique and no feeling." That about sums it up.
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