Film Studies: A triple whammy of a week

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The Independent Culture

Procrastinators only tempt fate when they succumb to sensible planning ahead. As a rule, I prefer to let the subject for a column (let alone the writing) wait until the last moment. Habitual writers need the desperation of deadlines. And Alastair Cooke advised shrewd celebrities to adjust their deaths to the printing schedules of newspapers. All media people should be trained to wait, and wait – after all, the world could end, and that's one column you can escape.

Well, Easter was coming and inasmuch as I was preparing to be off on the open road for a few days with wife and children, I had the forethought to settle on a column and an early delivery date. There's no reason why you shouldn't know what it was: every column should be workable as a single sentence. It was an essay on the opportunities and problems of "acting crazy" (or playing "disturbed" people) in the movies, with particular reference to Sean Penn in the forthcoming I Am Sam, and a little bit of Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Take it as written, and read.

No sooner was sensible plan locked in than the old "one, two, three" began. The "one, two, three" is a legend, bemoaned and rejoiced in by deadliners, that celebrities often die in threes. And so it was that, before I could dream up a word on I Am Sam, Dudley Moore and Milton Berle were gone.

No one could claim to be surprised by either event, or in the case of the good "Dud" anything but relieved. How strange that the Dagenham kid born crippled should end his life under the scourge of a neurological disease that ate up his great daft smile. And how fabulous that, between the two, this Dud should have become a kind of befuddled prince of Malibu, an authentic film star, a little fellow who had great beauties crazy over him.

Of course, that paradise of Suzy Kendall, Tuesday Weld and Susan Anton could be accounted for as just a supreme ruse to unhinge the lofty, sultry and masher-like "Pete". For the Dudley Moore who had been one corner of that inspired quartet, Beyond the Fringe, was also the cracking-up stooge, the fond simpleton, egging on the lacerating, outrageous humour of Peter Cook.

And whereas Peter Cook fell just short of being, shall we say, Stewart Granger, Dudley Moore did 10, Arthur and so on. He made it all the way. You can hear Pete hissing, "Disgusting!"

Milton Berle? Well, there's no reason why dedicated stay-at-home Brits would know Uncle Milty. He was a comedian, born in 1908, very Jewish, very broad, never really a hit in vaudeville or on radio, but miraculously uplifted by early television. Put it another way: he made TV. In the late Forties and early Fifties, his show was such a rage it persuaded millions to buy their first TV set. Some neighbourhood movie theatres stayed closed on the Tuesday nights he performed to an 80 rating (80 per cent of all sets in existence!).

That was two. It wasn't hard in the 20 or so hours of waiting to fill in the blank, because One, Two, Three was the very name of one of Billy Wilder's films – not the best, but not the least, with Jimmy Cagney as a cola executive trying to liberate the Berlin of the Wall. Billy Wilder had known Vienna (he met Freud), and the old Berlin, before he made the journey to Hollywood. And, once there, though he professed anxiety about mastering the English language, still he found another way – he learnt to write American, some of the best dialogue ever uttered in Hollywood.

As a director he was always a writer. As an American celebrity, he never lost the wary, tough edge of a survivor of Europe's troubles. He had limits: he was cynical; I think he truly disliked women; he was a bit of a bully, who often sold out on his own tough premises. He made a lot of duds. But he did Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment.

Wilder went further: he honoured Cooke's guide to timing. He lived 20 years past "retirement" as a caustic observer of the new Hollywood so there could be no doubt in anyone's mind that the trick or habit of making movies had been lost.

Last man out locks the door. Swallows the key. Buries the secret. Norma Desmond knew it as early as 1950: the pictures were getting smaller, less bold. Some said she was crazy. Try telling her. I call that acting, or seeing yourself on a screen. That inward knowingness is the disturbance that Wilder and the movies have left us with. Nobody's perfect – just acting.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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