When Billy Wilder was a young journalist living on the breadline in Berlin in the 1920s, he worked briefly as a gigolo and dancer for hire. Operating out of an upmarket Berlin hotel, he candidly described the experience in an article “Waiter, A Dancer, Please!” in 1927: “I dance with women young and old; with the very short and those who are two heads taller than I; with the pretty and the less attractive; with the very slender and those who drink teas designed to slim them down; with ladies who send the waiter to get me and savour the tango with eyes closed in rapture.”
Film historian Joseph McBride’s new critical study of the filmmaker, Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge, argues that his “intense experience interacting with a wide variety of strangers in a Berlin hotel” was humiliating but very insightful. It helped him understand the “role of money in romantic situations” that would later become “a hallmark of his film work, the sardonic sense of love and sex turned into impersonal products through prostitution or some other kind of financial transaction, often involving impersonation or acting”.
Wilder (1906-2002) went on to become one of the greatest and most contradictory filmmakers in Hollywood history. He made some brilliant romantic comedies but his sophistication and frankness about sex, money and relationships led detractors to condemn him as an inveterate cynic. In particular, he was accused of treating the female characters in his films in a very mean-spirited and sometimes openly exploitative fashion.
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