WILDER TIMES

The Life of Billy Wilder

By Kevin Lally

Henry Holt. 496 pp. $30

ONE OF THE MOST intriguing matches in Hollywood history was cut short by illness. Director Billy Wilder, the subject of Kevin Lally's fast-paced, entertaining biography, has always been a stickler for a script's exact words -- and understandably so: Driven by an immigrant's zest for American vernacular, he wrote them himself, with the aid of such collaborators as Charles Brackett, I.A.L. Diamond, and Raymond Chandler. Actor Peter Sellers, on the other hand, was a frisky improviser who reported for work on Wilder's "Kiss Me Stupid" in 1964 fresh from having made "Dr. Strangelove" with Stanley Kubrick and "A Shot in the Dark" with Blake Edwards. "Both directors," Lally writes, had "encouraged their actor to toss aside the script and let his comic imagination go wild." Such liberty-taking was the furthest thing from Wilder's mind.

The battle of wills had just started when a heart attack forced Sellers to bow out (he was replaced by Ray Walston). "Kiss Me Stupid" was drubbed by critics and avoided by audiences, but Lally speculates that it might have fared better had Sellers stuck with it (assuming, that is, that the great British comedian and the great American director had reconciled their differences).

Wilder Times is especially valuable for illuminating this latter phase of its subject's career -- the troubled decades after he had collected a fistful of Oscars for writing such witty films as "Ninotchka," "Midnight," and "Ball of Fire" and for writing and directing a series of dark melodramas -- including "Double Indemnity," "The Lost Weekend," and "Sunset Boulevard" -- along with the ribald farce "Some Like It Hot." Though he hasn't made a movie in 15 years, at age 90 Wilder, in the words of his creation Norma Desmond, is "still big."

AN ACCIDENTAL BIOGRAPHY

By Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

Houghton Mifflin. 396 pp. $24.95

DON'T LET THE TITLE fool you. This is by no stretch an autobiography. For one thing, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison scarcely touches upon her professional life (her books include Italian Days and Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses). But there is so much sex and food and high life and glittering prose in these loosely woven memoirs that she can be pardoned her presumptuous title.

The chapter called "Men and God(s)" shows Harrison at her best, roving from appreciations of Dorothy Sayers's fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey and of Red Barber, the real-life Southern gentleman who broadcast Brooklyn Dodger games on radio when Harrison was growing up; to an analysis of her affairs with the black musician she calls Jazzman (their first liaison ended when he refused to leave his wife; now, more than three decades later, they are an item again); to a celebration of Federico Secundo, 13th-century king of Sicily and, later, Holy Roman Emperor. These four have little in common other than being Dudes Barbara Adores, but her auctorial voice is strong enough to make them comfortable bedfellows.

Certain other chapters, such as the rambling one about the items Harrison and other collectors like to amass, are less engaging. Yet that same chapter includes this excavated bit of history: "In the Imperial Library in Vienna, large birds -- pelicans -- were trained to pluck books from the upper shelves (are you giddy with delight?)." As my grandmother used to say, "Prett' near."

THOMAS MANN

Eros and Literature

By Anthony Heilbut

Knopf. 636 pp. $40

UNTIL RECENTLY Thomas Mann had exemplified the homosexual-phase theory (as in, "He's just going through a phase"). The notion was that, yes, Mann had been embroiled in schoolboy crushes that shaded his early work, but in his big novels -- Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, the Joseph tetralogy, Dr. Faustus -- he put aside such puerility to dwell on full-fledged heterosexual love. Moreover, Mann's near-equation of homoeroticism and sickness in "Death and Venice" seemed to clinch the case.

Now comes Anthony Heilbut -- with much help from Mann's recently published diaries -- to argue that Mann's entire oeuvre is shot through with boy-love, even his last novel, Felix Krull, Confidence Man, whose completion in 1954 (he had begun it decades earlier) was inspired by his late, unrequited passion for a young Swiss waiter. Mann cloaked his nature behind equivocations, ironies and sexually transposed characters -- not to mention a marriage that produced six children -- and his readers went along with the subterfuge: The notion that Germany's greatest novelist, a Nobel Prize-winner whose books sold briskly around the world, was basically gay did not sit well with the critical establishment.

Though, as the title indicates, Heilbut concentrates on eros, his study also covers other aspects of Mann's life and work: his lifelong rivalry with his novelist brother Heinrich; his increasingly amiable relationship with Jews (his wife belonged to a wealthy family of Jewish converts to Christianity); his swing from rock-ribbed German conservatism (he greeted the beginning of World War I with enthusiasm) to resolute antifascism; his exile in America and then Switzerland; his inadequacies as a husband and father.

The book is slow going at times -- Heilbut seems to have caught his subject's tendency toward ponderousness. But his exactitude shores up the case for his revisionist view of Mann's life and work.

BERNARD SHAW

The Ascent of the Superman

By Sally Peters

Yale University Press. 315 pp. $28.50

IF SALLY PETERS is correct, George Bernard Shaw also masqueraded as a straight man -- and even more successfully than Thomas Mann. Rumor had it that Shaw's marriage was sexless, but that condition could have been just one more Shavian quirk in a quiverful of them: As Peters sums him up, the great British playwright (another winner of the Nobel Prize) was a "wool-wearer, a vegetarian, a eugenicist, an anti-vivisectionist, an anti-vaccinationist, and a Fabian . . ." What was missing was the crush on a man that would suggest he was also a homosexual.

Peters believes she has found the missing bloke: Harley Granville-Barker, a handsome actor, producer and playwright, who is remembered today (if at all) for his trenchant "prefaces" to Shakespeare. She adduces interesting, if circumstantial, evidence for the two men's being particular friends, including the fact that "on his deathbed, longing for earthly release, Shaw talked of Barker, whom he had last seen eighteen years before at the painfully effusive parting of 1932."

This is not a biography but a kind of commentary, best read as a companion to Michael Holroyd's massive life of Shaw. The writing ranges from Teutonically abstract ("a temporality with an uneasy relation to the future and the realm of Becoming") to pungently concrete (a certain Alsatian basso profundo, "who thought he had discovered a method of bel canto capable of producing song so beautiful that it would regenerate civilization, taught Shaw how to articulate his consonants explosively").

DANCING ON THE CEILING

Stanley Donen and His Movies

By Stephen M. Silverman

Knopf. 400 pp. $35

FORMER CHORUS BOY Stanley Donen started directing movies in the late '40s, when he was still in his mid-twenties. Although he must have felt lucky to be a boy wonder, in a sense his timing was off. The studio system was crumbling and audiences were losing interest in the Broadway-to-Hollywood musical. Jean-Luc Godard has called Donen the "master" of the genre, and his movies include what is arguably its acme, "Singin' in the Rain" (co-directed with star Gene Kelly), as well as "Funny Face," which features Fred Astaire doing what the title of this biography says.

Donen went on to make some fine non-musicals, including "Charade" and "Two for the Road" (both with Audrey Hepburn) and the sophomorically wonderful "Bedazzled" (with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore), before his career fizzled out a decade ago.

Author Stephen M. Silverman may have become a bit too infatuated with his cooperative subject. In these pages, Donen remains a murky figure both professionally -- if he has a characteristic vision of the world, Silverman has not identified it -- and privately -- the reader gets little sense of why Donen's marriages (five of them so far) keep falling apart. Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor. CAPTION: Clockwise from bottom left: Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Billy Wilder, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann