On Sunset Boulevard

Blum never got over the experience, as Jeffrey Meyers explains in his introduction to Stalag 17 (Univ. of California, $14.95), a facsimile edition of the original Wilder-Blum screenplay. A quarter-century later, Blum broke into cold sweats remembering the browbeating Wilder gave him: "Listen to the rotten words he uses . . . That is not good enough, Eddie. When I had Charlie Brackett as my partner, he came up with exquisite words . . . He was literate. That is the kind of writer I was working with. A literate man. Not an ignoramus like you." Good thing the picture made $10 million the year of its release.

Wilder had kinder things to say about Brackett, with whom he wrote the screenplay for Sunset Boulevard (Univ. of California, $12.95); this edition is also a facsimile of the original typescript. (Looking at these makes you want to haul out the old Underwood.) "Two collaborators who think exactly alike is a waste of time," said Wilder, talking about how well he and Brackett worked together. "Dialogue or whatever comes from: `Not quite, but you are close to it. Let's find something that we both like. This is a little bit too cheap, this is too easy. This character is not developed. I am a Roosevelt man and you are a Republican.' "

Fourteen years older than Wilder, Brackett was a Harvard Law graduate, "silver haired, courtly, and reserved . . . known for his patrician manners and refined conversation, his elegant style, well-turned epigrams, and conservative suits." Wilder, born 30 miles south of Krakow, had come to America in 1934 "with no knowledge of English apart from some obscenities and snatches of popular songs." Like Fritz Lang, with whom he roomed for a while in Hollywood, he picked up the language from newspapers and comic strips. If Brackett brought a highfalutin Harvard vocabulary to the partnership, Wilder contributed a wonderfully skewed view of American life and a street-inflected idiom; the combination gave a distinctive punch to scenes like this one, from "Sunset Boulevard," in which down-at-the-heels screenwriter Joe Gillis meets Norma Desmond, aging star of the silver screen, in her creepy mansion on Sunset Boulevard:

Gillis: I know your face. You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.

Norma: I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

And the famous last lines, spoken by a Norma who's let go her last hold on reality: "You see, this is my life. It always will be. There's nothing else -- just us and the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the dark . . . All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup."

Fade out.

Dr. Strangelove, I Presume

Though his bluntness could be painful, Billy Wilder at least let his collaborators know where they stood. Judging by Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick, by Frederic Raphael (Ballantine, $12), the same couldn't be said of Kubrick, who died earlier this year after filming his final movie, "Eyes Wide Shut." Starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (anyone who's been to the flicks this summer must have seen the racy trailers), the film's scheduled to be released on July 16.

Raphael comes across as self-aggrandizing (he mentions too many famous people he has had the pleasure of meeting), and he plays up Kubrick's rather odd ways, subjecting the filmmaker to posthumous (and sometimes gratuitous) analysis. But this memoir does take us close to the mind, or at least the working methods, of Raphael's famous employer, whom he grudgingly calls "a genius, at least of a kind."

As a respected novelist, Raphael might have been expected to feel attached to his own prose -- not the best quality in a screenwriting partner. [See the review of Raphael's most recent novel, Coast to Coast, on page 4 of this issue.] But he knew the drill- -- he's had a long second career as a screenwriter (his film credits include "Two for the Road") and is no stranger to the brutal process of making a picture. When Kubrick approached him, Raphael was aware of the man's reputation as a demanding director who hewed to his own vision; you could say that he went into it with his eyes wide open.

After Kubrick approaches him (via telephone) about a mysterious project, Raphael receives some reading material, "pages 203-296 Xeroxed from a gray and dated-looking text. The author's name and the title had been cut out." It's a novella, a period piece, set in Vienna in the late 19th century and involving the sexual dreams and fantasies of a seemingly happy bourgeois Jewish couple, Fridolin and Albertina. Schnitzler, Raphael guesses (flaunting his literary knowledge a bit).

Turns out he's right -- Kubrick had latched onto Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle, a fact the reclusive director lets slip when Raphael finally goes face-to-face with him at Kubrick's estate in the English countryside. Screenwriter and director each try to psych out the other: "I suspect that his concealment of the source of the text had been little more than a game which he was playing with himself and against me: the warm-up," Raphael writes, after an unflattering initial description: "He was wearing a blue overall with black buttons. He might have been a minor employee of the French railways. He was a smallish, rounded man (no belt) with a beard which less defined than blurred his features."

Kubrick wants to transplant the story to contemporary New York. Okay, Raphael can do that. How about the Jewish angle? Raphael sees possibilities; Kubrick doesn't see the point. "He wanted Fridolin to be a Harrison Fordish goy and forbade any reference to Jews. Perhaps this would keep the theme buried (and hence more subtle), but his main motive, I am sure, was the wish not to annoy the audience. He wanted to escape into myth and inhabit an alien character who, nevertheless, would be close to him." (As he's done, one might point out, in most of his movies.) And so it goes, exchange after exchange, rewrite after rewrite.

Periodically Raphael drops into screenplay mode, casting his exchanges with "S.K." as if they were part of a movie script, turning Kubrick into a character in the screenwriter's personal movie: "F.R. senses that STANLEY is a man trapped in his own web. He is an Odysseus, longing for wider experience but unable to shake off his own timidities and obliged to ask about what he wishes he knew, or had happened to him. He is the sedentary wandering Jew, rootlessly rooted within his own defenses." (If Kubrick was smart, he edited this sort of portentousness out of the "Eyes Wide Shut" screenplay.)

No wonder Raphael has taken some heat, especially after an excerpt ran in the New Yorker. There's a sense of privacy invaded, like watching a party guest rifle through the host's underwear drawer: interesting maybe, but not exactly good manners. Raphael does sometimes acknowledge his baser motives, as in this comment made to his diary: "Am I inside or outside? What further use is he likely to make of me? And does it matter? Vanity, careerism, and greed jostle at the bend. . . . It would be a small triumph if the film is made, if only (as is probable) with my name adjacent to S.K.'s. I know nothing of his hopes and intentions. I cannot even be sure whether, when I tell myself that I like him, I feel affection, interest, or merely hopeful relief that he seems to like me and what I have done. He grows less remarkable as he becomes less guarded; however, he is still the hero, and I am still his valet."

Something Completely Different

Being Stanley Kubrick's "valet" doesn't sound like nearly as much fun as putting together Monty Python. It's been almost 30 years since John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Graham Chapman first got together and started fooling around with routines that became classics: the Ministry of Silly Walks, things to do with dead parrots, "Sam Peckinpah's Salad Days." Best way to mark the occasion: Go enjoy some of the original skits on video, or rent "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" or "The Life of Brian." Second best way: Pick up one of these books. David Morgan's Monty Python Speaks! (Spike, $13.50) assembles the five surviving members of the troupe (Graham Chapman died of cancer in 1989) for interviews and reminiscences about how they managed to be so darn funny. Kim "Howard" Johnson's The First 28O Years of Monty Python (St. Martin's Griffin, $21.95) is a pic-filled account of the Pythons' careers; it features show-by-show recaps and sidebars on key items like "The Python Theme Song" (John Philip Sousa's "Liberty Bell March," slightly improved). "Kim `Howard' Johnson has been pestering us for years," writes Eric Idle in the preface, "coming round `interviewing' us, asking `questions' and generally writing damn-fool `things' about `Python.' Now he is `publishing' it all for `money.' Well what else can you expect from a man who sticks quotation marks in the middle of his name?" Fanzine editor Robert Ross's Monty Python Encyclopedia (TV Books, $22), the lightest of the bunch, is an alphabetical guide to characters ("Eric the Viking"), Flying Circus episodes, and series ("Fawlty Towers") and movies the gang's done (including more recent forays like "A Fish Called Wanda" and "Fierce Creatures"). If you still can't get enough Python, check out Michael Palin's comic novel Hemingway's Chair (St. Martin's Griffin, $12.95), about -- oh, just read the book.

Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is jenhoward@compuserve.com.