The Corruption of a Writer’s Life: Billy Wilder’s Films About Writers

Young Writer 1950s Pic

Photo Credit: The young writer, 1958, on aTriumph Perfekt typewriter, manufactured by Trimph-Werke in Nuremberg, German: pellethepoet/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

***Some spoilers***

Like many of my blog post ideas, this one began as the germ from an article I read and evolved through research. As a writer, of course I am always interested in the way writers are portrayed in other art forms, like paintings and songs. I follow the blog Irevulo, as its posts are an interesting combination of literary fiction, art, and culture and I was pleased to see this blog post tackling movies that depict writers. What I wasn’t so pleased about was that the post focused on contemporary films. As a lover of classic films, I was interested in depictions of writers in the past.

So my initial intention for this blog post was to seek out classic films about writers. My research proved there are many of them, ranging from the psychological drama to the light-hearted mystery. I also noticed that certain directors (like Woody Allen) seem drawn to writer characters in their work. In the world of classic film, one director stood out to me – Billy Wilder.

Wilder is on my top ten list of favorite directors not only because the humor in his films can be so relevant and spot-on that it hurts but because his films span such a wide range of genres. Probably the most famous of his films is the screwball gender-bending comedy Some Like it Hot but Wilder tackled much more than just comedy. Many of his films have a much darker and more philosophical tone than Some Like it Hot. Wilder’s films about writers fall into this category. The three I found are actually not comedies at all but dark dramas hinting at the corrupting influence of writing on writers.

Ray Millard The Lost Weekend

Photo Credit: A cropped screenshot of Ray Milland from the trailer of 1945 film The Lost Weekend. Third Avenue El in New York City in the background. 1945, screenshot from trailer: Unibond/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

The first of these is 1945’s The Lost Weekend. This film knocks down the Hemingwayesque image of the hard-drinking macho male writer who needs alcohol (maybe a little too much) to spark his creativity. It’s also a film about alcohol addiction during a time when substance abuse was seen more as a moral failing than a bodily addiction. Although Alcoholics Anonymous had been around since 1935, the group was still growing and establishing itself nation-wide. The main character, Don (Ray Millard) is not inherently evil but being an alcoholic for years has made him devious, suspicious, paranoid, and mentally unbalanced. And why does he drink? Because when he’s drinking he is writing and when he doesn’t drink, he can’t write, or at least, he can’t write well. In the story, his drinking has created a writer’s block so his brother (Phillip Terry) is determined to take him on a weekend “dry out” vacation to get him writing again and hopefully pick up his failing career. But the idea of writing without alcohol is too much for Don so he ends up, through deception, conniving, and begging, spending the weekend on a drinking binge. The idea of alcoholism and writing are linked in this film where one seems to corrupt the other (the chicken and the egg situation). The film ends on a positive note, quite differently than Wilder’s other two films abou writers, possibly because, as I mentioned earlier, Don is not inherently immoral or evil.

The second film, Sunset Boulevard (1950) is quite different. The tone on the onset is dark and hopeless as the film opens with a dead body in a pool. The body belongs to the main character, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden). The film makes it clear from the beginning that Joe is not a nice guy. Maybe the only thing decent about him is that he knows he’s not a nice guy. He’s an opportunist who manipulates and takes advantage of whomever he can. So it’s no surprise that only such a man would get involved with one of the most bizarre and pathetic (but fascinating) characters Hollywood ever created – Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Desmond has written a mammoth screenplay based on the story of John the Baptist and Salome but, like many first-time writers, is in badly need of an editor. Gillis becomes not only her editor but her lover, a gigolo in an almost grotesque scenario of a younger man, morally corrupt, taking up with an older woman whose eccentricities may have been charming thirty years before but have now become twisted and insane. The desperation for work drives Gillis to take up with Desmond but as far as work goes, he uses her and her awful manuscript as an excuse.

William Holden Sunset Blvd

Photo Credit: William Holden (in his best writer persona, working diligently at the typewriter) screenshot from the trailer of Sunset Boulevard, filmed in 1950 at Paramount Studios: Icea/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

Wilder’s film a year later, Ace in the Hole is not much better, although the main character, ambitious reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) comes to some kind of “a-ha!” moment at the end of the film. It maybe no surprise that Tatum is corrupt and corruptible, as newspaper reporters have probably faired the least well in classic films about writers. The taint against journalism as a whole seems to reflect the stereotype of the reporter lacking in morals, the “yellow journalist” interested only in getting a story, never mind who it hurts. Tatum is the epitome of that stereotype but he goes a step further – he creates a story where there isn’t one at the risk of a man’s life. He gambles and loses but no one more than him knows he’s lost. The rush to get a story and get ahead as a journalist have corrupted him to the point of foregoing personal responsibility for a man’s life. He comes to this realization at the end of the film though, sadly, too late.

It might seem a little ironic that Wilder, who not only directed but also wrote many of his films and many more would make such a connection between corruption and writing (maybe almost as ironic as writers hating their own work). But I think these three films also reflect a little the attitude toward writers in the post-World War II era. This was a time of industry and ambition, an America determined to make something fabulous out of the ruins and heartache of war. Artistic endeavors like writing didn’t fall into that category and anyone who pursued these financially precarious professions were held under a microscope. This is different from the way we think of writers and artists today, maybe thanks to the internet and other technological wonders that have made transitioning art into a commercially viable pursuit not as challenging. So many of us are no longer seen as crazy people going against society’s expectation for commerce and financial success. We’re just people trying to make our books and designs and music into a business.



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