In 1966, Billy Wilder wrote and directed what was considered to be his last inarguably great movie, The Fortune Cookie. Notable for many things, particularly the first on-screen pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, a Golden Globe nod and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Matthau, nominations for the screenplay by Wilder and his long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, as well as for Cinematography and Art Direction. It was a box office hit and solidified that Wilder was an unmitigated Hollywood maestro.
Four years later, after a series of stalled productions, Wilder wrote, produced and directed The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, meant to be an “event” picture it was butchered by United Artists and opened to critical applause but little financial success. Following that came a series of failures: Avanti! (1972), The Front Page (1974—surprisingly given the reteaming of Matthau and Lemmon) and Fedora, a movie whose tumultuous production almost forced Wilder into retirement.
After another three years, give or take, Wilder began to complain publically that he was being discriminated against in Hollywood, because of his age, because of his last few “failures”. Movie culture had changed underneath him. What used to be daring—the smoldering infidelity of Double Indemnity, promiscuity of Some Like It Hot and The Apartment—was now tame in the time of Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Jaws, Carnal Knowledge, The Graduate.
Then MGM acquired a quiet French black comedy from 1973, L'Emmerdeur, starring Lino Ventura and Belgian pop singer Jacques Brel. Screenwriter Francis Veber (Les Fugitifs, Le Chevre) adapted his play Le contrat specifically for Edouard Molinaro (La Cage aux Folles). A hitman named Milan who checks into a hotel to take out his next target, a witness for an upcoming trial. In the room next door is François Pignon, who keeps trying to kill himself now that his wife left has him. The resulting story is a comedy of misadventure as Milan is forced to deal with Pignon in one way or another to keep the sad sack from attracting unwanted attention.
In France, L’Emmerdeur was extremely successful (Veber himself would direct a remake in 2008), to the point that the Yiddish word “schlemiel” is translated as “François Pignon”. In the United States, L’Emmerdeur was released as A Pain in the A__, finding a decent-sized audiences in the Art Houses and on the emerging world of cable television (especially a young upstart channel called Home Box Office). MGM figured they had nothing to lose by remaking it for the casual, non-subtitle-reading American viewer, and to that end, they brought it to Billy Wilder.
Wilder, desperate to get back to work after a three-year black-out, leapt perhaps too quickly at the opportunity. He and Diamond hammered out the finished script in a matter of weeks and embarked on a whirlwind production. Later in life, Wilder would say, “If I were to meet all of my movies in a room, Buddy Buddy is the one I wouldn’t want to face.”
Buddy Buddy begins with a pair of murders—a mailman leaves a bomb in the box of one man and a milkman poisons the cowjuice of another. Both are the blank-faced Trabucco, who is working his way through the witnesses of a huge upcoming land fraud trial. Last on his list is mobster Rudy “Disco” Gambola, who has turned state’s evidence for the prosecution. “Hello Mr. Green?” he says, calling his bosses. “Oh, Mr. White... let me speak to Mr. Brown...” (Sound an eentcy bit familiar?)
Trabucco checks into a hotel room, begins to assemble his high-powered rifle when a loud noise comes from the room next door. Through the connecting passage, he finds Victor Clooney lying unconscious in his bathtub, around his neck a noose made from the curtain sash. Since Victor tried to hang himself from the shower pipe, water pours into the room and he’s now in more danger of drowning than strangling.
From there, Clooney continues to inadvertently make Trabucco’s life miserable. Mistaking the hitman’s insistence that Eddie the Bellboy not involve the police—“Can’t you see this man needs compassion? The warmth of human understanding?”—for genuine concern and the extended hand of friendship, Clooney bedevils the poor hitman to no end. Forced to assemble and disassemble his rifle more times than is necessary, Trabucco tries to first get incapacitate Clooney by tying him to a chair (“You’re making it very difficult for me to like you!”), then rid himself of Clooney entirely—thwarted by the sudden appearance of cops escorting a woman in labor to the hospital—then pawn him off at the same sex clinic where Clooney’s wife left him for the head therapist.
Each time, Clooney returns to wreak more havoc on Trabucco’s life and plans. This was his last job, of course; the one he could retire on. The one that could get him killed if he botched it. “This was gonna be it. Enough money to retire on because in this kind of work you don't qualify for social security.” An easy gig if he could just get this schlemiel of a François Pignon off his damned back! Along the way he grows to, well if not like Clooney per ce, at least begrudgingly tolerate him. This change in relationship lead to the movie’s best moments: those involving Matthau, Lemmon and their trademark back-and-forths.
Clooney: Have you ever been married, Mr. Trabucco?
Trabucco: Once but I got rid of her. Now I just lease. I once knew a guy, he had two heart-attacks. So they put in him a pace-maker. So his wife divorced him. She said it was interfering with the tv-reception.
Even with the winning team of Matthau and Lemmon, and a bizarre supporting cast of Paula Prentiss, Klaus Kinski, future MacGyver co-star Dana Elcar and an early appearance from Ed Begley, Jr., Buddy Buddy never really gets up a full head of steam. Perhaps hewing a little too closely to the understated pacing of L’Emmerdeur, Wilder’s and Diamond’s manages a lot of chuckles but never the belly-laugh you’d expect from the team. The movie transitions from one scene to the other in fits and starts and only really comes into its own when Clooney is finally tired of the humiliation and becomes his own man, to defend Trabucco.
Trabucco: Do me a favor.
Clooney: Yes ?
Trabucco: Fuck off.
Cue screeching brakes and an entire audience suffering whiplash from severe brain disconnect. In the late ‘70s, such language was far from uncommon. The double-entendre had already been demoted to single and before too long, even Julie Andrews would pop her top (in Blake Edwards’ S.O.B.). But there was an oddness to hearing the word “fuck” come out of Walter Matthau. There’s also something unsettling watching Lemmon discuss orgasms and penis size with Prentiss and Kinski (heck, Kinski playing a man any woman would leave her husband for is unnerving enough). With one word, Wilder crashed into New Hollywood.
It wasn’t a new word for him. In fact, in his private life, he was known to enjoy using it. Probably even enacting it. I don’t like to think about that, though. Matthau was notoriously grumpy, acerbic, misanthropic. But he didn’t work blue—especially not with Lemmon. MGM saw a way to bring a tired workhorse in from the pasture for another go, thinking it would be a cheap way of getting a moderate hit on the screen. In an attempt to “spice things up” for modern audiences, Wilder and Diamond failed to realize that along with new viewers, older Wilder fans still came to the movies to see a Wilder Movie. That had been his point all along. He wasn’t too old and he was still big, Norma Desmond big and you don’t get bigger than that.
Those unfamiliar or dismissive of Wilder may think me prudish right now but the trouble was, Wilder didn’t work blue because he didn’t have to. Wilder was an intellectual and thrived by confounding the censors. He hid the dirty stuff between the lines of dialogue, between fade downs and fade ups. It was akin to Groucho Marx exposing himself to an audience—it wasn’t beneath him; there was no need. Wilder and Diamond’s script worked too hard for the new viewers. They gave them what they wanted and you should never do that. Wilder always gave the audience something new, something they hadn’t known they’d wanted. That was the key to Billy’s brilliance. Desperation for work forced him to sell out in every sense of the word. He didn’t make the movie he wanted to see, but what he wanted to sell.
Buddy Buddy failed at the box office but did reasonably well on cable. The critics jumped up and down on it for many reasons, language not being among them. The disinterested pace, the uncomfortable characters. Matthau was criticized for not being Clint Eastwood, whom many felt would have been a better choice for Trabucco, a sentiment that was shared by both Wilder and Matthau. And like Trabucco, many found Clooney very difficult to like. For years, Klaus Kinski denied he was even in it! (Think about that—you’re in the room with Kinski, the movie is on TV and he’s just shaking his head. “But…but Klaus—that’s you! You’re right there! Look, see you on screen?”) At the time, it seemed like a sour note on which to end. For Wilder, it would be the last feature he’d direct.
With thirty years of hindsight, Buddy Buddy can be viewed as a slight, flawed, but still reasonably solid offering from Billy Wilder. It wasn’t The Fortune Cookie, but the nice thing was Billy never sold you the same thing twice. In fact, it’s fun to watch it back-to-back with L’Emmerdeur for both the similarities and the differences. They’re both low energy comedies with light chuckles, no guffaws. They’re even both sporadically available on DVD (although Buddy Buddy is currently only available on a Spanish import).
While it’s not the case, it could be easy to leave a discussion of Buddy Buddy on one exchange of dialogue. It’s tempting, but it’s only partially true, just like the sentiment behind it:
Clooney: Here I am, almost didn't make it.
Trabucco: Almost doesn't count.