The great Billy Wilder had two great screenwriting partners. The second was I. A. L. Diamond, with whom Wilder collaborated from the late 1950s onwards, in particular co-writing with him Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). But Wilder’s first great screenwriting partner, Charles Brackett, was arguably even more important to him, as it was Wilder’s work with Brackett on classics such as Ninotchka (1939), The Lost Weekend (1945) and, above all, Sunset Boulevard (1950) that enabled him to make his breakthrough in Hollywood after fleeing the rise of the Nazis in Europe, eventually paving the way for his elevation to the pantheon of truly great directors.
Unlike Wilder, Charles Brackett (1892-1969) was a long-established American. Indeed, Brackett’s family could trace their roots back to the arrival of their ancestor Richard Brackett at the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1629, one of the earliest colonial outposts in America. That fundamental difference between the two men – one a recent émigré, who retained his Austrian accent his whole life and never forgot how he had fled from the Nazis (who went on to kill almost all of the rest of his family), and the other a distinguished, almost patrician figure who initially seemed to regard his co-writer with something approaching disdain – was at the heart of their personal and professional relationship, and perhaps eventually led to its dissolution after 1950. However, it may also have been their collective “USP”, in that together they seemed to cover the entire waterfront of American life, from high society to low crime, as brilliantly demonstrated in Sunset Boulevard in particular.
Like so many of his contemporaries (for example, Ben Hecht), Charles Brackett was born in the east, in New York, and eventually made his way west to Hollywood, in a reversal of the journey that Jay Gatz (“The Great Gatsby”) made. Again like Hecht, who was a Chicago crime reporter before he became an LA screenwriter, Brackett worked as a journalist before becoming a screenwriter. Brackett was a drama critic for The New Yorker magazine for the second half of the 1920s, and Wilder, for one, always felt that there remained something of the critic about him – lofty, pernickety, almost looking down on everyone else – for the rest of his life.
Brackett had become a screenwriter even before he moved to Los Angeles, selling and then adapting some of his stories for fairly forgettable films such as Risky Business (1926) and Pointed Heels (1929). When he finally moved west to become a full-time writer for film, he continued to struggle, artistically if not financially, as he contributed to a succession of second-rate scripts for films such as Rose of the Rancho (1936), a run-of-the-mill Western. Indeed, it is entirely possible that despite his inherent self-belief and sense of noblesse oblige, Brackett might never have written a great movie script if he had not met Billy Wilder.
Brackett and Wilder first worked together in the late 1930s when they collaborated on Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), a romantic comedy directed by Wilder’s personal hero, Ernst Lubitsch, who, like Wilder himself, had been born in Europe but eventually relocated to America. Throughout his entire career, and especially when he became a Hollywood director himself, Wilder’s watchword was, “What would Lubitsch do?” But in addition to learning the lightness of touch for comedy that was known as “the Lubitsch touch”, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife also led to Wilder gaining in Brackett a co-writer who would transform his own fortunes and American cinema over the next decade.
Brackett and Wilder collaborated again on Midnight (1939), a “screwball comedy” of the kind that Hollywood was churning out by the late thirties, but it was on their next film, Ninotchka (1939), that they really struck gold. Again directed by Lubitsch, Ninotchka was famous first for its tagline, “Garbo laughs!” (it was the enigmatic Garbo’s first non-dramatic role), and then for its fabulous comedy, as Garbo plays a Russian agent (the titular Ninotchka) who is sent to Paris to try to retrieve jewels that had been stolen during the Russian revolution. It was a major critical and commercial hit, earning Brackett and Wilder (along with another co-writer, Walter Reisch, who ultimately fell by the wayside as Brackett and Wilder paired up) a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. That was in a year – 1939 – that is often regarded as the absolute high-point of Hollywood’s first golden age, as demonstrated by the fact that the other nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay that year were the scripts for Wuthering Heights, Goodbye Mr Chips, Mr Smith Goes To Washington and the eventual winner, Gone With The Wind.
For all their considerable personal differences (which both men openly attested to later in life), Brackett and Wilder now formed a brilliant partnership that over the next 10 years would produce nearly a film a year, usually with Wilder directing and Brackett producing, and two Academy Awards for screenwriting for their two masterpieces, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard.
Brackett and Wilder did not work together exclusively in the 1940s. For example, Wilder’s breakthrough as a director in Hollywood came with the third film he helmed, Double Indemnity (1944), which he famously co-wrote with Raymond Chandler. But in the main, Brackett and Wilder were a close team, who, like all the best co-writers, seemed to spark off each other. Brackett would often provide the overview, or structure, for a script, with Wilder then bringing it back down to earth with what Brackett considered his “baser” humour.
For all the small treasures of films such as Hold Back The Dawn (1941), in which a European playboy first seduces an American woman for her passport but ultimately falls in love with her, and Five Graves To Cairo (1943), a war film set in North Africa that has a genuinely intriguing plot and starred Erich von Stroheim, who, of course, would later appear in Sunset Boulevard, it is the two stone-cold classics that Brackett and Wilder made together, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard, that are the films that secured them screen immortality, even if making them together ultimately led to the end of their working relationship.
The Lost Weekend, based on the novel of the same name by Charles L. Jackson, is famously Hollywood’s first film about alcoholism, in which Ray Milland plays a boozy New York writer who undergoes first a descent into hell and then something approaching redemption over the course of a single weekend. Apparently, Wilder was first prompted to make it because of his experience of working with Raymond Chandler, a recovering alcoholic, on Double Indemnity. However, the novelist in The Lost Weekend enjoys none of Chandler’s success or fame, as he searches the city and his apartment for any liquor he can lay his hands on. In the film’s most famous image, Milland, lying in despair on the floor of his apartment, spots the bottle that he had earlier stashed on top of the ceiling fan, a sublime image – probably one of the single most famous shots in movie history – that simultaneously showed how low the “hero” of the film had sunk and showed his ingenuity, winning the viewer over to his side. A similarly remarkable journey from self-loathing to unlikely triumph is made in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), when Anthony Perkins’s character stows the body of Janet Leigh, who he has murdered, in the boot of a car and tries to hide it in a swamp. When it seems that the car has stuck, without sinking, in the swamp, the viewer finds themselves unconsciously willing it to sink, thus making them somehow complicit in the murder and subsequent disposal of the victim’s body. A similar effect is created by the ceiling fan shot in The Lost Weekend.
Brackett and Wilder made two more films together in the late 1940s, A Foreign Affair and The Emperor Waltz (both 1948), but it was Sunset Boulevard (1950) that marked the zenith of their partnership and, arguably, the zenith of Hollywood’s first great golden age (the second, very different golden age being the 1970s, with the rise of Coppola, Scorsese and the other so-called “movie brats” who had grown up watching the movies of the first golden age).
It is often forgotten that there was actually a third writer on Sunset Boulevard, Donald McGill Marshman Jr., or D.M. Marshman, for whom it was his only major screenwriting credit and about whom little is known other than that he eventually left Hollywood to pursue a career in advertising. But if you’re only going to have just one major screenwriting credit, Sunset Boulevard is the one to have.
Even now, nearly seventy years after it was made, Sunset Boulevard remains undoubtedly the greatest film about Hollywood – not “A Hollywood Story”, as its tagline proclaimed, but “THE Hollywood Story”. Its status as a modern-day myth is reflected in the fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber turned it into one of his planet-dominating musicals, but the musical has nothing on the film, largely because Sunset is a film all about words, not music. Sunset effectively invented the “screenwriter-in-peril” film (a minor genre that contains no other classics, apart from Barton Fink (1991)) and surely drew upon the experiences of both Brackett and Wilder in Hollywood. In Joe Gillis, the hero-narrator of the film (and Sunset is probably the best ever example of the use of voiceover in a movie), Brackett and Wilder created a truly remarkable character, who is simultaneously high-minded and lowdown – again, the different backgrounds of the two men can be seen as being twin sources of inspiration for their “writer” character. But of course, Gillis is just one of the menagerie of marvels who inhabit the film, from Norma Desmond herself (an ageing femme fatale, but nonetheless the ultimate femme fatale), to her butler, Max, who is actually her former husband, brilliantly played by Erich von Stroheim, who had experienced a similar decline in his own fortunes in Hollywood, to Betty Schaefer, the script-reader who desperately wants to be a script-writer (like every other script-reader who ever lived). Incidentally, it remains a mystery that no-one has ever made the film that Gillis pitches to Schaefer, about two people who share a bed but never inhabit it together (because one works during the day and one at night), because it is simultaneously simple and high-concept.
Sunset Boulevard is in many ways an elegy for the Hollywood that ceased to exist with the coming of sound and that probably never really existed in the first place (like all true “golden ages”), but it is also an elegy for the Brackett-Wilder writing partnership. The two men never worked together again, as the immense differences between them finally came to the fore in a dispute about a contract that Wilder signed without consulting Brackett first. (As Brackett said afterwards, “It would have been nice to be asked.”)
Both men survived, even thrived, without each other, as Wilder went on to forge a second great co-writing partnership with I.A.L. Diamond and Brackett wrote and produced many films on his own or with other co-writers, including such notable movies as Niagara and Titanic (both 1953). But they never truly healed the rift between them, as Brackett admitted in his diaries, which were recently edited and published as, “It’s the Pictures That Got Small” (fittingly one half of the most famous line in Sunset).
Perhaps it is something to do with the nature of screenwriting, particularly co-writing, which involves two people sitting in a room and trying to get inside each other’s minds, that ultimately drives even the best co-writers apart. The necessarily intimate, even intrusive, nature of this process is such that even the greatest screenwriting partnerships – from Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz to more recent examples such as Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman – are inevitably doomed to end. Nevertheless, in the entire history of co-writing partnerships, that of Brackett and Wilder ranks among the very best.