The Great Screenwriters – Part 11: I.A.L. Diamond

By January 18, 2017Screenwriting 101

I.A.L. Diamond was Billy Wilder’s second great co-writer. After Charles Brackett, with whom Wilder had co-written The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard, Wilder formed another superb screenwriting partnership with Diamond that produced classics such as Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Unlike the Brackett-Wilder relationship, which was really an attraction of opposites (the patrician Brackett working alongside the more down-to-earth émigré Wilder), lasted just over a decade and finally ended acrimoniously after a business dispute, Diamond and Wilder enjoyed a greater affinity, were much more alike (as both of them were balding and bespectacled by middle age, they even looked a little alike) and co-wrote together for more than a quarter of a century. For Wilder, this diamond was clearly his best friend.

The Diamond-Wilder friendship and writing partnership was partly based on the fact that both men were Europeans who had fled to America. (Their experience was certainly very different from that of Charles Brackett, who came from a long-established East Coast family and even claimed to have an ancestor who had been on The Mayflower.) However, whereas Wilder had escaped the Nazis as a fully grown man who had already made several films, Itzek Domnici, as Diamond was originally called, had come to America as a nine-year-old boy in about 1930, accompanying his mother as they followed his father from Bessarabia, which then was part of Romania but is now part of modern-day Moldova.

Diamond’s parents settled in New York and he attended school and quickly became assimilated into American culture. In particular, such was his precious ability at mathematics that he became famed for winning tournaments in algebra and other aspects of mathematics. He later joked that the initials he adopted as a writer, I.A.L, stood for “Interscholastic Algebra League”, one of the many maths tournaments he had won as a child in Brooklyn. However, despite this mathematical ability, which ostensibly prepared him for a career as an engineer, Diamond was always drawn to the intricacy and idiosyncratic nature of the English language, studying journalism at Columbia University and also writing for and editing numerous student publications, specialising in writing witty sketches and one-liners. It was this latent ability as a writer that eventually led him to Hollywood in the early 1940s. 

Like most screenwriters, even most great screenwriters, Diamond originally struggled to scrape a living in Los Angeles, contributing ideas and dialogue to scripts without even being credited. His first notable success (and his first scriptwriting credit) was Murder in the Blue Room, a relatively undistinguished 1944 comedy-musical. It is probably most noteworthy for being a remake of a late 1930s film which was itself based on a 1932 German movie, Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers (Secret of the Blue Room). Many years later, of course, Diamond would work alongside Wilder on writing their great masterpiece and the film that is often cited as the funniest screen comedy ever made, Some Like It Hot, which itself was based on another 1930s German film, Fanfaren der Liebe (Fanfare of Love).  

At this point, of course, Diamond was yet to meet Wilder, let alone work alongside him. As Wilder announced himself as a brilliant writer-director with the likes of Double Indemnity (1944), which he co-wrote with no less a literary master than Raymond Chandler, and Sunset Boulevard (1950), his crowning achievement with Charles Brackett, Diamond was struggling to survive at the other end of the Hollywood food chain by writing and co-writing a succession of films that were relatively unheralded at the time and are almost completely forgotten today, including Love and Learn (1947) and Love Nest (1951), which was probably most noteworthy for featuring one of the early screen performances of Marilyn Monroe, for whom Diamond and Wilder would go on to write her greatest part, as Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot. 

There was one notable exception to this run of largely forgettable scripts that Diamond contributed to in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and that was Monkey Business (1952). Alas, even this was not the Marx Brothers’ 1931 masterpiece of the same name, but a screwball comedy about a chemist, played by Cary Grant, who attempts to find the secret of eternal youth. Again starring a young and pre-superstardom Marilyn Monroe, this Monkey Business was still a pretty good comedy and, more importantly, finally brought Diamond into contact with major Hollywood players, as it was directed by Howard Hawks and co-written by several other established writers, including the great Ben Hecht. Finally, after nearly a decade in Hollywood, Diamond was beginning to make good movies and, even more importantly, good money, so much so that in the mid-1950s he could finally forego his usual short-term studio contract and go it alone as an independent or freelance scriptwriter for hire. 

It was at this time that he met and befriended Wilder, who was fresh from his “split” with Brackett, with whom he had ultimately fallen out over the signing of a co-writing contract. Undoubtedly scarred by this experience, Wilder, who often thought the grandee Brackett had looked down on him and especially his penchant for comedy (even base or lowbrow comedy), warmed to his fellow European exile, Diamond. Indeed, the two men grew so close that Diamond’s widow, Barbara, later claimed that many of the characters in their films, particularly the immortal Joe and Jerry in Some Like It Hot, were based on the wisecracking but mutually supportive relationship of Diamond and Wilder.

The first fruit of their co-writing work was Love In The Afternoon (1957), a genial romantic comedy starring Gary Cooper (in a rare comic and non-Western role) and Audrey Hepburn. However, this was only really laying the groundwork for the greatest Diamond-Wilder creation, Some Like It Hot, which followed two years later.

Some Like It Hot remains probably the greatest screen comedy ever made and almost certainly the finest and funniest screenplay ever written. Although it was based on an earlier German film about musicians on the run, Diamond and Wilder transformed their source material with a series of stunning alterations to fit an American audience: setting it in the late 1920s, the height of the “gangster era” in American society (when George Raft, the original Scarface and the fearsome gang leader Spats in Some Like It Hot, had first made his name as an actor); casting two performers of comic genius, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, and simultaneously eliciting a best-ever performance from Marilyn Monroe, who by then was a superstar but one in need of a great screen performance to cement her legend; and, above all, having the on-the-run musicians disguising themselves as women, so that they can join “Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators”, the all-female band heading for a lucrative gig in Florida, which allows the musicians to escape Chicago, where they had witnessed the murderous mayhem of Spats at first hand.

Some Like It Hot is positively Shakespearean in its revelry in cross-dressing and gender confusion; indeed, there are many who would argue (with some justification) that it is more purely funny than any Shakespearean comedy. The brilliance of Diamond and Wilder’s script, culminating in the all-time greatest pay-off line, or rather lines (“I’m a man”/“Well, nobody’s perfect”), won them an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and firmly established them as the finest writing team in Hollywood. Wilder had finally escaped the long shadow cast by his first great co-writer, Brackett (with whom he had won a Best Writing Oscar for Sunset Boulevard), and Diamond had finally ascended to Mount Olympus, or the American equivalent – the Hollywood “A-list” (or at least the one for writers and directors).

Some Like It Hot was an almost impossible act to follow, but Diamond and Wilder followed it with another comic masterpiece, The Apartment (1960). Indeed, they arguably topped it, at least in critical acclaim, as The Apartment not only won the pair another Writing Oscar (this time for the Best Original Screenplay) but also secured Academy Awards for Best Director (for Wilder) and Best Film.

It is fascinating to compare the two comic masterpieces, written in successive years by Diamond and Wilder and then brilliantly realised on screen by Wilder the director. Where Some Like It Hot was a freewheeling fantasy about gangsters, good-time girls and millionaires, The Apartment, while equally funny, was infinitely more realistic in its depiction of an office drone, Bud (beautifully and tenderly played by Jack Lemmon, who was now Diamond and Wilder’s “go-to guy” for comic performances), who works his way up the office’s greasy pole by loaning out the titular apartment to his bosses, so that they can entertain their girlfriends and mistresses. Ultimately, the scheme goes awry when Bud finds himself falling in love with the same lift girl (played by Shirley MacLaine in probably her finest ever screen performance) who has already been wooed and seemingly won by his uber-boss (played by Fred MacMurray, in his second great screen performance for Wilder, after his murderous insurance agent in Double Indemnity some 15 years earlier). Seemingly the whole of America and indeed the whole of the western world found themselves identifying with Bud, the ultimate “little guy”, who finally has to choose between love and money if he is to win MacLaine for himself. And of course, the final scene, in which a champagne bottle being uncorked is mistaken for a gunshot, is arguably the second greatest ending to a movie ever, after the imperious finale to Some Like It Hot.  

Taken together, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment are the greatest one-two punch ever in screen comedy, and arguably in all of cinema. And if they set an almost impossible standard for Diamond and Wilder to match in the future, well, it was almost impossible for everyone else to match, too.

Diamond and Wilder continued to enjoy considerable commercial success as they produced several more romantic comedies in the early to mid-1960s, including Irma La Douce (1963) and The Fortune Cookie (1966), but none came close to matching the sheer comic genius of Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Indeed, the sixties were something of a fallow period, at least creatively, for the pair, as they struggled, like much of Hollywood, to adapt to the generational hurricanes blowing through the decade, from the invention of the pill to the horrors of the Vietnam War. It was only at the end of the decade that the Diamond-Wilder partnership rediscovered its touch, fittingly with a film about perhaps the most famous male friendship (or “bromance”, to use the term largely used today) of all – that of Holmes and Watson.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), starring Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, two superb British character actors, as Holmes and Watson respectively, is not one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films and nor was it a great commercial success, unlike so many of his movies. Nevertheless, it was one of the finest films that Diamond and Wilder wrote together, focusing, as the title suggests, on the untold or at least hitherto unexplored aspects of the great Victorian detective’s existence. In particular, Diamond and Wilder gave Holmes a love life, as he is first approached by a Russian ballerina who wishes to procreate with him (marrying his incredible intellect to her astonishing physique to create a “superchild”) and then implicated in a love-story involving a German spy who has hired him after masquerading as a client searching for her missing husband.

Some of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is downright silly (especially the device of a submarine disguised as the “Loch Ness Monster”), but even at its silliest the film is moving in its portrayal of the co-dependency of Holmes and Watson. (Perhaps for Holmes, the film suggests, this co-dependency was achieved at the expense of any meaningful romantic engagement). In this way, the famous Detective and his sidekick could be seen, like Joe and Jerry in Some Like It Hot, as a reimagining of the Diamond-Wilder friendship itself. Moreover, the film’s depiction of Holmes as a drug-taking recluse who struggles to identify with ordinary people subtly altered the traditional depiction of Sherlock, from that of an almost inhuman genius to an all-too-human and troubled middle-aged man who just happens to have a gift for solving crimes or mysteries. In this way, it set the scene for almost all the future portrayals of Sherlock, both on the big screen and, even more importantly, on the TV screen, with the creators of the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring TV series paying particular homage to the movie and citing it as a continuous source of inspiration.

Diamond and Wilder continued to work together during the 1970s and early 1980s, intermittently producing remakes of earlier movies, such as The Front Page (1974) and Buddy, Buddy (1981), which are mainly memorable for featuring a famous on-screen double act – Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau – that was effectively another representation of the Diamond-Wilder friendship. Diamond and Wilder remained friends until Diamond’s death in 1988 and that close friendship was surely the wellspring of the great comedies they wrote together for the screen. In Charles Brackett, with whom he had always had a more difficult (and at times downright hostile) relationship, Wilder wrote his great screen dramas, especially Sunset Boulevard, but it was with Diamond that he wrote his great comic films, especially Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, which remain arguably the greatest, and far more importantly funniest, films ever made.