When legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder was asked how he and his screenwriting partner, I.A.L. Diamond came up with ideas, his answer was surprisingly straightforward. “You sit there and you try to find something,” explained Wilder. “Sometimes nothing. Sometimes we just sit there and wait.” Envisioning a brainstorming session with the geniuses behind Some Like It Hot (1959), one might assume the writing gods blessed them in a ritualistic ceremony of brilliant language every time they touched a typewriter.
In reality, it came down to good old-fashioned patience and endurance. This was part of what made the lucrative union between Wilder and Diamond last for over 25 years. During their daily routine, the pair stayed persistent with high standards for their work. They knew the muse would eventually come and grant them the words and plot structures required to make the most famous films in cinema history.
There was recently an announcement of an upcoming Stephen Frears‘ film about the creative life of Wilder starring Christoph Waltz. According to Variety, Billy Wilder & Me will follow his collaboration with Diamond on their 1977 film Fedora. Billy Wilder & Me focuses on a later time in their famous partnership, but it ultimately reminds us of the astounding body of work the two created together. Though Fedora wasn’t a big success, there’s hope that the biopic will also explore earlier, more acclaimed projects like The Fortune Cookie (1964) and The Apartment (1960), which became the golden standard that many would imitate in the romantic comedy genre.
Every magical collaboration has to begin with one project, and this one has fascinating roots. In 1957, Wilder was fresh from his split with screenwriter Charles Brackett, whom he’d fallen out with over the signing of a co-writing contract. Though he already had some big hits, like Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Sabrina (1954), Wilder was on the prowl for fresh inspiration. He’d need a new partner in crime. He found out about I.A.L. Diamond’s talent through his writing credits with Paramount Studios in films like That Certain Feeling (1956) and Never Say Goodbye (1956) and set up a meeting through the writer’s agent, Irving (Swifty) Lazar. Upon that first meeting, they clicked creatively and personally. The rest is history.
Wilder and Diamond’s first effort together was a little romantic comedy released in 1957 called Love in the Afternoon. Adapted from the 1920 novel Ariane, jeune fille russe by Claude Anet, the film starred a young, innocent Audrey Hepburn and a mature, refined Gary Cooper. Though it failed to strike a chord with moviegoers (mainly because the public couldn’t accept the almost 30-year age gap between the two actors), it still holds a gem-like quality in film history for its quirkiness and originality.
Set in Paris, the plot follows Ariane Chavasse (Hepburn), a young music student and the daughter of private detective Claude Chavasse (Maurice Chevalier). She is investigating the romantic trysts of American businessman Frank Flannagan (Cooper). Upon learning that a jealous husband is about to shoot Flannagan, Ariane shows up at his hotel to warn him, which leads to a budding union between the two. Because Arianne won’t disclose her identity to remain mysterious, he affectionately refers to her as “Thin Girl”, a name that sticks throughout the film.
Their relationship progresses as they enjoy elaborately romantic afternoons together in the City of Love. Arianne spins wild tales about being just as much a cosmopolitan lover as Flannagan. Upon viewing, the audience can feel Arianne’s desperation to intrigue a man who seems immune to love. As one thing leads to another, Flannagan becomes jealous of her supposed lovers and unknowingly hires her father to have her investigated. Eventually, the ruse is up, and true love prevails with perhaps one of the most romantic film endings of all time. A sobbing Arianne runs alongside Flannagan’s departing train, all the while convincing him of the reasons she’ll be fine without him. Cooper’s expression shows a mix of conflict and heartbreak until, at the last second, he finally pulls her aboard, and they embrace their happy ending in a satisfying kiss.
Interestingly, it was initially implied that the two characters, whose frequent meetings in Flannagan’s hotel suite had been sexual. However, due to the moral code of the Hollywood golden age and threats from the Catholic church, Wilder was forced to dub in dialogue indicating everything had been above board, as Cooper is overheard stating, “I can’t get to first base with her.”
Even with the wholesome nature of Love in the Afternoon intact, many critics and viewers were deeply uncomfortable with the idea of playboy Flanagan being portrayed by Gary Cooper. In 1957 it was simply unacceptable to show a young woman in her 20 falling in love with a man older than herself by almost three decades. Wilder and Diamond knew they’d have to tread lightly with scenes between them. They were mindful of showing affection in subtle ways where for example, Cooper would kiss Hepburn’s hand, more or less hinting at what may be happening between them but never giving it away.
Perhaps critics and audiences were missing Wilder’s and Diamond’s point. The unlikely relationship is precisely what they were offering by casting two of the greatest actors of the Golden Age in an unexpected relationship dynamic. Cooper’s age emphasizes his character’s experience and cynicism. Flannigan spent a lifetime perfecting his seduction technique to the point that he knows the right music to play and champagne to buy. By the time he meets Arianne, he’s merely going through the motions with women.
On the other end of the spectrum, Arianne is new to matters of the heart and naïvely believes she can manipulate Flannigan and beat him at his own game. Hepburn’s innocence may have been less believable if she had been older. This generation gap sets up a connection that points out the flaws in their views and eventually brings the two supposedly mismatched lovers together.
Although Love in the Afternoon wasn’t nearly as celebrated as Wilder’s and Diamond’s later films, it was their collaboration’s first and perhaps most important chapter. With Love in the Afternoon, the duo laid the groundwork for one of the most fabulous Diamond-Wilder creations of all time, Some Like It Hot (which provided Marilyn Monroe with her most famous role as Sugar Kane and won the pair their first writing Oscar.) This followed only two years later. Then, in 1961 Wilder and Diamond wrote their masterpiece, The Apartment, still considered the best romantic comedy of all time (with lead actress Shirley MacLaine possessing notably similar naïvete to Love in the Afternoon’s Arianne). Some Like It Hot was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning best screenplay, best director for Wilder, and Best Film. None of this glory would have been possible without the creative foundation of Love in the Afternoon.
To maintain a creative relationship in a place like Hollywood, which would last until Diamond’s death in 1988, is no small feat. The secret to the pair’s writing success seemed rooted in their ability to think outside the box and mutual respect. Wilder once said, “If I ever lost this guy (Diamond), I’d be like Abercrombie without Fitch.” Diamond had a similar response when asked by the Los Angeles Times who was of more value to a project, the writer, the actor, or the director. Predictably, Diamond chose the writer, adding succinctly that “directors can’t direct and actors can’t act without a screenwriter.” But then he quickly added an exception. “Billy,” he said, “is a writer who is also a director.”
Wilder and Diamond’s first effort together may not be as broadly appealing as their later Oscar-winning films. Still, Love in the Afternoon deserves more credit than it has received for its artistic merit and for being the curious film that set off a chain reaction of magical collaboration. Though it’s an unconventional love story with a pairing that’s not for everyone, Love In The Afternoon shouldn’t be unfairly compared to other films of its era. After all, films like The Apartment and Irma La Douce – the jewels in the duo’s crown, may not exist without this diamond in the rough.