The contentious, often hilarious, collaboration between legendary screenwriter-director Billy Wilder and mystery novelist Raymond Chandler is the subject of a new play, “Billy & Ray,” opening April 5 at Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre in Burbank.
Playwright Mike Bencivenga said he got the idea for the story before the Obama election, when he was struck by how much the country was divided. He decided to write a play that wasn’t political but showed how people who have deep differences can argue, yet also compromise to make something larger than their disagreements.
“So I thought of Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, who I’d always heard just couldn’t stand each other, and yet they created this amazing film [“Double Indemnity”], and really invented a whole genre of movies, by the two of them coming together,” Bencivenga explained.
Wilder and Chandler worked together on the script for the 1944 signature film noir about an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) who is seduced by a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) into secretly writing an insurance policy on her husband’s life, and helping her murder the husband in such a way (by making it look like an accident) that she can collect a double payment, hence the title.
Bencivenga, who holds Wilder as one of his idols, said he did extensive research using the files from Paramount Studios that are housed in the special collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He went through every memo, every letter and every draft of the script.
“You really saw how the script evolved and how things vastly changed. All the memos between people were kind of hilarious and sometimes very nasty, but they have it all. So I absorbed that and paraphrased a lot of it, but I never put in anything that wasn’t based in truth.”
The playwright added that he included many lines that are exact quotes from Wilder, an Austrian-Jewish expatriate.
“He says, ‘Subtleties are fine as long as we make them obvious.’ ‘Never let thinking get in the way of a good idea.’ And Chandler wrote letters to friends about Wilder, saying, ‘He’s impossible,’ and he’s this and he’s that.”
The two men locked horns largely because they were a study in contrasts. As is portrayed in the play, Wilder (Kevin Blake) was an irreverent, ribald, heavy-drinking, wisecracking womanizer, while Chandler (Shaun O’Hagan) was a quiet, principled, classically educated intellectual, a stickler for correctness, in behavior and grammar. However, unlike Wilder, who drank but was not addicted to it, Chandler was an alcoholic who tried to abstain but became a closet drinker under the strain of their collaboration.
Legendary TV (“Happy Days,” “The Odd Couple”) and film producer, director (“Princess Diaries,” “Pretty Woman”) and writer Marshall, who is directing “Billy & Ray,” remarked that he can relate to the battles depicted in the story because he has lived through similar ones in his career. He also regards Wilder as one of his idols.
“I love his work — ‘The Apartment,’ ‘The Lost Weekend,’ all the stuff, even ‘One, Two, Three.’ And this was very interesting, because I don’t really do, in my work, film noir. I do film blanc. I do light and happy. But I was always interested and loved to watch it, so when this kind of examined — and was very beautifully written by Mike — how they came to this ‘Double Indemnity,’ it really fascinated me, and is a part of Hollywood that is not spoken of very much.”
The play takes place during a time in Hollywood history when a “code of decency” controlled the film business, and Wilder was looking for end-runs around the censors.
“They’re making a movie about adultery at a time when you couldn’t even show married people in bed together,” Bencivenga explained. “And, so, he was always pushing to say, ‘How can we do it? How can we get sexy, naughty?’ It’s my theory about Billy Wilder that he was at his absolute best when he had to deal with the censors, because he had to be clever.”
Marshall added, “There was censorship, etc., but these two men tried to do something that was a little different and set the tone for the rest of censorship in the future. So, it’s a very important part of the history of film, this particular incident. For me, it shows how the creative process can go cockeyed.”
Although there is nothing in this story that directly indicates Wilder’s Jewish roots, or the fact that he escaped the Nazis in the nick of time, the play subtly references his attempt to find out about family members who were left behind in Europe. And Marshall feels that the subtext of Wilder’s character is permeated with a kind of survivor’s guilt.
“He knows that the guilt he carries, probably why he drinks, too, is that they’re there, he’s here: ‘Why me, why am I saved, not them?’ And he’s trying to do everything he can to help them, but since he can’t, Billy Wilder’s protection against life and adversity was to joke about it, so he won’t say anything sincere,” he said. “It’s very sad, what he’s going through. That is the sad side of his life, which made him pretty incapable of having a regular marriage or whatever. He hides in humor and womanizing, and that makes the pain of the background in Germany a little easier for him. That’s how he gets through.”
As for what the director would like the play to say to audiences, Marshall said, “I was hoping, because this is Los Angeles, and the film industry is here, I’d like a lot of filmic people to learn a little more about the film noir and how it all came about and the history of film. And I’d like them to go away saying, ‘[Those were] two funny characters.’ In the world of art and creativity, any two people, even though they have nothing in common, can do something great, and we see it every day.”