High Comedy Downfall
In his marvelous 1999 book Conversations with Wilder, Cameron Crowe asked six-time Academy Award® winner Billy Wilder (seven if you throw in his 1987 Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award): “Was The Fortune Cookie (1966) a victory for you?” The response: “No, it was the beginning of my downfall.” Harsh words, indeed, from a master of wicked, merciless wit who always seemed to balance cynical and charming with time-honed precision. Ed Sikov’s biography On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, published a year before the Crowe compendium, reports: “Wilder himself is terse on the subject of The Fortune Cookie: ‘The film didn’t impress the critics and didn’t make money and it disappeared in the big garbage pit along with a year of my life.’ The Fortune Cookie [which opened in theaters 51 years ago yesterday] was not a total loss, however: ‘But it was very amusing to make. We didn’t lie, we said what we had to say, we didn’t compromise to make it commercially viable. But it’s forgotten.’” Proving the frequent observation that creative folk may not be the best evaluators of their own legacy, the one sure thing about this juicy and scalding fable about greed, grift and the romantic and delusional desires that fuel them is that it’s very much remembered. It’s the film that brought Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau together for the first of 11 memorable movie associations, and Matthau’s voraciously vivid Oscar®-winning Best Supporting Actor role as avaricious attorney “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich enlarged his career playing field by conferring stardom upon him. While not achieving the box-office high of Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1963) and avoiding the censorious notoriety of the sexually ribald Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), it captured enough critical and public interest to persuade United Artists and the Mirisch Company to back Wilder’s long-gestating labor-of-love project: a lavish Sherlock Holmes film that would finally come to fruition.
So what is this marker of its filmmaker’s downfall all about? Sikov writes: “The Fortune Cookie, an original story by Wilder and [I.A.L.] Diamond, concerns some of Billy’s favorite subjects: avarice, self-contempt, a fallen woman, male bonding, and televised sports. By the mid-1960s, the Wilders’ art-laden penthouse sported two televisions along with the Picassos, Klees and Mirós, so that Billy could watch baseball and football games simultaneously during the crossover early-autumn season. He met with the owner of the Cleveland Browns in May  to set up a crucial location shoot; he would film on the field during an actual Browns game in the fall. In Billy and Izzy’s new comedy, an immorality tale, Lemmon would play Harry Hinkle, a cameraman for CBS Sports who gets accidentally tackled on the sidelines by a player during a Browns football game. His shyster-lawyer brother-in-law Willie Gingrich (Matthau) convinces him to feign injury and sue both CBS and the Browns for $1 million. Given the history of American negligence litigation and damage awards, this sum probably doesn’t register with quite the ridiculous force it did in 1966. Toward the end of the film, when Gingrich agrees to settle the case for $200,000, he chortles that it’s ‘the biggest cash award every made in a personal injury case in the state of Ohio.’ (That line alone is enough to get a laugh in the late 1990s). Matthau was integral to The Fortune Cookie from the beginning. As Diamond once explained, ‘before we put a word on paper we went to New York to see Mr. Matthau. We told him the story and got him committed to do it before we began to write.’ As Wilder and Diamond describe Matthau’s Willie Gingrich in their screenplay, ‘He is a tall, loose-jointed man of 40, with a brain full of razor blades and a heart full of chutzpah.’ This was not an original turn of phrase; it’s what William Holden once said about Billy.” Despite Wilder’s twilight era moodiness, he soldiered on to make five more films, none of which were a box-office powerhouse but each of which, like The Fortune Cookie, have come in for varying degrees of fond reappreciation over subsequent decades. While we might be loath to contradict one of the great cinematic wits in Hollywood history, Wilder has never concocted a “downfall” as brash, sharply observant, bafflingly tender and deliciously funny as The Fortune Cookie, delivering a huge settlement of classic comedy on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.