- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2002

"Double Indemnity." "The Lost Weekend." "Sunset Boulevard." "Stalag 17." "Some Like It Hot." "The Apartment." What do these movies have in common? For one thing, there is nothing "dated" about them, even though they are over 50 years old. Clothing fashions change, language evolves, social taboos come and go, but certain views of the human condition are eternal.
These movies have at their heart a tolerant, witty, often cynical understanding of life. It is as if they were told by a charming man of the world who has seen too much to be shocked by human frailty and folly. They were in fact all directed and co-written by such a man, the one and only Billy Wilder (1906-2002).
Nobody's Perfect
Billy Wilder: A Personal Biography (Simon and Schuster, $27.50, 342 pages, illus.) by Charlotte Chandler, tells Wilder's story, much of it in his words, from his childhood in pre-World War I Vienna to his start in movies in Berlin during the 1920s. In the early days of Adolf Hitler's dictatorship Wilder emigrated to the United States and began writing screenplays for Paramount studios. He had the good fortune to meet screen writer Charles Brackett, and their subsequent writing collaboration made them famous.
When that partnership broke up, Wilder, by now a director as well as screenwriter, hit it lucky again. He met I. A. L. Diamond with whom he wrote "Some Like it Hot," among other good movies. In the 1970s. Wilder's career went into free fall and he never recovered his magic touch.
Ms. Chandler had extensive interviews with Wilder and the book is filled with page after page of his reminiscences. Although he was in his 90s when the interviews took place, there is no sign that he suffered from diminished memory. He seems to have recalled every bon mot, put-down, and (well-rehearsed) "spontaneous" quip ever attributed to him. The author also interviewed stars who worked in Wilder movies, including Ginger Rogers, Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis. The book would have been better if she had edited their often interesting but sometimes garrulous contributions.
There is little that is new or insightful, about Wilder or movies in general, in "Nobody's Perfect" (the title, of course, is taken from the memorable last line of "Some Like it Hot"). But anyone who admires the films I have mentioned (not to mention such second-tier Wilder gems as "Ace in the Hole" and "The Fortune Cookie") will derive knowledge and pleasure from the book.

Condi: The Condoleezza Rice Story by Antonia Felix (Newmarket Press, $19.95, 288 pages, illus.) is an unashamedly adulatory look at President George W. Bush's National Security Advisor. According to the author, Ms. Rice has boundless energy, steely determination, fierce integrity and total mastery of subjects ranging from football to geopolitics.
After one meeting with her, Ariel Sharon, that old smoothy, said: "I have to confess it was hard for me to concentrate in [sic] the conversation with Condoleezza Rice because she has very nice legs." When Ms. Rice had an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Boris Yeltsin, he was the one who blinked. And, oh, yes, she plays piano well enough to perform duets with world-class cellist Yo Yo Ma.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1954, Condoleezza Rice was never allowed to feel sorry for herselfshe was too busy learning. As one relative said about her father, a preacher, and her mother, an educator: "They simply ignored … the larger culture that said you're second class, you're black, you don't count, you have no power." Her parents, according to the author, "showered their daughter with love, attention, pride, and exposure to all the elements of western culturemusic, ballet, foreign language, athletics and the great books." By the time the civil rights revolution reached Alabama, Ms. Rice's family had for three generations been committed to racial pride, academic excellence, and equality of opportunity.
At a crucial point in her academic career Ms. Rice was the beneficiary of affirmative action hiring at Stanford University. I found the author's treatment of the episode not quite as penetrating as it might have been. No one can doubt Condoleezza Rice's credentials, yet the fact is, as she herself states, she was hired at least in part because she was "a black female who could diversify" the ranks of the Stanford political science department. It would be useful to learn how Ms. Rice reconciled her acceptance of the position under those conditions with her belief in advancement on the basis of individual achievement.
But the authoror is it Ms. Rice herself? essentially avoids the complex issues involved, except to say there is a difference between getting a job through a quota system and keeping the job.
If at times the book seems to be an extended public relations release for this proud, talented black woman, the fault is not entirely that of the author. Ms. Rice is indeed a one-woman human potential movement. I mean it as a high compliment when I say she reminds me of an academic, intellectual version of Martha Stewart: driven to success, intimidating in her self-assurance and accomplishments, and seemingly indefatigable in her focused energies. Ms. Rice is currently one of the wonders of the academic/political world. It would be foolish to underestimate her ability some day to transform herself into a political superstar.


After a lifetime of reading about men who go down to the sea in ships, my nautical knowledge and vocabulary still leave much to be desired. Oh, I can shout "Avast, ye lubbers!" and "Row hearty, mateys!" if the situation demands (which it rarely does on the Beltway), but I am still not sure where or what the mizzen mast is, and if I was ordered to go to the orlop, I'd need a tour guide. But despite my invincible ignorance, I love to read about the sea, which is probably why I enjoyed Mad Jack Percival: Legend of the Old Navy by James H. Ellis (Naval Institute Press, $34.95, 288 page, illus.).
Some men pack so much adventure into one lifetime that they seem like fictional characters. John Percival (1779-1862) was one of them. For over 40 years, from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to Cochin China (Vietnam), from fighting in the war of 1812 to hunting down mutineers in the Pacific Ocean, Percival was the very model of a tough, cantankerous, courageous sailor.
He was called Mad Jack because he had an explosive temper and an uncanny ability to find and then get into fights with fists, clubs, guns, swords, or abusive words (he has the dubious distinction of being first American military man ever to get into military trouble in Vietnam). He was not a martinet, however, and helped many of his crew members to advance in the naval service. In his 60s, wracked with crippling gout, he circumnavigated the globe as captain of the U.S.S. Constitution ("Old Ironsides"), herand hislast great voyage.
Mr. Ellis writes clearly and knowledgeably about Percival and his times, makes informed judgments about disputed matters, and, all in all, has written an admirable book that will appeal to naval experts and armchair sailors as well.

William F. Gavin is a writer in McLean, Va.



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