Billy Wilder is one of the great all-time filmmakers. Over the course of his illustrious career, the writer-director crafted a number of unforgettable classics that range from heartbreaking drama, hard-boiled noir, and screwball comedy. Wilder was known for often working with the same actors time and time again, and there’s no other actor that Wilder employed more than Jack Lemmon. In 1972, Wilder and Lemmon for their fifth collaboration (there would be two more in subsequent years) with Avanti! For the film’s 45th anniversary, a special screening of the film will be held Wednesday, March 29th at The Royal Theater in Los Angeles, featuring a Q&A with the film’s stars Juliet Mills and Clive Revill.
Lemmon stars as Wendell Armbruster, Jr., an executive tasked with flying to Italy to claim the body of his father after he’s killed in an automobile accident. The straight-laced and somewhat uptight Armbruster is shocked to learn that his father had been carrying out a decades long affair with the mother of Pamela Piggott (Mills). With a funeral set in a matter of days, Armbruster must scramble to secure the necessary documents to send his father’s body back to America but has trouble navigating the bureaucracy and laid back nature of the Italians, though the hotel manager Carlo (Revill) is more than willing to help. Throughout it all, though, a romance soon starts to form between Armbruster and Piggot, carrying on a tradition started by their parents.
“He’s always been one of my favorite filmmakers, too, so you can imagine how excited I was to be a part of that movie,” Juliet Mills told me about joining the cast of Avanti! “Actually, Billy called me and said he wanted to meet me because he had a part for me in a film that he was writing. It was that much of a dream. It was that simple. I didn’t read or audition or screen test or anything. I went him and [Wilder’s long-time writing partner] I.A.L. Diamond at Goldwyn Studios, as it was called then, and had a meeting with them in Billy’s office, covered with all of his wonderful artwork, and he told me about the movie and said that he always thought of me for the part and the only catch was I had gain 35 pounds. Would I do it? So of course I said yes, naturally.”
Being cast in Avanti! was a long time coming for Mills, who had first met Billy Wilder years prior. “He had actually seen me many years ago in a play in London, and he came around afterwards to my dressing room and was very complimentary and said, ‘One day, we’ll work together.’ Of course, you know, people say things they don’t mean or things never come to fruition but in this case this dream came true and I got to work with Billy and Jack, who was dream to work with and taught me a lot about comedy and acting just by working with him,” she said.
“He didn’t do anything like that, sort of technical. He just was,” Mills said of her co-star Jack Lemmon. “He was just so wonderful to work with and so real. He just brought the best out. I just reacted to him. You know half of acting is reacting, so it made it very, very easy working with him because he was so wonderful, so real. He was so present, so there. He made my job very easy.”
Avanti! was shot on location in Italy, and the film is full of lush scenery along the Italian coast. “Oh my goodness it was a dream,” Mills said of the location shooting.
While shooting, though, Mills was able to enjoy all of the delicacies that Italy had to offer. “All the time I was supposed to be eating and keeping my weight on. So [Billy Wilder] would feed me all the time and take me out to dinner every night with his wife and Jack Lemmon. I just had a wonderful time, a happy wonderful experience. I just had to have three big meals a day and finish up with a big bowl of ice cream,” she said with a laugh.
“Billy was – all the details everything was so precise the way he wanted. He was so easy to work with. He was so funny himself, such a witty, funny man with a great sense of humor,” Mill fondly recalled of the legendary writer-director. “He just made everything fun. The set was a happy place and everybody was thrilled to be working on the film in whatever they were doing, costumes or camera or actors. Everybody just loved working with Billy Wilder.”
Like many of the comedies of Billy Wilder, Avanti! deals with matters relating to marital infidelity. It’s a topic that Wilder covered in such films as The Apartment, The Seven-Year Itch, and Kiss Me, Stupid. And yet Avanti! failed to garner much controversy, unlike Kiss Me, Stupid, for its depiction of marital infidelity, likely due to the nature of Wilder’s classical style and the changing social norms in the intervening eight years between films.
“It seemed so tame in a way,” Mills said of the film’s handling of its characters’ love affair. “There were no great love scenes. It was a love story. It was more a romance and a romantic film to me than anything. There certainly wasn’t any controversy about it, the adultery and all that. I think the fact that it was a romantic comedy. Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder could really get away with anything, I think.”
There’s no need to ask “permesso?” Just get your tickets and catch Avanti! in the theater. It’s a great opportunity to see this underrated comedy from the great Billy Wilder with two of its stars in attendance.
The special 45th anniversary screening of Avanti! featuring a Q&A with Juliet Mills and Clive Revill takes places on Wednesday, March 29th at 7pm at the Royal Theater in Los Angeles. Get tickets here.