WILDER
1906-2002

by Chris Dashiell


"The situation is definitely hopeless, but not serious." -- Billy Wilder

The word "cynical" appeared in many of the tributes and obituaries for Billy Wilder, who died on March 27th. His films never seemed that way to me. Sure, he gave self-interest its due as a motive for human behavior, but his heart was with the people who gave and loved and dreamed, in spite of callousness or corruption. The wit in even his darkest films is warm. Why do I return again and again to J.J. Sefton, Norma Desmond, or C.C. Baxter? At some level I recognize myself in them, and I am fond of them, with all their flaws. Instead of dazzling us with romantic illusion, Wilder gives us a clear-eyed view of things, and yet we smile. Some people call that cynicism. I call it art.

Hopeless, but not serious. A wise way to view the world, I think. For an exile, who ran from Vienna to Berlin to Paris to Hollywood - for a man whose mother, stepfather and grandmother were murdered in the Holocaust - it was a remarkable, resilient way to live.

"Want to buy some illusions?"
-- Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair.

First he was a writer, and the dialogue is always important in his movies. The people in a Wilder film banter, fling wisecracks at one another, comment on everything, and generally seem more self-aware than the people in other films. All in the context of stories that are often outlandish and provocative, never boring.

Someone at Paramount had the strange idea of teaming him up with his temperamental opposite - the New England snob and New Yorker drama critic Charles Brackett. It worked. Wilder could barely speak English at first - he spouted ideas and Brackett turned them into stylish sentences. Mercurial daring combined with old school wit - eventually the two men blended into a team that rarely failed. The divine Midnight and Ninotchka (both '39), the underrated Hold Back the Dawn and Ball of Fire (both '41).

Notice the unique combination of styles even in Wilder's first stab at directing in Hollywood: The Major and the Minor ('42). Ginger Rogers masquerades as a 12-year-old because she can't afford the train fare back home. Ray Milland won't consciously acknowledge that he's falling in love with this underage schoolgirl. A ridiculous idea, verging on the risqué (that is to say, a typical Wilder story), tempered by a good sense of fun (Brackett's style). It's a bauble compared to later work, but enjoyable nonetheless.

"A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant, and a bastard." -- Billy Wilder

In the heady days of the auteur theory, Wilder was dismissed as uncinematic. To the end, many critics said that his films were more interesting for how they sounded than how they looked. I've never understood that. Did these writers really watch Double Indemnity, with its shadowy minimalism - a template for the film noir style? Consider Sunset Boulevard, from the bottom-of-the-swimming-pool viewpoint of the opening to the haunting final closeup, and explain to me why this isn't a visual tour de force. And what about the complex arrangements, rife with subtle parodies and visual jokes, within the frame of Some Like It Hot? I can only guess that the auteurists rejected Wilder because his marvelous writing distracted them. (To be fair, Andrew Sarris and others revised their opinions later.)

According to the man himself, his two greatest influences were Lubitsch (no surprise) and Stroheim (surprise). He shared some of Lubitsch's warily amused point of view towards American ways and mores, as well as his refined sense of comic timing. The other strain is less easy to spot - perhaps Wilder's penchant for realism, and his gift for the bittersweet, can be partly traced to Stroheim. All three were part of the great exodus of German/Jewish talent to Hollywood in the wake of Hitler, an influx with an incalculable effect on the vitality of American film.

Wilder's second partnership - with the Brooklyn-raised I.A.L. Diamond - was a union of like minds rather than opposites. The sceptics who thought Wilder owed everything to Brackett (a theory encouraged by the disastrous 1951 flop of the post-Brackett satire Ace in the Hole) were proven wrong by Love in the Afternoon ('57), Some Like It Hot ('59) and The Apartment ('60), among others.

Certain actors blossomed under his direction. I dare say Jack Lemmon's best comic work was in his Wilder films. William Holden, Ray Milland, Gloria Swanson, and Fred MacMurray turned in the performances of their careers for him. Marilyn Monroe was often an embarrassingly bad actress - but not for Wilder.

For the canon-minded, Wilder's output constitutes a treasure trove of intelligent Hollywood moviemaking. I consider Sunset Boulevard a bona fide masterpiece, with Some Like It Hot and Double Indemnity not far behind, while the rest of his films, with only a handful of exceptions, remain ever watchable. Smart and entertaining - that's not the usual combo. With Wilder it's a given. And his films continue to be popular, gaining new audiences with each generation.

"I talked to a couple of yes men at Metro. To me they said no." -- William Holden in Sunset Boulevard.

It's ironic that Wilder's death symbolizes the passing of the old Hollywood era. He was the brash new guy who was always pushing the limits of acceptability. The studio was wary of his choices. In '44 the Hays Office objected to Double Indemnity (Wilder writing with Raymond Chandler on that one) as a "blueprint for murder." Paramount went ahead with it anyway, and it was a hit. The next year Wilder made The Lost Weekend - a grim story of alcoholism that everyone thought would bomb. Paramount nervously shelved it for a few months, then released it. It was a huge hit and won the Oscar too.

Sunset Boulevard ('50) remains the ultimate film about Hollywood, and the first with that keen sense of irony that the subject calls for. Many in the industry, including Louis B. Mayer, were outraged by it. Ace in the Hole, a savage take on journalistic sensationalism starring Kirk Douglas, was too strong for either critics or audiences. Kiss Me, Stupid ('64) was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, and roundly attacked by the critics, causing the wounded Wilder to retreat to Europe for a few years.

Wilder wasn't happy trying to make tame comedies or romances - he ended up criticizing postwar attitudes in A Foreign Affair ('48), having fun with sex and gender in Some Like It Hot, and the Cold War in One, Two, Three ('61). He seemed always a little ahead of the curve, or way ahead - some of his mellow later work such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) or Fedora (1978) is looking better and better.

When a man dies at the age of 95, in the fullness of honor and reputation, it seems more fitting to celebrate than to grieve. The young man who barely managed to get by in Berlin and Paris, who came to America with no command of English, living in an apartment with Peter Lorre on "a can of soup a day," the man who confounded the know-it-alls and became Hollywood's hottest director - he followed his lens and fooled 'em all, and now he's gone. But we'll always have the work.

Now shut up and deal......


©2002 Chris Dashiell
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