Tuesday, August 30

The Directors: Billy Wilder

There is no question this is one of the greatest American directors and screenwriters of all time.  With the likely exception of Hitchcock, I doubt that any director has ever been more discussed, dissected or written about.  His work spanned the 1930s to the 1960s and included stark dramas with such taboo subjects as alcoholism, adultery, kept boy toys and prostitution to brilliant comedies with witty, often cynical dialogue.  Billy Wilder was a genius at his craft. I expect he was an even better screenwriter than director but it is the director that is our focus.

Many of his films are famous for their memorable images and quotable lines. Consider Marilyn Monroe's billowing skirt over a subway grating, Barbara Stanwyck's anklet, an insurance investigator confessing his crime of murder into an office dictaphone, cross-dressing musicians (nobody's perfect) running from the mob, turning a chauffeur's daughter into a swan, hearing a washed-up actress decry that pictures are getting smaller and Charles Laughton steam-rolling over his fellow actors with words by Agatha Christie. 

He had a fruitful rapport with a number of actors and would work with several of them multiple times like Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and William Holden.  Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, Fred MacMurray, Shirley MacLaine worked for him twice and were generally glad they did.  All of his sets, however, were not happy sets, several producing feuds between costars or with Wilder himself. 

I admit that I am most impressed with the American Film Institute and consider their keen observations to be even more important than the Oscars.  Consider that Wilder was the director of four of AFI's 100 best films of all time, the director of AFI's #1 comedy of all time and directed four more of their 100 best comedies.  On the Oscar side, he was nominated eight times for best director (winning twice) and nominated for best screenplay 12 times (winning three). If that's not enough, he directed 14 actors to Oscar-nominated performances.

This brilliant and towering Hollywood figure was born in 1906 in what was once part of Austria-Hungary (Poland today) as Samuel Wilder.  He was, however, called Billy because his mother, who had spent some time in the States, was enamored of the Old West legend, Buffalo Bill.  

As an adult Wilder was usually reluctant to discuss his childhood. His caustic, acerbic view of life no doubt came as a result of moving all over Europe as a child, never really fitting in, always a foreigner, usually dismissed and agonizingly an outsider.

When he moved to Berlin alone in his early 20s, he had no way of knowing he would never see his family again.  Some time later he would hear they perished at Auschwitz. He began working as a newspaper reporter and secured some writing assignments in German films.  He was beginning to enjoy a certain youthful freedom in Berlin when Hitler began his rise to power. Wilder headed out for Paris and grabbed his first directorial assignment. By this early point, he knew he wanted to be the director-writer and even producer.  He knew he was good at his jobs but what he really wanted was total control.

By 1933 the ambitious young man was in Hollywood and could barely speak a word of English.  Despite the fact that he rather quickly learned the language, for years he was not comfortable enough to write in English and had two writing partners (first Charles Brackett and then I.A.L. Diamond) to help him along.  He had no enthusiasm, however, for sharing directing chores.

He had cowritten a dozen or so screenplays by the time he directed his first American film, the Ginger Rogers comedy, The Major and the Minor.  It was cute although dated and rather silly by today's standards.  Next was a subject he knew something about, war with the Germans, in Five Graves to Cairo (1943).  It, too, was fine, but nowhere near as good as things were going to get.  

Stanwyck and MacMurray up to no good

It's hard to imagine any Hollywood director making more truly great films during the 1940s and 50s than Billy Wilder.  That long streak began with 1944s Double Indemnity which is considered of the best film noirs ever and is certainly one of the most searing.  It tells the sordid and highly-involving tale of a scheming woman who enlists the aid of a lovesick, jaded insurance agent to write a life policy on her husband, unbeknownst to him, and then help her bump him off. Wilder (and the rest of us) was most fortunate to secure the services of three actors who performed at the top of their games.  A blonde Barbara Stanwyck, writing the book on femme fatale, should have won an Oscar. Fred MacMurray, cast against type, was never better (and that's no lie) and Edward G. Robinson as MacMurray's eventually suspicious boss kept my heart racing. 

Another scorcher of a film came with The Lost Weekend (1945), about a recovering alcoholic.  It was a sad, harrowing, punishing experience for everyone, the audience included.  Previously acting in mainly lightweight fare, both Ray Milland and Jane Wyman turned on the jets for this serious bit of business.  Milland and the film would both win Oscars.  Wilder would win Oscars for directing and writing, a feat he would repeat in 15 years.   

In 1948 there was a rare hiccup with Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine (yikes, what a pairing) in The Emperor's Waltz but he was totally redeemed with A Foreign Affair.  Well, maybe not totally.  I really liked it (when I saw it much, much later, mind you) but the public was on the fence.  I think later years have shown it in a more favorable light.  Wilder reminded us of his gift for comedy, in addition to his blistering dramas, and here we see the writer's passion for satire.  He must have felt some ambivalence filming in the country he once fled. 

Affair's plot concerned the corruption endemic in occupied Germany and involved an American army captain involved with both a U.S. congresswoman and a German cabaret performer.  The two women hated one another in the story and the two actresses playing them, Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich, did too.  Wilder and Dietrich became great pals and would work together again.

The director with his Norma Desmond

The 1950s opened up for Wilder with Sunset Blvd.  How bad is that?  It paired film noir with a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood. Can you imagine my excitement?  It brought us the story of a faded movie queen oozing with hysterical delight over a possible comeback from a young, hack writer who doubles as her resident stud.  In genius casting, it brought back to the screen a real faded movie star in the person of Gloria Swanson and made William Holden a bona fide star and (to his horror) sex symbol. Holden and Wilder knew a good thing had happened and would work together again.

One more drama came up in 1951 with Ace in the Hole (sometimes known as The Big Carnival).  It is another Wilder film that gained popularity with the passing years. While it's the story of a man trapped in a sand cave, it's more of a scathing look at some parasites in the media.  I felt about the film as I did its star... it was an excellent job but I didn't particularly care for it.  

I feel pretty much the same about his next outing... Stalag 17 (1953).  I know it's highly praised in most circles and won Holden an Oscar, but I have never connected to it.  It takes place almost entirely in a German POW camp and is ostensibly a comedy. Maybe I'm just a grouch on this one but I never got what was funny about such a theme.  Obviously I passed on Hogan's Heroes

Sabrina (1954) always felt like a departure for Wilder in some ways.  I actually don't always remember he did it.  That's not to say it was in any way bad and it is certainly a lovely romantic comedy but maybe that's the point.  Did Wilder do rom-coms?!?!  Well, for sure it is lacking in his usual cynical and brash touches.  The story of a chauffeur's daughter who falls first for the family's gorgeous younger son but later falls for his older, stodgier brother was a perfect fit for Holden, Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.  Or was it?  Not according to some of them, it wasn't so perfect. Bogart, along with many others, thought he was wrong for the role.  (Who would believe I could steal Audrey Hepburn away from Bill Holden, he would say and I would second.)  He didn't like Hepburn very much and he loathed Holden.  It was not the happiest working environment.

With MM... they liked one another then

The 7-Year Itch, in the canon of Wilder works, is lightweight stuff. For Marilyn Monroe it was a bigger deal and even goofy Tom Ewell had his best role.  Dismissively Wilder called it just a play. But that billowing-white-skirt-over-the-subway scene keeps this film in movie trivia games wherever they're played.  More importantly it started a contentious relationship between director and star that would become Olympian on a film four years later.

I don't know what Wilder was thinking with 1957s The Spirit of St. Louis.  It is a decidedly un-Wilder film.  None of his signature touches are here.  It is my least favorite Wilder film and ditto for Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh.  The film chronicles the aviator's pioneering trans-Atlantic solo flight but it was a little too mawkish, flag-waving and worshipful for my tastes.  It's particularly surprising that Wilder, who loved somewhat flawed lead characters, just drizzled heroism all over Lindbergh. Even then there were whispers of Lindbergh's pre-war Nazi sympathies and anti-semitism.  What was Wilder thinking?

And the thinking was no clearer for steering a silly project like Love in the Afternoon, a 1957 cotton candy look at age-inappropriate sweet nuthins between Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper.  Maurice Chevalier was cast for additional goo.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) is my favorite Wilder work and the odd thing is that it doesn't feel so much Wilder as a lot of his other works because it, too, is pretty much just a play, although he didn't carp about that this time.  He did brilliantly adapt Agatha's Christie's beautifully-written play about a crusty old barrister who gets roped into defending a man on a murder charge in a trial over-ripe with surprises.  Wilder was aided by one of the best casts he could ever have hoped to assemble at that time. Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power all delivered their best performances.  Wilder certainly had a knack for opening up untapped sources in actors.

The film most associated with Wilder is undoubtedly the one that AFI called America's #1 comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot (1959).  Some would have liked it less hot and put Wilder at the top of that list.  In some ways, it's one of the few films that kind of got away from his hands-on management style.  The reason for that, of course, is Marilyn Monroe.  If one did a story on MM's mental and emotional issues on all her films, this would stand as one of the worst.  She and Wilder yelled and screamed, threatened and pouted. Some would come to say that after his experiences with the actress, he had only one other good film in him.  The trouble is he made nine more.

Wilder instructing Jack Lemmon

Some Like It Hot began a long relationship with Jack Lemmon but all of their seven films together were not so wonderful.  There is no question that Hot and the following one are their finest collaborations. The Apartment (1960) won Wilder an Oscar for best directing and best writing (the film won as well) and put him at the top of the heap as one who brought sharp social comment and adult sexual situations to the forefront. 

Lemmon is brilliant as a low-level insurance guy who allows his apartment to be used for romantic assignations for top-level bosses which he hopes will be his own insurance policy toward upward mobility. He falls for the elevator operator in the building only to find that she (Shirley MacLaine) is the mistress of one of the execs (MacMurray again).  

The film is a romantic comedy by many standards but with decidedly dark overtones. Jealousies, resentments and bitterness creep into the proceedings and are as deftly drawn as any one is likely to experience in a film.  There's a delightful pacing and energy to the entire proceedings and the characters played by Lemmon and MacLaine are gorgeously written and realized.  I see
The Apartment as Billy Wilder's last truly great film.

One, Two, Three (1961) is a film I liked although it was another one that was not so popular at the time of release but has gained more acclaim in the years since.  It contains a marvelous James Cagney performance as a Coca Cola exec living in Germany who freaks out when his daughter (Pamela Tiffin) falls in love with a brash communist (Horst Buchholz).

Lemmon and MacLaine reunited for Irma La Douce (1963) as a Parisian ex-cop and the hooker he falls for and tries to get to go straight.  It had its moments but it ultimately doesn't register in the way the participants might have liked.  

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) is too stupid to contemplate.  It did nothing for anyone's career.  Peter Sellers originally had the second male lead but Wilder fired him.

The Fortune Cookie (1966) teamed Wilder and Lemmon with Walter Matthau for the first time.  The trio would work together three times and Lemmon and Matthau would appear in eight additional films together and Lemmon would direct Matthau in still another.  I found Matthau to be an acquired taste and unfortunately I never acquired it. The actors' pairing in The Front Page (1974) and Buddy, Buddy (1981), which was Wilder's final film, were busts.  

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Avanti (1972), with Lemmon, and Fedora (1978), Wilder's last film with Holden, went nowhere.  It's hard to say where the magic went or why but it did.  I pay little mind to it, as well, because I always prefer to look at the glass as half full and this man's output, both as a director and a writer, is quite astonishing.

In addition to winning directing and writing Oscars for The Lost Weekend and The Apartment, Wilder was also nominated for directing for Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, Sabrina, Witness for the Prosecution and Some Like It Hot.  He would win an Oscar for writing Sunset Blvd. and was nominated for writing Ninotchka, Hold Back the Dawn, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, A Foreign Affair, Some Like It Hot and The Fortune Cookie.

Of course, he was honored with many awards in his lifetime but two of the most prestigious would certainly be the American Film's Institute's Life Achievement in 1986. Two years later he was gifted with Oscar's Irving Thalberg award, honoring his body of work. Both were richly deserved. 

In 1945 he met his second wife, Audrey Young, a former singer with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, on the set of The Long Weekend. They married in 1949 and were still married at the time of Wilder's death in 2002 in Los Angeles from pneumonia.  He was 95 years old.

Two of my favorite Wilder quotes (and there are many) are a director needs to be a policeman, a midwife and psychoanalyst and a bastard.  He also said, with a great brush of understatement I just made pictures I would've liked to see.  We're awfully glad he did.

There is so much more you could read on this brilliant filmmaker but this should get you started.

Next posting:
A good 40s film


  1. Before getting sentimentally involved in movies,when I was almost fifteen, I often get confused between Wilder with Wyler. I just had the same feeling with Witness For Prosecution in Your post.
    Something in my brain says it must have been a printing mistake, but I'd like to hear that from You. I see with great pleasure that I have seen almost all of Wilder movies. Many of them are still in my mind, but my favorite ones remain Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard. To me they are "milestones" among movies. I totally agree with You about Love In The Afternoon and Stalag 17. About this last I also agree that there is nothing funny in this theme ( the same objection goes to Italian La Vita è Bella). Thank God I never was in a concentration camp but I still remember when, many, many years ago, my sister Mirella came home with tears on her cheeks and said:" Arianna will never come to school again". Arianna was her school friend and, of course, she was Jewish.
    OK. That's all for the moment. Ciao

  2. Thanks Carlo for pointing out my blooper in my decades-long switching of their names. I have now corrected it. The funny thing is that I made that mistake many more times and thought I caught them all during the editing phase. So easy to make such a mistake although I can truly say I never confuse their films. I wonder if I didn't catch the error in the segment on "Witness" because that film doesn't seem to me to have Wilder's stamp on it as most everything else did. His body of work, as you so correctly stated, is movie milestones.