What more can anyone say about the great Billy Wilder? I have wound up on the floor laughing non-stop at so many Wilder movies that I can only see them at home now, I don't dare subject an audience to all that. There was no one like him at his peak, there's certainly no one like him now. For an ex-law student, ex-tabloid reporter, ex-gigolo, ex-refugee from Hitler's Germany, ex-roommate of Peter Lorre, the extremely short Billy Wilder emerged as the giant talent of his generation, eclipsing & out-living his contemporaries & influencing just about everyone who ever saw his classic movies.
At 28, Wilder directed "Mauvaise Graine", a breathtaking film about Parisian car thieves (including 17-year-old Danielle Darrieux) & decided that he hated working with actors & all the other hassles of directing. When he arrived broke in Hollywood, he couldn't speak a word of English, but he learned fast: By 1939, he won his 1st Oscar nomination for his "Ninotchka" screenplay. Other writing nominations followed for "Hold Back The Dawn" & "Ball Of Fire," so he returned to directing with 1942's hilarious "Major & The Minor" & by 1944, ten years after his Paris debut, he made one of the two or three best noir films ever: "Double Indemnity." Once again, he received a writing nomination, & he also won a much-deserved nomination as Best Director.
How could we be so absorbed by the rotten pair of adulterous murderers played by Fred MacMurray & Oscar nominee Barbara Stanwyck? If you're Billy Wilder~ you make it look SOOOOO easy: I actually believed Stanwyck every time her eyes melt & she tells MacMurray that she loves him even though she's just shot him. Wilder finally won writing & directing Oscars for his gruesome depiction of alcoholism in "The Lost Weekend." After collecting another nomination for the script of "A Foreign Affair," he released what many consider the piece de resistance of his career: "Sunset Blvd." No one had ever revealed ugly Hollywood truths so explicitly before & although the Academy honored his screenplay with an Oscar & gave him a directing nod, Wilder offended many with his grim artistry. When he made "Ace In The Hole," a brilliant 1951 expose' of tabloid-style journalism, it was far from an audience pleaser & even now is the only one of his greatest masterpieces not to receive a video release. Despite its industry tag as "Ass In The Wringer," it still received a writing nomination & gave Jan Sterling the best line of her career when she resists going to Church to pray for her husband who's trapped in a cave: "Kneeling bags my nylons."
Wilder then vented his cynicism on Nazis ("Stalag 17"), romance ("Sabrina"), Marilyn Monroe living upstairs while the wife's away for the summer ("The 7 Year Itch"), the courtroom ("Witness For The Prosecution"), gangsters ("Some Like It Hot"), the office schnook ("The Apartment"), the world's oldest profession ("Irma La Douce") & insurance fraud ("The Fortune Cookie".) Under his careful guidance & with his terrific dialogue, actors did their finest work & he gave international audiences many many hours of undiluted pleasure & sober thought. This little bundle of energy will be remembered long after Lord Lloyd Webber's musical version of "Sunset Blvd" is forgotten. Who the hell needs an aria when Billy Wilder's on the job?
© 2002 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 4/10/02
1906 - 2002