The Eclectic Master

By John V. Brennan

"Grab 'em by the throat and never let go."
      -- Billy Wilder

      When Hungarian-born Samuel "Billy" Wilder put his mind to something, he usually accomplished it and then some.   He came to America in 1934 knowing almost no English, yet became well known for cowriting some of the most literate screenplays in film history.  He virtually invented film noir (Double Indemnity), directed the first serious film about alcoholism (The Lost Weekend), the best and most cynical film about the movies (Sunset Boulevard) and what many consider to be the greatest comedy of all time (Some Like It Hot).

     "He stood for a lack of pretension," said actor Kevin Spacey of the man at a post-humous tribute in 2002.  A true wit in real life (when asked by his cameraman John F. Seitz how he wanted to film the monkey's funeral in SUNSET BOULEVARD, Wilder replied "Oh, just your usual monkey funeral shot, Johnny!"), Wilder didn't take himself or his profession all that seriously.  "It is not necessary for a director to know how to write," he once said. "However," he added, "it helps if he knows how to read."  In the 1988 documentary Billy Wilder Speaks, the director talks about stylized, arty directing and contrasts it with his own homespun approach: "Shoot the son of a bitch and let's go home." The famous phrase "Hindsight is always twenty-twenty" has been attributed to Wilder.

     The screenplays of Wilder films, often co-written by Wilder himself, care well known for their share of classic lines:  "All right, Mr. DeMille - I'm ready for my closeup!", "Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?", "I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?", "Shut up and deal", and of course, "Well - nobody's perfect!". Then there are famous exchanges like these:

You'll be here too?
I guess so, I usually am.
Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
I wonder if I know what you mean.
I wonder if you wonder. 

You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
am big. It's the pictures that got small. 

I'm engaged.
Congratulations. Who's the lucky girl?
I am!

     Not surprisingly, with his love for dialogue, Wilder was one of Hollywood's most accomplished stage-to-screen adapters. Among other films, The Major and the Minor, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution and The Front Page all had their origins as stage plays.

     Wilder the director had an uncanny talent for coaxing magnificent performances out of his actors, be they themselves magnificent or not.  Who could forget the triple threat of Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity? Ray Milland as the alcoholic writer in The Lost Weekend?  Jack Lemmon and Shirley McLain riding that thin line between comedy and tragedy in The Apartment?  Tony Curtis playing three different characters and still remaining the glue that holds together Some Like It Hot, a film which also features what may be Marilyn Monroe's winningest, not to mention sexiest, performance? 

    As a director, screenwriter and later producer, Wilder contributed a healthy dose of cynicism coupled with a strong sense of morality to American cinema. He fashioned films that still grab us by the throat and won't let go, whether we are following the downward spiral of insurance salesman and murderer Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, the ever-increasing delusionol behavior of washed-up actress Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard or the wacky adventures of "Josephine" and "Daphne" in Some Like It Hot.  He never worried about genre - if he liked an idea or a story or a play, he would make a movie.  His films, including his comedies, touched on corruption of not only our commercial institutions but of the human heart. They also dealt with alcoholism, suicide, fraud, adultery and even gender confusion.  And for most of his directorial career, which ended with 1981's Walter Matthau - Jack Lemmon comedy Buddy Buddy, audiences responded to being treated like adults with cheers and applause, while Hollywood rewarded him with multiple Oscars: three Best Screenplays (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment), two Best Directors (The Lost Weekend and The Apartment) and two Best Pictures (The Lost Weekend and The Apartment).

    Billy Wilder died in 2002.  In France, one of his obituaries was headed "Billy Wilder is Dead. Nobody is Perfect."  He probably would have loved that.

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Copyright © John V. Brennan,  2008. All Rights Reserved.