Billy Wilder's acerbic style made him a giant
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, March 29, 2002)

Billy Wilder, the Austrian-born cynic who wrote and directed such classics as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot and Double Indemnity, died Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 95. Here, Robert Fulford pays tribute to one of the great filmmakers.

In a Hollywood that mainly sold sweet endings and empty affirmations of hope, Billy Wilder spent a lifetime trying to depict the human comedy with realism and wit. He came from Vienna, bringing European style, and he taught America to love his imported sophistication by directing and writing some of the great movies of the 20th century. Far more than most, he impressed a personal vision -- wry, subtle, and shrewd -- on the industrialized products of the studios.

His films were challenging, enjoyable, funny, and sometimes uncomfortable.

He never wore his heart on his sleeve, and he didn't care to signal precisely what he thought of the characters in his films. Did he love or despise those senior citizens in Sunset Boulevard, the pathetic survivors of the silent era, cherishing memories that no longer mattered to anyone else? Did he sympathize with the central figure, played by William Holden, who lost both his soul and his life while trying to survive as a writer? Or did Wilder simply want to describe another Hollywood whore? We watched, enthralled and wondering. We still do.

He was a writer first, with a literary imagination that led to some of his memorable achievements. In 1939, he put his stamp on the script for Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka, the finest comedy ever inspired by communism and the movie for which Greta Garbo is best loved today. When Wilder became a director he demanded expertly made scripts: his Double Indemnity, made from Raymond Chandler's screenplay, may be the best film noir of them all; it contains, in the Barbara Stanwyck part, the classic version of the bitch goddess who drove men mad, a central character type of the 1940s.

Later he worked with I.A.L. Diamond, another European writer (from Romania) on the scripts for a series of films, among them The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. Both of those movies appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s, his golden age, when he seemed totally in touch with the culture, almost incapable of failure.

Some Like It Hot, that infinitely watchable masterpiece, sounds (if you try to describe it) more like a collection of gags than a genuine comedy. But in fact, Wilder the director enhances every line produced by Wilder the writer, and at the same time draws from Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis some of the enduring moments of their careers. Beyond that, of course, we can see a cagey artist pushing his theme, the ambiguities of sexual identity, as far as 1959 would allow -- and then a little farther.

These films made Wilder the king of irony long before irony became the main characteristic of mass media. He loved to watch human beings in the act of elaborately deceiving each other and themselves, sometimes out of desperation (like the male musicians masquerading as women in Some Like It Hot), sometimes out of love (The Apartment) and sometimes out of sheer venality (Double Indemnity).

Critics condemned him for sourness, as if it should have been illegal for a Hollywood director to send a film out into the world without wrapping it in stirring optimism. But he could direct a love story with the best of them, as Sabrina showed, and he could send the hero of The Apartment, the Jack Lemmon character, through a hell of sexual opportunism and duplicity toward a credible chance at happiness.

Wilder's last active decade, ending in 1981, was relatively sterile. Those films he managed to make were often dispiriting, like his routine version of The Front Page, and his flat sex comedy, Kiss Me, Stupid, in which he seemed to have mislaid the touch that brought The Seven Year Itch to life.

But his admirers will remember him as a director who again and again took on material that might have been lifeless in other hands and made it work magnificently. His under-rated The Big Carnival was one of the most biting satires of the news business, and The Lost Weekend, about alcoholism, was a problem picture that rose far above the genre.

Sometimes he made a film that people took for granted until, much later, they discovered it was not only the best of its kind but that they could happily watch it again 10 years later, and then again 10 years after that. In 1957 Witness for the Prosecution was a superbly crafted mystery and not much more; today it plays as a rich unfolding of character types, enacted by the kind of stars who gave Wilder superb performances -- Tyrone Power as the seedy, stop-at-nothing exploiter of women (bearing the wonderful name Leonard Vole), Marlene Dietrich as the desperate, love-starved survivor of wartime Germany, Charles Laughton as the carelessly brilliant English barrister, Sir Wilfrid, and Elsa Lanchester as Miss Plimsoll, officious and offensive nurse to the ailing Sir Wilfrid. It's easy to forget that Witness for the Prosecution was based on nothing but a standard Agatha Christie play. Seventy-three movies and TV films have been made from Christie material, but Wilder's is the only one that remains a permanent part of the film repertoire, still watched, still loved, like so much of his diverse, endlessly ingenious art.

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