Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder: 1906-2002
By Jonathan Kiefer

Because Billy Wilder outlived so many of his noted colleagues, and even outlived the golden age of American cinema for which he was responsible, his death last week, at the age of 95, must have surprised some people. Wilder had always been tenacious, as befits a man who lived through the twentieth century and gave it a voice. By the turn of the twenty-first, one had the sense that he had already gone, secretly, or that he would simply live forever. His films certainly will.

At once dominant and diminutive, like a small armored vehicle, the chain-smoking, walking-stick-wielding Wilder, whose puppy eyes glimmered behind his heavy glasses, spent his final years loading up on lifetime achievement awards. He would have been making more movies, but he couldn't get them financed. That irony is almost amusing enough to be consoling; it's an appropriate, if incomplete, epitaph. Wilder was a wry balladeer of moviemakers, whose work tended to reflect what I.A.L. Diamond, the second of his longtime writing partners, called a "disappointed romanticism," a distinctly middle-European attitude. It is also precisely what endeared Wilder to thinking and feeling Americans, and still does.

Billy Wilder directing The Big Carnival

His films, infused with the prospects, if not actual scenes, of murder, suicide, and other life-crushing forces, have an ebullience, a way of seeming somehow affirmative in spite of themselves—and this is entirely by design. Wilder deftly counterpointed tragedy and comedy, horror and slapstick, pessimism and hope. Among the patsies, crooks, kept men, cradle-robbing philanderers, mountebanks, boozers, black widows, whores, and delusional divas that populate his worlds, decency and real human contact are rare treasures, and treated as such. If his characters hadn't been rendered with such sharp edges, given such literally pitiable qualities, we wouldn't be so moved by their humanity.

Thus it seems alternately remarkable and perfectly logical that the same man is responsible for Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960), not to mention the eighteen other films Wilder co-wrote and directed. He refused to be called an auteur, and expressed little interest in hewing to the categorical restrictions of any genre. When the filmmaker Cameron Crowe asked him if Sunset Boulevard was a black comedy, Wilder said, "No. Just a picture." When David O. Selznick balked at the idea of a comedy built around the St. Valentine's Day massacre, Wilder pressed on with Some Like it Hot, which still tops best-movies lists, even among critics who begrudge best-movies lists. And when MGM czar Louis B. Mayer accused Wilder of biting the hand that fed him, Wilder told him to go fuck himself.

How could young cineastes not love that story? In his 1999 book, Conversations With Billy Wilder, Crowe astutely observed, "There are few filmmakers who don't crave being compared to him." They may not be able to match the master's wit and grace, but they can certainly try for his iconoclasm.

Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Billy Wilder

Wilder was born in 1906, in what is now Poland. His given first name was Samuel, but, presaging his eventual Americanness, Wilder's mother nicknamed him for Buffalo Bill Cody. Billy almost studied law at the University of Vienna, but dropped out to become a newspaper reporter. In 1926, he was hired as a publicist/tour guide for the American bandleader Paul Whiteman in Berlin, and soon thereafter found his way into screenwriting work for UFA, the leading German film production company.

Nazi ascendancy sent Wilder to Paris in 1933, and the following year to the United States, where, unlike many of his immigrant countrymen, he intended to stay. In a recent L.A. Times appreciation, Charles Champlin called him "one of Hitler's many inadvertent and unintended gifts to the culture of Western civilization." Wilder's mother and several other members of his family, meanwhile, died at Auschwitz.

Billy Wilder directing Fortune Cookie

Wilder had to teach himself English, and when writing, he would always rely on his collaborators—former New Yorker drama critic Charles Brackett on 13 pictures, and Diamond on 12—for guidance. He never felt completely comfortable with the language, which, given his demonstrable command, suggests how deeply he cared for it.

Wilder wrote like a lyricist. He filled his stories with rhythm and movement and meaning, rewarding audience attention with melodious, euphonious, and often hilarious dialogue. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity":

"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."

Maurice Chevalier and Audrey Hepburn in "Love in the Afternoon":

"If I were an Indian potentate, I'd shower you with diamonds. If I were a cobbler, I'd sole your shoes. But since I'm only a detective, all I can offer you is a detailed dossier."
"Papa, I love you very much."
"I love you more."

Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis in "Some Like it Hot":

"You own a yacht? Which one is it? The big one?"
"Certainly not! With all the unrest in the world, I don't think anybody should have a yacht that sleeps more than twelve!"

Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon on the set of The Apartment

Without seeming too texty, Wilder slyly asserted the idea that film in fact can be a writer's medium. And he emphasized the idea with the straightforward eloquence of his direction. Cinema's visual obligations were not lost on Wilder, nor did they intrude on his storytelling. To take but a few examples, Bud Baxter's makeshift spaghetti strainer (a tennis racquet), or his house key, or Miss Kubelick's associative compact in The Apartment; the quartet of gypsy musicians scoring Frank Flanagan's romantic interludes in Love in the Afternoon; the trunk in Stalag 17; the flashy spats and incriminating bass-fiddle bullet holes, not to mention the men in dresses, in Some Like it Hot all bespeak Wilder's near-Shakespearean intuition about the usefulness of images, objects, gestures.

And of course, as Norma Desmond put it, "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces." Leave it to Wilder to write a great line of dialogue about the superfluity of dialogue (and about a few other things besides), in Sunset Boulevard. It was with the same ironic glee that he populated Norma's bridge games with what Joe Gillis, the film's (deceased!) narrator, calls "dim figures you may still remember from the silent days," including the Great Stone Face himself, Buster Keaton.

Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich

These are an artist's touches, and they help to explain how Wilder's work is so dense and buoyant at the same time. There since have been plenty of movies about Hollywood, of course, and even some good ones, but Sunset Boulevard pales them all—in rather the same way that Double Indemnity pales all other film noir.

Dramatists have an old rule about getting into scenes as late as possible and getting out as early as possible. Though his work is full of instructive examples, Wilder's life didn't heed the rule. Time was among the precious resources he rarely wasted.

In his appreciation, Charles Champlin also wrote of a story Wilder was never able to film: "set in a small European village from which all the men left to join a Crusade. But before they left, they had chastity belts affixed to all their wives and daughters. His film, Wilder said, would be about the village locksmith, to be played by Cary Grant." A perfectly Billy Wilder idea. On several levels, it almost hurts to imagine it.