Billy Wilder (1906-2002)
Nobody's Perfect
By Stu Kobak
March 29, 2002

some_like_it_hot_fr.JPG (99974 bytes) Directing legend Billy Wilder died yesterday, but his work will live on to inspire audiences and filmmakers around the world. It's more than twenty years since the sophisticated and witty diminutive  director made his last film, the slightly heavy-handed Buddy, Buddy. That movie starred Wilder's favorite leading comic light Jack Lemmon with whom he made seven films including on the screen's greatest comedies Some Like it Hot.
Wilder arrived in Hollywood in the great European wave of artistic talent fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Already established in Germany as a screenwriter, Wilder's limited English presented a huge obstacle for finding his place in Hollywood, but the nimble writer made a bond with the language and brought insight and sophistication to his American screenplays beginning with shared writing credit on the 1935 Raoul directed Under Pressure. sunset.jpg (66116 bytes)

    Wilder began adding magic to movies in 1929. A career spanning seven decades is remarkable by any standard. Too bad Wilder chose to put aside his directing chair in 1981. His astonishing wit might have pried a few more gems from his fertile imagination, but in the last two decades of his life, the great writer and director elected to stand on the sidelines. Given the changing Hollywood guard, it's likely that he may not have been able to make the kinds of films he wanted to anyway. 
    There's a savvy cynical edge to much of Wilder's best work. Prisoner of War Sergeant Sefton is a survivor that believes in only one thing: himself. Sefton is the cynical heart of Stalag 17 (1953). A brilliant William Holden delivers Wilder's goods. The great noir flick Double Indemnity  (1945) crackles with acid-tipped dialogue. Corruption floats on the plumes of cigarette smoke.  In The Big Carnival (1951) Wilder looks askance at how the press fly in like vultures to feast on tragic events.
    Teamed with writer Charles Brackett from 1938 for twelve years through the iconic Sunset Blvd., Wilder's other great writing partner was I.A.L. Diamond with whom he co-wrote eleven movies beginning in 1957 with Love in the Afternoon.
        Wilder positively danced as a director moving his films with all the nimbleness of an Astaire or the energy of a Kelly. He could deliver a delicate soufflé of a movie lie Sabrina (1954) or the underrated Love in the Afternoon (1957), find a way to capture mixed tones in The Apartment (1960) or even bring dimension and humanity to a cross-Atlantic flight in Spirit of St. Louis (1957).  Witness for the Prosecution (1957), a courtroom thriller, found a comic thread in barrister Charles Laughton's eccentricity while Tyrone Power intentionally exaggerated accused Leonard Vole's histrionics. One, Two, Three (1961) is one the director's most frenetic comedy assaults with veteran James Cagney spitting out dialogue with tap dancing dexterity.wildersunset.jpg (33319 bytes)   
   There were misfires especially toward the later stages of his career. Irma La Douce (1963) is flat-footed and over laden with stagy production design. With Fedora (1978) Wilder tried to capture the magic of Sunset Blvd., but a heavily made-up Marthe Keller fails to conjure an air of mystery and even William Holden's screen command couldn't pump up this dead horse of a film. 
     The roster of stars directed by Wilder is remarkable: Jean Arthur, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Claudette Colbert,  Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis, Marlene Dietrich, Kirk Douglas, William Holden, Jack Lemmon, Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, Dean Martin,  Walter Matthau, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Tyrone Power, Edward G. Robinson, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, and James Stewart.
    Wilder won the Oscar© for Best Director twice for The Lost Weekend (1945) and The Apartment (1960) along with Best Screenplay for Sunset Blvd. (1950). He was nominated a total of 14 times by the Academy as writer and director.
    Whether to remember Wilder for his edgy dramatic works or the wonderful comedies is a toss-up.  In all, Wilder was a creative force in bringing more than a dozen terrific films to the screen amongst his more than 45 Hollywood credits. Some Like it Hot remains my favorite Wilder film, but Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. are equally memorable.  A belated thanks Billy Film lovers will forever be indebted to the gifted writer and director for all the wonderful moments. But Wilder probably would have loved being remembered for the best closing line of any film ever, "Nobody's perfect!" in Some Like it Hot. You were pretty close Mr. Wilder.

*Many of Billy Wilder's film have found a home on DVD, yet there are notable exceptions. Wilder's first directing assignment, the delightful comedy The Major and the Minor (1941) is still a DVDMIA. The Big Carnival remains missing as does the lean war film Five Graves to Cairo (1943). Sunset Blvd. is in the planning stages for a Paramount release later this year.

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