Billy Wilder

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Samuel Wilder (Billy Wilder), film writer, producer and director: born Sucha, Austro-Hungarian Empire 22 June 1906; married 1936 Judith Iribe (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1947), 1949 Audrey Young; died Beverly Hills, California 27 March 2002.

As certain writers are said to "talk like a book", so Billy Wilder talked like a film, one of his own.

Many critics pooh-pooh the well-made picture. They think it's like the well-made play, artificial, déjà vu, people aren't wearing such well-cut suits any more. So you do it without nuance, no dissolves, no fade-ins. And no third act. Let the audience write its own third act, its own story. But it's extremely difficult to plot well, the way we learned it. It's much easier to be let loose on that very potent and dangerous thing, the camera.

Which is fine, but if you don't learn your craft first, you are like a surgeon who hasn't served his internship and already performs operations. The critic who sees a well-plotted thing will say: a good plumber, but not quite . . . not quite an artist! Here in Hollywood, don't forget, we're in an industry, so many people depend on us. We're making cars. We don't have to make lousy cars, but why should we be ashamed of making a Cadillac or a Mercedes?

That was Wilder speaking (minus the schnapps-curdled Viennese accent that not even four decades in the United States could eradicate) when I interviewed him in 1976 in his little bungalow of an office at Universal Studios, beneath an array of six gleaming Oscars. Peevishly embittered as he was, persuaded that he had suffered unfair neglect by film historians, he impressed me nevertheless as an oasis of wit, candour and intelligence amid the sharks and exorcists and towering infernos ("I think that there were more sparks flying, more heat given off in one dialogue scene of All About Eve than in that whole goddamn skyscraper!") to which the American cinema had slavishly capitulated.

Often denounced for his "tastelessness" – the supposed tastelessness of regarding sex, money and death as fit subjects for comedy – Wilder had been so definitively overtaken by the crassness and vulgarity of the new Hollywood that his once controversial films had come to seem models of straitlaced decorum. Yet, in spite of the personal distress which it must certainly have caused him, the radical relaxation of onscreen mores since the Sixties has at least confirmed that what was most valuable and authentic in his work was not necessarily what was most scandalous, and that his fabled Mittel-European cynicism was invariably tempered by an undercurrent of Middle American optimism and faith in humankind. To paraphrase one of the most celebrated aphorisms attributed to his near-namesake, Wilder was perhaps the only cynic who knew both the price and value that should be attached to an object, a person or an emotion.

He was born Samuel Wilder in 1906 in the village of Sucha, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and now in Poland). He was the son of a prominent local hotelier, and started out professionally as a newspaper reporter, initially in Vienna, then in Berlin. Since, by his own rueful admission, he was obliged to supplement his income by offering his services as a gigolo, he may have been a less than competent journalist. Yet, as a filmmaker, he retained a reporter's flair not merely for a good story but for the "angle" at which it might be set in sharpest relief.

Then, in 1929, he found employment as a screenwriter on the semi- documentary drama Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), which proved, in and of itself, to be a remarkably fertile breeding ground for aspiring film-makers: among his then unknown collaborators were the future Hollywood directors Fred Zinnemann, Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer.

His thriving career as a scenarist of German comedies and melodramas (including a lively version of the Erich Kästner novel Emil and the Detectives) was abruptly terminated by the advent of Nazism. With characteristic prescience the Jewish Wilder instantly departed for Paris, where he co-directed (with Alexander Esway) a charming light comedy in the René Clair manner, Mauvaise Graine ("Bad Seed", 1933). It was in Hollywood, however, that an émigré school of German and Austrian film-makers had already been established, so it was to Hollywood that Wilder eventually gravitated, cohabiting a tiny, cramped apartment with his actor friend Peter Lorre.

Though he "went native" with astonishing ease and rapidity, his wittiest and most accomplished scripts from this period (most of which were written with a regular collaborator, Charles Brackett) could be distinguished from more home-grown, homespun efforts by their dark, specifically European glitter (eg Mitchell Leisen's Midnight) and their refusal, within the framework of escapist entertainment, to avert their gaze from the realities of the Thirties (eg Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka). They were distinguished, too, as would also be the case with the films he himself directed, by the type of brilliantly intricate plotting in which no fictional unit is introduced – be it a minor character, a catchphrase or a recurring gag – unless it can be internally rhymed with others throughout the film. Wilder's plots, even when detached from the numerous felicities of dialogue, performance and situation that they generated, were wonderfully entertaining constructions in themselves, devised with a virtuosity which has all but vanished from the medium.

Everyone has seen a Billy Wilder film; and everyone should be able to recall a Billy Wilder setpiece. It might be the extravagant bout of the DTs suffered by Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (1945), the macabre funeral service for a pet chimpanzee presided over by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Marilyn Monroe's billowy misadventure with a sidewalk grating in The Seven Year Itch (1955) or almost any scene in Some Like It Hot (1959), a deliriously funny farce of cross-dressing which might accurately be described as one long morceau de bravoure.

From each comedy to the next, Wilder was capable of extremely subtle modulations of tone and style, belying his reputation as a leering, smart-alecky misanthrope. Love in the Afternoon (1957) was a deliberately, poignantly, dated film, whose pressed-flower romance between an ageing Gary Cooper and a radiantly fresh Audrey Hepburn constituted an affectionate homage to Wilder's mentor Lubitsch. One, Two, Three, on the other hand, a frenetically paced comedy set in Berlin in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, seemed to have been directed not with a viewfinder but a stopwatch. As for The Apartment (1960), which combined in equal measure a piquant satire of corporate chicanery and a delicately understated love story, it succeeded in cramming into its 90 minutes a whole Thesaurus of comedic styles: gallows humour, brittle wit, parody, caricature, burlesque and slapstick.

To return to my 1976 interview: when Wilder was preparing his penultimate film, Fedora, a haunting (and still underrated) reflection on the souring of the Hollywood dream, he did not trouble to disguise his contempt for the sequels and prequels, the remakes and premakes, to which the American cinema had seemingly been reduced. "The picture I'm preparing now," he told me sarcastically, "well, I was seriously thinking, to make it sound more fashionable, of calling it Fedora II."

Whatever else Hollywood might contrive to remake, there will never be a Billy Wilder II.

Gilbert Adair


Even a dark film like Sunset Boulevard teems with Billy Wilder's wit, writes Dick Vosburgh. "I wrote a script about oakies in the dust bowl," says the disillusioned Hollywood hack Joe Gillis (William Holden). "It played on a torpedo boat." Wilder's Sunset collaborators were the journalist D.M. Marshman Jnr and Wilder's first steady screenwriting partner, Charles Brackett. Three years before he turned director, Wilder and the erudite Brackett were turning out some of the most sparkling scripts in Hollywood's history.

In their screenplay for Midnight (1939), directed by Mitchell Leisen, a penniless American nightclub singer (Claudette Colbert) invents not only a titled husband, but his eccentric family, claiming that her spouse's uncle sent them, as an engagement present, "one roller skate, covered in Russian dressing". Arise, My Love (1940), also directed by Leisen, has a Brackett-Wilder speech that somehow slipped past the Hollywood censor. The aviator Tom Martin (Ray Milland), is telling the ace reporter Augusta Nash (Colbert again) of his amorous past:

Take Hazel, for instance. Hazel was the air hostess on a commercial liner. I was flying from Fort Worth to New Orleans. One night in April, very bad flying weather, no passengers, just Hazel and me. That's how I lost my commercial licence.

In Brackett and Wilder's Ninotchka (1939), the impecunious Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas), like Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, is being kept by a wealthy older women, the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). When d'Algout confesses to her that he has found true love with the Russian official Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) and wants to marry her, Swana replies: "This has the ugly sound of regeneration."

No film in the Wilder canon is funnier than Some Like It Hot, which he wrote with his last collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. When the rival film-maker David O. Selznick heard that Wilder's new film combined female impersonation with the St Valentine's Day Massacre, he predicted, "They're going to walk out in droves." The film in question is like a long-lost 1930s comedy classic, complete with such stars of that period as George Raft and Pat O'Brien. When Jerry (Jack Lemmon), deliriously shaking a pair of maracas, tells Joe (Tony Curtis) that he has just become engaged, Joe is thunderstruck. "Why would a guy want to marry a guy?," he asks. With an ecstatic smile, Jerry replies, "Security."

Although Marilyn Monroe kept Wilder and everyone else waiting interminably throughout the shooting, her performance as Sugar Kane was her most sexily vulnerable. When asked if he could ever bring himself to film with her again, Wilder answered, "In the United States, I'd hate it. In Paris, it might not be so bad. While we were waiting, we could all take painting lessons on the side."

In the brilliant, savage Ace in the Hole (1951), which Wilder wrote with Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, the ruthless reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), learning that a Kentucky store keeper has been trapped in a mountain cave-in, schemes to turn the incident into a major news story. "I've seen some hard-boiled eggs in my day," says Lorraine, the victim's wife, "but you – you're 20 minutes." Lorraine (played by Jan Sterling) is even tougher than Tatum; when he orders her to attend Mass to make it appear that she's praying for her buried husband's survival, she replies: "I don't go to church, kneeling bags my nylons."

That chilling line originated with Wilder's witty and beautiful second wife, the former actress and singer Audrey Young. They met on the set of The Lost Weekend (1945), in which she played the bit part of a hat-check girl; only her arm was seen onscreen as she handed Ray Milland his hat. During the film's long editing process, "I only saw the arm," Wilder recalled, "and I fell in love with the arm." While he was courting the rest of her, Audrey lived with her parents in the unfashionable LaBrea area of Los Angeles. "I would worship the ground you walk on, Audrey," he told her, "if only you lived in a better neighbourhood."

Before Wilder left for Paris to film Love in the Afternoon (1957), Audrey asked him to buy a bidet there and have it shipped to their Hollywood home. After failing to find a French plumbing-supply firm that exported its wares, he cabled her: "Impossible to obtain order Stop Suggest you do handstands in the shower."

During the Second World War, most of Wilder's family were victims of the Nazi Holocaust. After VE Day, he returned to Germany to help the US Army with its De-Nazification Programme. While screening local writers and actors, he was approached by the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, who wanted permission to cast the actor Anton Lang as Christ. Lang had played the role before the war, and was a member of the SS Elite Corps during the war. "You can use Lang," said Wilder, "but only on one condition. In the Crucifixion scene, use real nails."