"It is not necessary for a director to know how to write. However, it helps if he knows how to read."
There's no need to shed tears for Billy Wilder. Born at the beginning of one century, he lived into the beginning of another. He had a film career that spanned half a century, was honoured, feted, rich and, when he died, he was 95.
It was a ridiculously full and long life, and no one can say that his death deprived us of any late masterpieces. Given Wilder's mordant view of human nature, I suspect that he'd laugh at tears for a man who survived almost everyone he ever worked with.
Born in Vienna in 1907, he fled Europe in the mid-1930s for America, part of the massive emigration of Jewish talent that filled Hollywood in the late 30s and early 40s.
Arriving in America with little money and almost no English, he managed to become one of the great comic screenwriters of the late 30s - Hold Back The Dawn and Midnight for Mitchell Leisen, Ball Of Fire for Howard Hawks, and, supremely, Ninotchka for Garbo and Lubitsch. Then he followed the path of John Huston and Preston Stuges and began directing.
"Words, words, words. You made a rope of words and strangled this business." - Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard
Wilder offers an extreme instance of a writer who moved into the director's chair without ever reconsidering his role. From 1942's The Major And The Minor to 1981's Buddy, Buddy, Wilder's films are torrents of dialogue, brisk, angry, heavy-handed, wistful, bristling with sarcasm. They also take voiceover narration to the outer limits permissible in the classical studio era of Hollywood filmmaking.
Wilder's Austrian background leads critics to group him with the German-Jewish émigré community that arrived in Hollywood during the years following Hitler's ascension to power. Like most of his compatriots (Lang, Siodmak, Preminger), he made a major contribution to film noir. But it's worth remembering that he was a tabloid newspaper reporter in Vienna and Berlin before he began writing scripts, which may account for his fondness for openly sensational subject matter and his punchy, attention-grabbing openings. As a visual stylist, Wilder is better than competent, but when some visual element stands out in one of his films you can usually credit a great collaborator, usually an art director: Hans Dreier on Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity, Alexander Trauner on The Apartment and The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes.
"Money changes everything"
- Cyndi Lauper
Wilder is often identified as a cynic - Andrew Sarris, in The American Cinema, claimed Wilder "too cynical to believe his own cynicism" - but I don't think the label's really accurate. Sarris once observed that the great lie of the Hollywood romance was that money didn't matter. Carole Lombard would marry poor but pretty Robert Taylor or Clark Gable over rich but not nearly as pretty Edward Arnold every time.
By Hollywood standards, Wilder is refreshingly realistic on the subject. Money is at the heart of almost every Wilder film, be it romance, comedy or thriller.
Susan Applegate's (Ginger Rogers) adventures in The Major And The Minor begin when she can't afford a full-fare train ticket. In Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis hides out in Norma Desmond's mansion to escape bill collectors.
Bud Baxter's motivated in The Apartment by corporate ambition, and the relationship between Dietrich's Erika von Schluetow and Captain Pringle (John Lund) in A Foreign Affair is one step removed from that of a prostitute and her trick.
Then there's Sabrina, the most peculiar romantic comedy of the 1950s, in which Bogart's Linus Larrabee seduces Audrey Hepburn's bewitching Sabrina as an act of corporate policy before falling in love with her. The crisis of the archetypal Wilder protagonist puts him in a situation where he's forced to betray his own basic decency in order to act as society expects him to.
When a not-so-hard case like Baxter or Double Indemnity's Neff actually goes for the main chance and damns the consequences, the consequences come back double- and triple-strength: the elevator girl tries to commit suicide or the object of his sexual obsession turns out to be playing him for a fool.
The odd thing about all this is its relationship to Wilder's reputation as a great comedy director. There are the caustically infamous one-liners, like "Only three of the Unfriendly 10 had any talent. The rest were just unfriendly." There's Some Like It Hot, which the American Film Institute named the greatest American Sound Comedy, The Seven Year Itch and The Fortune Cookie. But it's amazing how few of Wilder's films are actually comedies.
The Apartment, which is often cited on the very short list of comedies that have won the Academy Award for best picture, is as funny as a crutch. It features a suicide attempt, a hero who's a spineless zero, and what may be the single most stunning scene of sexual humiliation in the American cinema. This being a Billy Wilder film, it involves money.
Aside from Some Like It Hot and the criminally underrated late romance Avanti!, it can be argued that Wilder's best films - Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole, The Apartment and The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes - aren't comedies at all, but dramas of moral responsibility.
Wilder's real genius was for casting. There are four great performances in Fred MacMurray's lengthy and lacklustre career, and two of them were for Wilder, as Neff in Double Indemnity and as sexual predator Sheldrake in The Apartment.
William Holden was just another smooth young leading man when Wilder chose him as a last-minute replacement for Montgomery Clift in Sunset Boulevard. Jack Lemmon was a light comedy juvenile lead until Wilder tapped into his gift for cringing hysteria in Some Like It Hot and The Apartment - qualities exploited to far less effect by the directors who followed Wilder.
There are few performances in American cinema as unforgettable as Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond, Kirk Douglas's infinitely corrupt reporter in Ace In The Hole, Walter Matthau's Whiplash Willie Gingrich in The Fortune Cookie or Marilyn Monroe's Sugarpuss O'Shea in Some Like It Hot, this last often overlooked in light of Lemmon's transvestite comedy and Tony Curtis's demented Cary Grant impression in the same film.
If Wilder could be heartless toward certain stars - Jean Arthur in A Foreign Affair comes to mind, as does Kim Novak in Kiss Me, Stupid - he could provide unexpected actors with remarkable vehicles. Has Robert Stephens ever been as good as he was in The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, or Monroe as flagrantly iconic as she was in The Seven Year Itch?
The longer one looks at Wilder's films, the more difficult he becomes to define. Was he a great director hopelessly compromised by the Hollywood system's demands for happy endings, or were the compromises built into his unabashedly commercial sensibility?
Either way, the movies will never see his like again. Given the difficulty of getting things through the studio system today, someone with Wilder's set of talents today would probably wind up in television.
1970 The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes
1966 The Fortune Cookie
1964 Kiss Me, Stupid
1960 The Apartment
1959 Some Like It Hot
1957 Love In The Afternoon
1955 The Seven Year Itch
1953 Stalag 17
1951 Ace In The Hole (The Big Carnival)
1950 Sunset Boulevard
1948 A Foreign Affair
1945 The Lost Weekend
1944 Double Indemnity
1942 The Major And The Minor