Some Like It Wilder
The belated triumph of a director too hard-bitten for the masses and too direct for critics
Jan 17, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 17 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
At age ninety-three, Billy Wilder is enjoying what the movies he directed almost never had: a long, triumphal fadeout at the end.
He has received the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award and the Thalberg Award. Every one of his pictures is available on video (except Ace in the Hole, the blackest of his black comedies). Last year, four of his films (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment) made the AFI's list of the hundred best movies ever made. Ed Sikov's definitive biography, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, has been reissued in paperback. The hottest young romantic comedy director in Hollywood, Cameron Crowe (director of Say Anything . . . and Jerry Maguire) has just published the anecdotal coffee-table book Conversations with Wilder, modeled after Francois Truffaut's similar book on Hitchcock. And American Beauty, the most critically praised movie of last fall, flaunts its claim to spiritual kinship with the movies of Billy Wilder.
If the standard of greatness is having all-around skills and sustaining them over many years, then Wilder is arguably the greatest director of the sound era. Unlike Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, and John Ford, Wilder was both a director and a screenwriter. It's true that so were his fellow boy-wonders of the early 1940s, Orson Welles and Preston Sturges. But Wilder continued making hit movies long after the post-World War II breakup of the studio system, while the careers of the undisciplined Welles and the demoralized Sturges spiraled downward.
Wilder was a major creative influence on classic movies in three different professional modes. As a salaried studio writer, he and his partner, Charles Brackett, wrote Ninotchka and Midnight. As a writer-director in Paramount Pictures' stable, he made the first film noir, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Boulevard. And as a deal-making free agent after the demise of the studio system, he made the cross-dressing farce Some Like It Hot and the bittersweet The Apartment.
But Billy Wilder's way to the pantheon was crooked. Often too hard-bitten for the popular audiences that like movies to do their emotional work for them, he was also too straightforward for intellectual critics who don't like movies to do their interpretive work for them. Under the spell of Truffaut and the auteur school of French film theory, the prominent American critic Andrew Sarris, for example, found Wilder's slangy verbal crossfire and tight plotting too literary, insufficiently pictorial.
Because of their production costs, however, movies in Wilder's day were required to be a commercial medium -- which is to say, a narrative medium. "The best mise-en-scene is the one you don't notice," Wilder told Cahiers du Cinema in 1962. "If you try to be artistic or affected you miss everything." "When somebody turns to his neighbor and says, 'My, that was beautifully directed,' we have proof that it was not," he told another interviewer.
As Sarris came to acknowledge, the French critics were ill-equipped to enjoy Wilder. His films are just too dependent on language -- spicy, idiomatic American -- for their pleasurable effects. Many of his best gags would be lost on non-English speakers. What could a non-English speaker like Truffaut make of Ball of Fire? A comic fable of crooks and lexicographers, it is a riot of period slang: "We'll be stubbin', me and the smooch, I mean the dish, I mean the mouse -- you know, hit the jiggles for a little rum boogie? Brother, we're going to have some hoy toy toy!" Or the Wilder-Raymond Chandler script for Double Indemnity, in which a cup of coffee just needs a little rum to "get it up on its feet" and salesmen are guys "who ring doorbells and dish out a smooth line of monkey talk"? Or The Apartment's famous running gag about the adverbial suffix "wise": "Premium-wise and billing-wise we are 18 percent ahead of last year, October-wise"; "That's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise"? Loses something in the translation, French-wise.
Those looking for an uplifting saga of success American-style will find it in Wilder's life after his 1934 immigration to the United States. In just a few years after his flight from Hitler, Wilder rose from being a penniless refugee to being one of the most successful men in Hollywood.