ROVIN' AND RAVIN' WITH MIKE
Copyright © 2003, 2000 by Michael Segers, All rights reserved
Happy Birthday, Billy Wilder!
his 94th birthday, what becomes a legend most? How about Cyndi Lauper,
Todd Rundgren, and Kris Kristofferson—who share his June 22nd
birthday—joining together in a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday to
You"? Billy Wilder deserves the best, and so do you and I. So, since his
birthday is coming up, since this year we are observing the fiftieth anniversary
of his Sunset Boulevard, and since the only film that opened this week
was the car-thief epic, Gone in Sixty Seconds, let's refresh ourselves
with a celebration of the Hollywoodiest director of all.
has lived through and represents the upheavals of life in the twentieth century.
Often referred to as German, Samuel Wilder (Billy was his mother's nickname for
him) was in fact born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But his birthplace is now
in Poland. Jewish, he was one of many Europeans who escaped the Nazis and
enriched American life and arts.
up in Vienna, he saw many Hollywood films, and as a young man in Berlin, he
worked on about a dozen German films. In 1933, with his Austrian passport, he
fled to France. In later years, in fact, his family would perish in Auschwitz.
Spending less than a year in Paris, he wrote some scripts in French and helped
direct a film—about car thieves, coincidentally. He moved to the United States
in 1934. Although he barely knew English, he got a job as a scriptwriter and
roomed with fellow Austrian Peter Lorre.
some hard times, he worked steadily. Perhaps his most important writing
assignment during his first decade in the United States was on Ninotchka
(1939), which gave him the opportunity to work with and come under the tutelage
of that film's director, Ernst Lubitsch. Wilder consciously emulated and paid
tribute to Lubitsch's style and touch in his own Love in the Afternoon
(1957). Throughout his long and productive career, Wilder has acknowledged
Lubitsch as his favorite director.
1942, dissatisfied with the treatment he and his scripts had received at the
hands of some directors, Wilder took his first directorial turn with The
Major and the Minor, with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. A critical and
popular success, the film showcased Wilder's ability not only as a writer of
comedy but also as a director.
has been associated with some seventy films, as writer, producer, and director.
As far as I know, his only acting stint was a minute or so in the radio
adaptation of A Foreign Affair, in which he played a German waiter. At
the end of the performance, he joked about how hard he had worked perfecting the
accent. At his best, however, Wilder makes his work as director and his actors'
performances seem like no work at all—the Lubitsch influence.
would be impossible for us to rave through all of Wilder's work. With such
incredible variety in his work, it is difficult to try to make even a
representative selection. But, hey, this is a party, so I'm going to kick back,
relax, and share these party favors with you.
1944 film noir, Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyk, Fred MacMurray,
and Edward G. Robinson is just about as dark as a dark film can be. In fact, its
complex flashbacks were just about too dark for audiences in its time, but
today, Double Indemnity is regarded as one of the greatest films ever.
another dark film that pushed the limits of acceptability at the time, The
Lost Weekend (1945), Wilder
turned his attention to alcoholism. Ray Milland (who won an Oscar for the
performance) plays a failed writer, and Jane Wyman plays the love interest who
doesn't lose interest despite his alcoholism. The five days that the film covers
move along so briskly that we don't have a chance to get bogged down in the
sheer horror. Wilder probably never kept tighter control of more difficult
material than he did in this film.
party, so far, with two such downers. How about having A Foreign Affair,
with Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, John Lund, and Millard Mitchell? This 1948
film was inspired by Colonel (the rank he held) Wilder's 1945 mission to Germany
to help with the de-Nazification program. Set in the ruins of Berlin, the film
is a spritely romp through dark shadows. Arthur plays a member of the US House
of Representatives investigating the morale and morals of US Armed Forces. Her
corn-fed and corny all-American girl ends up competing with Teutonic terroress
Marlene Dietrich over an all-American boy. There is a sadness, a bitterness
enriching the comedy set against the tribulations of post-war Germany.
in 1950, Wilder directed the Hollywoodiest movie of all time, Sunset
Boulevard, with Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich Von Stroheim
(another refugee from the European horrors). A down and out writer and a down
and out actress from the days of silent films discover a weird chemistry. Be
sure that Billy Wilder was not a down and out writer. In fact, he probably never
wrote a more scintillating script, in which even Cecil B. DeMille found he was
ready for his closeup. In 1978, by the way, Wilder would return to the topic of
a lost film star in Fedora.
1953, Wilder returned to his ongoing fascination with World War II with Stalag
17, starring William Holden and Peter Graves. Inspired by a Broadway play
and inspiring the television series, Hogan’s Heroes, it is one of the
richest, most complex films about World War II, with its mixture of humor,
drama, cynicism and idealism.
find Billy Wilder’s portrayals of women to be especially intriguing. He wrote
great roles for women and gave actresses a chance to display their talent as
well as their beauty. In 1954 with Sabrina he brought out the best in
Audrey Hepburn—and that’s very good, indeed, with the role of a
chauffeur’s daughter who has a crush on her father’s boss.
Witness for the Prosecution in 1957, Wilder once more directed another
great German contribution to Hollywood, Marlene Dietrich, in the performance of
her lifetime. It is amazing that in this film, Wilder turns in one of the great
British courtroom dramas, complete with lawyers in wigs. Charles Laughton as a
cantankerous lawyer and Elsa Lancaster (Mrs. Laughton in real life) as his nurse
bring life and liveliness to the intellectual turns and twists of the plot. A
strange little twist in the legend of this film is whether one scene was played
by Marlene Dietrich in disguise—or by another actress disguised as Marlene
Dietrich in disguise!
1955, Wilder directed Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. In 1959, he
directed her again in Some like it Hot. Are you getting tired of the
superlatives? Sorry, here’s another one. This has got to be one of the most
hysterical films ever. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon get in touch with their
feminine sides and with our funny bones in the drag film of all drag films…
that never drags. (Forgive me, we’re having a party here, remember?)
won three Academy Awards ® for The Apartment (1960) starring Jack
Lemmon, Shirley Maclaine, and Fred MacMurray. Once again, Wilder worked his
magic combination of drama and comedy. Lemmon’s character trades the use of
his apartment for promotions, a fine arrangement for him and his superiors until
he falls in love with the elevator operator (Maclaine) who happens to be his
boss’s (MacMurray) girlfriend. The film gets a little weak about the knees in
its second hour (another case of more not necessarily being more); just how good
it is becomes painfully clear when compared to Irma La Douce (1963) for
which Wilder, Lemmon, and MacLaine teamed up again with decidedly less appealing
brought together Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for The Fortune Cookie in
1966 and again in 1974 (with Austin Pendelton, Susan Sarandon, and Carol
Burnett) for The Front Page, a remake of The Front Page (1931) and
His Girl Friday (1940). Of course, Lemmon and Matthau have continued to
be one of the most enduring combos in Hollywood.
Wilder, meanwhile, continues to enjoy his retirement and his marriage of over
fifty years to Audrey. The stage musical, Sunset Boulevard, and the
remakes of Sabrina and Witness for the Prosecution show the
ongoing fascination that Billy Wilder’s work holds.
Wilder directed some of the best actors and actresses of the twentieth century:
Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, Jack Lemmon,
Walter Matthau, Ray Milland, and last (alphabetically) but certainly not least,
Marilyn Monroe. He explored an incredible range of subjects, themes, and genres,
and could on the first try attain mastery in a field. Sparkling dialogue, droll
irony, and lush photography fill out his films, which often pushed the limits of
the permissible, exploring the dark side of life with wit and heart.
The American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award was presented to Billy Wilder in 1986. Two years later, he received the Irving G. Thalberg Award of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Two years after that, he received the Kennedy Center Honors.
a fascinating site on the link between Germany and Hollywood in the first half
of the twentieth century, check the first URL here, and for excellent article
placing Wilder in historical and social context with links, photos, and other
party favors go to the second—
fellow guests, the party is about the break up. All the hot air is in the
balloons, and the guest of honor, we hope, is dozing happily. Keep your feet
dry, so you can take a walk on the Wilder side of the video store to search for
some of Billy Wilder’s birthday presents for us all. Keep your heart full of
noble thoughts, and, whether your beverage of choice is champagne or iced tea
(unofficial official beverage of Peanut.org), lift your glass to Billy Wilder!
Happy birthday, Mr. W., and may you have many more!
[2002 update: Just
this weekend, I watched A Foreign Affair again. Billy Wilder’s art is with us yet, although he no longer
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