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Monday, April 13, 2015

Billy Wilder

Just a few of Wilder's best.                        
Some twenty-three years ago I taught an "Introduction to Film" class at our local community college. As a longtime lover of great motion pictures, doing so was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding teaching experiences of my life. It was a ten-week course, each class about three hours in length. That gave me the chance to present great movies as individual works of art as well as in the context of the development of motion pictures as an art form. With the advent of videotape cassettes at the time, in some cases I could show entire films, sometimes two in one class if they were not too long. In other cases, I simply showed memorable clips from various films. I started with Edwin Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) and finished with Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993, just out at the time). I also tried to touch upon the lives and times of the great film makers from D.W. Griffith to Spielberg and George Lucas. One of the most enjoyable of such Hollywood greats was an old geezer named Billy Wilder. If the name rings a bell but you don't immediately call to mind any of his films, let me refresh your memory--Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Spirit of St. Louis, Some Like It Hot, Irma la Douce, and my favorite, also the one I used in the film class, The Apartment. Any of those ring a bell?

Nominated for ten Academy Awards, it one five, including Best Picture, 1960.
Wilder with the five Oscars won by
The Apartment in 1960.
Actually, the list above is less than half of the twenty-two films Billy Wilder directed over the course of his fifty-year career in Hollywood. There were also several others for which he wrote the screenplay but did not direct. The total number exceeds sixty. In fact, Wilder always considered himself a writer first, only secondarily a director. His tombstone bears the words: "I'm a writer, but then, nobody's perfect." He was far more than a writer and far from perfect so the epitaph is more clever than accurate. The Apartment was by far Wilder's most successful film. The film won Wilder an Oscar as producer for Best Picture, as well as Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (the first person to ever be so honored for a single film). They were not his first, though. Wilder had also won two Oscars in 1945 for The Lost Weekend and another in 1950 for Best Screenplay for the film classic, Sunset Boulevard.

Wilder's first Oscar nomination
for Best Screenplay, 1944.
Billy Wilder was born in 1906. Wilder was Jewish, originally from Poland where his parents owned a bakery. His older brother, William Lee Wilder was also a successful screenwriter specializing if "B" movie science fiction. If that seems confusing, blame their mother who nicknamed her younger son "Billie" (he later changed it Billy). The name change came in 1933 when Billy, and his brother, being Jewish, had the good sense to head off, first to Paris, then to Hollywood in order to escape the rise of Nazism in Eastern Europe. It was fortunate that they did. The rest of his family perished in the Holocaust. Once in the U.S., he became a naturalized citizen in 1934 and proceeded to pay his dues as a screenwriter for the next five years collaborating with a number of future greats in the profession. He hit the jackpot in 1939 with an Academy Award nomination as co-writer for Best Screenplay for his comedy, Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo (left). He lost out to Sidney Howard's heavily rewritten Gone With the Wind.

Scenes and poster art from Wilder's The Lost Weekend, 1945
Wilder's directorial debut, 1942
From that point on, Wilder was nominated either for his writing or directing virtually every other year, making his directing debut in 1942 with The Major and the Minor (right) starring Ray Milland and a thirty-one-year-old Ginger Rogers (no minor point). The Lost Weekend (above) came in 1945 when Wilder won his first Oscars, a double play for best Screenplay and Best Director. The film was the first to ever deal with alcoholism on a serious basis, having been disallowed by Hollywood censors in previous years. This was largely the same situation Wilder was to face in 1959 as he proceeded to write, produce, and direct The Apartment, except that this time the film dealt not with alcoholism but adultery. However Hollywood was changing by the late 1950s. The catalyst for that change was the new piece of furniture which had invaded virtually every living room in America--television.

The 1955 film that made Marilyn
an American icon
A 1953 war movie with comic
Jimmy Stewart as
Charles Lindbergh, 1957
In the history of Hollywood, the film industry has endured three major landmark events. The first was the advent of sound around 1929. The second came with the gradual introduction of Technicolor starting in 1939 and continuing for more than twenty years thereafter. The third, was television. When theaters all across the nation began going dark as the result of Milton Berle and Lucille Ball during the early 1950s, Hollywood sat up, took notice, wrung their hands, cried a lot, and ask themselves, what can we do about this entertainment upstart which is about to put us out of business? There was no single answer. Color was one weapon. Money was another. Television productions had budget limitations restrained by what advertisers deemed it wise to pay. Movies (more or less) did not. The blockbuster was born. A crude form of 3-D made its debut(and mercifully exited). Optical inventors developed the zoom lens and Cinemascope. TV screens at the time seldom exceeded 24-inches (measured diagonally). And finally, TV, being first and foremost family entertainment, had censorship rules which made Hollywood's Hayes Production Code seem liberal by comparison. While Lucy and Desi slept in separate twin beds, and the word "pregnant" was verboten, movies were sometimes allowed to say the word "damn" (on a limited basis).

Wilder's hilarious tale of cross-dressing hide and seek musicians
was rated in 2000 by the American Film Institute as the funniest movie ever made.
Wilder's final film, 1981.
By 1960, censorship in Hollywood was on the wane. By 1968 the Motion Picture Producers of America (MPPA) had introduced the forerunner of our current movie rating system. Had it been in effect in 1960, The Apartment and Wilder's Some Like It Hot (above) from the previous year, would likely have received "R" ratings. Despite the fact that by the 1960s Wilder had pretty much switched over to writing and directing comedies such as Irma la Douce, Kiss Me Stupid, and Fortune Cookie, given the conservative social climate of the time, all were racy enough to likely have earned such a parental warning. Billy Wilder made his last film in 1981, the "R" rated Buddy Buddy (right), starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (the original Odd Couple on Broadway). He was seventy-five years old at the time. In 1987, the Motion Picture Academy awarded Wilder the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production. Billy Wilder died in 2002 at the age of ninety-six, his death coinciding the same day with that of two other Hollywood comedy legends, Milton Berle and Dudley Moore. Wilder was laid to rest not far from three of the stars he helped make famous--Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau.

Two of the three "ladies" from Some Like it Hot.
(Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon)


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