In Memoriam: Billy Wilder
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TERENCE SMITH: Billy Wilder, one of Hollywood’s greatest writer- directors, made more than 50 films in his prolific career.
ACTRESS: Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my close-up.
TERENCE SMITH: In 1950, he challenged Hollywood’s comfort zone with his dark satire “Sunset Boulevard.” Wilder’s portrayal of an aging film star with delusions about her former fame earned him the Oscar for best screenplay.
ACTOR: The audience left 20 years ago, now face it.
ACTRESS: It’s a lie. They still want me?
ACTOR: No they don’t.
ACTRESS: What about the studio, what about Demille?
ACTOR: He was trying to spare your feelings.
TERENCE SMITH: Wilder, known to his friends as a cynic and a romantic, focused his films on human frailties– especially greed.
JACK LEMMON: (“The Apartment”) I have my own office now. You may be interested to know I’m the second youngest executive in this country. The only one younger is the grandson of the chairman of the board.
TERENCE SMITH: In “The Apartment,” Jack Lemmon played a corporate climber trying to impress Shirley MacLean’s character. The film brought Wilder a first: Three Academy Awards for best screenplay, best director, and best film.
JACK LEMMON: I used to live like Robinson Caruso, shipwrecked among eight million people and one day I saw a footprint in the sand and there you were.
TERENCE SMITH: Born in Galicia in what is today Poland, and raised in Austria, Wilder fled Germany ahead of the nazis and came to the U.S. in 1934. He mastered English and became one of Hollywood’s craftsman. The range of his films was extraordinary.
JACK LEMMON: This may even turn out to be a surprise party.
MARILYN MONROE: What is the surprise?
JACK LEMMON: Not yet.
MARILYN MONROE: When?
JACK LEMMON: Better have a drink first.
MARILYN MONROE: That will put hair on your chest.
JACK LEMMON: No fair guessing.
TERENCE SMITH: In his 1959 slapstick “Some Like it Hot,” which became an immediate classic, Wilder again teamed with Lemmon, who spent much of the film in drag opposite Marilyn Monroe.
MARILYN MONROE: I had no idea you were such a big girl.
JACK LEMMON: You should have seen me before I went on a diet.
TERENCE SMITH: His darker films included “Lost Weekend,” a brutally realistic depiction of an alcoholic, which won him Oscars for writing and directing.
ACTOR: Come on, man, join me. One jigger of dreams, huh?
ACTOR: No thanks.
TERENCE SMITH: And “Double Indemnity,” a 1944 account of a murder scheme gone awry.
HUMPHRE BOGART: Never resist an impulse, Sabrina, especially if it is terrible.
TERENCE SMITH: Among his comedies, “Sabrina,” starring Audrey Heyburn and Humphrey Bogart.
MARILYN MONROE: Do you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn’t it delicious?
TERENCE SMITH: And “The Seven-Year Itch,” with Marilyn Monroe. In addition to his six Oscars, Wilder received the Irving Thalberg Memorial award at the 1988 academy awards.
BILLY WILDER: As I look back in life, I’ve lived a charmed life. I never expected something like this.
TERENCE SMITH: Two nights ago, in Beverly Hills, Billy Wilder died of pneumonia. He was 95.
TERENCE SMITH: And joining me now are Janet Maslin, the former movie critic for The New York Times — she is now a book critic with the paper; and Kevin Lally, author of Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder. He is the managing editor of “Film Journal International,” a monthly. Welcome to you both.
Janet Maslin, when you look back on this extraordinary career, what defines Billy Wilder as a filmmaker for you?
JANET MASLIN: Well, the interesting thing to me is that it took such a long time for him to be acknowledged as the great director that he was, that he spent a lot of his career as a kind of stealth genius. He — the unifying things in his films was that mostly they were very good, they were very entertaining, they made money, they brought out the best in the actors who were in them. But somehow when he was doing his best work, this was generally not thought to be– these were not the attributes of a great director. It took a long time for his reputation to catch up with him.
TERENCE SMITH: But it did?
JANET MASLIN: It finally did, but really only, I think really only in recent years.
TERENCE SMITH: Kevin Lally, what you look back at this and you see the extraordinary range of these films, and you see the dark and you see the light, was there a thread that tied those two things together, those two aspects of his personality?
KEVIN LALLY: Well, I think it he was not at all afraid of being a groundbreaker. In the 40s, there is a remarkable string of films that broke a lot of barriers. When you think of “Lost Weekend” and its serious portrait of alcoholism and “Double Indemnity”, which was an essential film noire and a film that dared to have two lead characters plotting a murder. This was pretty extreme for its day — and a film that’s kind of overlooked called “A Foreign Affair” which is a farce set in bombed out post-war Berlin. He was a very, very audacious film maker from the very beginning and a great groundbreaker.
JANET MASLIN: And one of the things he dared to do was make each film different from what he had done before so you didn’t really identify Wilder hallmarks. It was a certain level of quality that united them but he never tried to repeat what he had done.
TERENCE SMITH: Janet Maslin, tell us also what a director does in a film, and what a director did in his era as opposed to today.
JANET MASLIN: Well, director is kind of the conductor who hires and fires everybody in the orchestra, and in his case, writes the music, too, because he was the writer, co-writer of many of his films. But if you take a story like “The Apartment” where have you two people working for a company and they’re both being really ill-used in a kind of sordid way by this company, that could be a sad story, it could be a bawdy comedy, it could be a romantic story, it could be any number of things. And what he did in that case was to make it all three. But that’s what the director does, really, is to shape it and steer it overall.
TERENCE SMITH: Kevin Lally?
KEVIN LALLY: Well, if you look at “The Apartment,” it is considered, I believe the American film institute voted it one of the top 25 comedies of all time but has a suicide attempt in the middle of the film, a very devastating suicide attempt. Or you look at a film like “Some Like it Hot,” which is one of the great, great film farces but it’s a farce propelled by the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. There is an amazing mixture of light and dark in all of his films.
TERENCE SMITH: Janet, go ahead.
JANET MASLIN: I was just going to say he made a lot of films that covered that kind of range and that not only weren’t they like other films of his, they weren’t like anything. I don’t think you can find much of a precedent for “The Apartment” or for “The Lost Weekend” or, you know, for “Sunset Boulevard,” certainly.
TERENCE SMITH: Kevin Lally, you mentioned before, the tension between the hero and the antihero in some of these films. His heroes certainly were flawed characters, very human characters, weren’t they?
KEVIN LALLY: And he took a lot of criticism for that. People thought well, he is just being very superficially cynical because very often these cynical anti-heroes had redemption at the end of the film, but he would argue that well how can I show redemption if you don’t show what comes before it?
TERENCE SMITH: Janet Maslin, when you look back at his work, was he a writer who directed or a director who wrote?
JANET MASLIN: He was a renaissance man is what he was. He was a filmmaker. He was a complete and total filmmaker who managed to make, I think, really brilliant work in the mainstream of American entertainment, which is harder thing to do than you can imagine.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet Kevin Lally, I think he thought of himself as a writer, did he not?
KEVIN LALLY: I think he would certainly have said that he was first and foremost a writer; that he became a director to protect his words. And indeed, again he was a groundbreaker in that sense because there were very few of his contemporaries who, at that time, made the transition from the screen writing ranks to a successful directing career.
TERENCE SMITH: Janet Maslin–
JANET MASLIN: What makes you think of him as a director is certain actors who worked for him, when you think of their best performance, it tends to be in his film. He was just a wonderful director of actors. Think of William Holden or Gloria Swanson or Monroe.
KEVIN LALLY: Or Marilyn Monroe’s two most celebrated performances.
TERENCE SMITH: He brought out the best. Is that what you are saying?
JANET MASLIN: That’s more than what a writer does. That’s really into the realm of directing.
TERENCE SMITH: Kevin Lally, his films pushed the edge, as you said before, about alcoholism and the “Lost Weekend” and so forth. Was Hollywood, perhaps, not ready for him when he did some of these things?
KEVIN LALLY: Well, there was– there were a couple of particular cases when Hollywood wasn’t ready there. There was a film in 1951 called “Ace in the Hole” which was loosely based on the Floyd Collins case and it’s about a journalist who exploits a situation in which a man is trapped in a cave-in. And it is basically a film about the media’s exploitation of a sensational incident. I mean it is extremely timely today, but at the time the public just wasn’t ready for this film and indeed a lot of critics weren’t ready for it, either.
JANET MASLIN: He took a terrible critical drubbing with a lot of his films. He talked about the fact that Pauline Cale for instance never liked anything he did. He was amused but I’m sure it hurt at the time.
TERENCE SMITH: At one point he and co-author had 14 consecutive hits, not a bad average.
JANET MASLIN: That’s the problem. They were hits, you know. If you want to be an esteemed artist, you better not have 14 hits.
TERENCE SMITH: Hits with the audience but not necessarily with the critics.
JANET MASLIN: That’s right.
TERENCE SMITH: Kevin Lally, when you look at his work, can you see signs of it or a legacy when you look at other directors today?
KEVIN LALLY: I think his greatest legacy is the sheer craft of his work. If you look at films like “Some like it Hot” it is like an incredibly efficient machine and a lot of writer directors take their inspiration from the sheer craft – craftsmanship of his work.
TERENCE SMITH: That’s terrific. Kevin Lally, Janet Maslin thank you both very much.