Like It Cynical
a way, Billy Wilder’s decline was as inspirational as his
ascendance. Just two years after using his screenwriting clout
to get a directing job, Wilder made his first classic, the
enduring film noir Double Indemnity (1944). He made
a movie almost each year from 1942 to 1966, along the way
forming an unmistakable aesthetic with his urbane wit, downbeat
subject matter and cynical take on the human condition.
His muse began to fail him in the late 1960s, and latter-day
pictures such as his final effort, the 1981 comedy Buddy,
Buddy, were failures at best and embarrassments at worst.
But even as the quality of his movies wavered, Wilder’s tenacity
never did. For years after the release of Buddy, Buddy,
the filmmaker talked about trying to launch one more movie.
With the same impressive work ethic and resilience he brought
to filmmaking during his glory years, Wilder sought opportunities
to carve a more fitting epitaph than a turgid flop.
Though he never was given that one last chance to redeem himself
creatively, it’s not as if his legacy will suffer for the
lack of a glorious final accomplishment. When Wilder succumbed
to pneumonia on March 27 at the formidable age of 95, he left
behind a body of work impressive enough to fill any writer-director
with envy. After all, he’s the man behind some of the finest
performances by Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Shirley MacLaine,
Marilyn Monroe, Kirk Douglas, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden
and many others; his résumé is crowded with such titanic movies
as Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Some Like
It Hot and The Apartment; and he was the recipient
of six Academy Awards, the Irving Thalberg Award and the American
Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award.
Some Wilder scenes are burned into the collective memory of
movie buffs: An aged movie star descending a staircase for
her appearance in a movie no one will ever see, cooing “I’m
ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille”; Joe E. Brown remarking
that “Nobody’s perfect” after learning that his girlfriend
is a man in Some Like It Hot; and, of course, Marilyn
Monroe standing atop a subway grate while her white skirt
billows above her knees in The Seven Year Itch.
But not every great Wilder movie has become a part of Hollywood
iconography. Consider Ace in the Hole, also known as
The Big Carnival, which Wilder made in 1951. One of
the most incendiary films ever made about journalism, the
movie stars Kirk Douglas as a washed-up reporter who stumbles
across a classic “human interest” story: A man has gotten
stuck in a mine from which it will take days to extract him.
Douglas’ character pounces on the poor wretch’s predicament
like a shark leaping out of the water for a mouthful of chum,
but he’s not the only opportunist in town: Both a media circus
and an actual circus develop around the entrance to the mine,
and the reporter helps derail an expeditious rescue effort
in favor of one that will take longer, thereby extending the
life of his lucrative story.
in the Hole was attacked by critics and pundits upon its
release, because the film’s detractors thought Wilder painted
too unflinchingly dark a picture of the media’s appetites.
Were the picture to be released today, it would seem like
Wilder’s ability to craft such acidic movies as Ace in
the Hole and Sunset Boulevard during the sunny
1950s probably had a great deal to do with his background.
The Austrian native fled Europe in the mid-’30s while the
Nazis were rising to power, then had to translate the filmmaking
experience he had accrued on the continent to a career in
American pictures. Wilder quickly mastered Hollywood screenwriting,
contributing to the Greta Garbo comedy Ninotchka (1939)
and the Barbara Stanwyck-Gary Cooper romp Ball of Fire
(1941), among numerous other pictures. He probably would have
cringed at such pop-psychology analysis, but it seems that
watching Europe fall to fascism made it impossible for Wilder
to sentimentalize his adoptive homeland, thereby enabling
him to comment on the vagaries of American life with the distance
of an outsider and the intimacy of an insider.
With Wilder, a 2000 book authored by contemporary writer-director
Cameron Crowe, offers a vivid snapshot of how the great man
perceived his career: Wilder derailed inquiries about films
that tanked, revived rusty cocktail-party anecdotes about
films that soared, and dodged personal questions whenever
possible. Wilder seemed resigned to having long ago slipped
into legend. A cynical stance, perhaps—but if so, a fitting