It's kind of hard to call someone underrated when he won a gajillion Oscars, directed hit after hit after hit, and inspires other directors to say things like “I would like to believe in God in order to thank him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder . . . so, thank you, Mr. Wilder.” (Billy later called the guy up and said, “Fernando, it's God.”) But, despite having more writing Oscar nominations than anyone other than Woody Allen, more directing nominations than anyone except William Wyler (also underrated), and being one of only six people to win Oscars for writing, producing, and directing the same movie (The Apartment; the others were Francis Ford Coppola for Godfather II, James L. Brooks for Terms of Endearment, Peter Jackson for Lord of the Rings, and the Coen brothers for No Country), I still think Billy Wilder is underrated.
At this point I wouldn't blame you for asking: what more do you want, blowjobs? The problem, O wiseass straw man, is an unconventional one. Most of the time the problem with underrated directors is that civilians never know who they are, and that's not really the problem with Billy. Civilians all know Some Like It Hot, The Seven Year Itch, Sunset Blvd, and the real good civilians even know Double Indemnity, Sabrina, The Apartment. Billy Wilder is near-unique in that he's underrated by movie nerds.
The hipster douchebags who sigh at you that the only relevant directors in the history of the medium are Welles, Godard, Tarkovsky, Fassbinder, Bergman, and Haneke have no use for Billy. After all, the man's pictures are entertaining, he can't possibly be an artist. Make no mistake, I like Welles and Godard, and about one in five Fassbinder pictures—which is still about thirty of them—but come the fuck on. Even more annoying than the hipsters—because you can at least talk about how dope Weekend is with them while drinking cheap beer—are the kind of tweedy professional critic whose Ten Best of the last decade were all time-lapse documentaries about yaks fucking in Mongolia, pictures about Romanian women getting abortions, and, just to personally piss me off, one thing that actually does rule, like a Todd Haynes picture or something. I guess, because one time in 1968 when Godard had his period and declared Hollywood to be bourgeois and fascist, fun became aesthetically non-coincident with art, and ever shall be. Here's a mature, measured response to that type of film criticism:
Anyway, back to Billy, aka the man whose 10 Commandments were (1-9) “Thou shalt not bore” and (10) “Thou shalt have right of final cut.” Starting out as first a reporter and then screenwriter in Berlin, Billy came to Hollywood via Paris after '33 (although Billy made it out, his mother, grandmother, and stepfather all died in Auschwitz). After a number of notable screenwriting successes—among them Ninotchka, which considering it was produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starred Greta Garbo is one serious classic all-time writer-director-star triumvirate—Billy made the then-rare transition to becoming a writer/director. After amassing a solid string of hits, Billy then started producing as well.
Keep in mind, this was rare back then. Trying to think of writer-directors in Studio System era Hollywood, there's Billy, Preston Sturges, a little later Joe Mankiewicz, after a certain point John Huston, Welles before they kicked him out of Hollywood (and you don't buy those scurrilous rumors that Herman Mankiewicz, Joe's brother, actually wrote Citizen Kane and Welles' writing credit was because his ego needed one), maybe a couple other guys I'm forgetting . . . not a lot, compared to today. Billy Wilder basically said to the studios, “You can trust me, I make movies, not films. My movies make money. Now leave me alone and we'll all get rich.” And the execs were like, “Hurf durf, sure Billy, we like money. You're a swell guy, ya know.” (Don't ask me why Zanuck or Goldwyn or Warner or whoever talks like Goofy in my universe; some things you're better off not knowing.) The suits fucked off to the golf course while Billy smiled and said, “Now that those schmucks are out of the way, let's bend the rules as far as we can.”
Oh, yeah, you best believe Billy Wilder was a maverick. Just because his career didn't end in implosion, exile, or any of the industry standard auteur death scenarios doesn't mean Billy wasn't pushing envelopes, getting in occasional trouble with censors, and having at least four or five moments per picture where you're like, “wait, what year did this come out? Damn Billy was cool.”
The following is a selective—and admittedly incomplete—look at my favorite Billy Wilder pictures. If one of your favorite Billy pictures isn't here, I didn't “forget” it, I'm not saying it sucks, and I probably did see it, I'm just trying to keep this post under 20,000 words for once.
Double Indemnity (1944)
One of my favorite stories about this movie was, when co-scripter Raymond Chandler was futzing around with James M. Cain's dialogue—Cain having written the source novel—and the suits were pissed, they called up Cain to see if he'd lean on Billy (how that would have any effect, you'd have to ask the suits) and Cain told them, “You have Raymond Chandler re-writing my dialogue . . . and you're complaining?” That ended that.
Double Indemnity is one of those movies that really make you wonder why Billy always downplayed any suggestion that he was a visual stylist and claimed that he made movies 80 percent with the script (the other 20 being “having the camera in the right spot and being able to afford to have good actors in all parts”) because man does Double Indemnity look cool. You know the classic noir “light through the venetian blinds” shot? First done here. Also, without being lewd at all Billy makes Barbra Stanwyck look every bit as dangerously sexy as Fred MacMurray is supposed to find her. Granted, making Barbra Stanwyck look hot has about the same difficulty curve as tying your shoelaces, but still, Mr. “I just put the camera in the right spot,” stop it with the false modesty.
The Lost Weekend (1945)
More pioneering visuals: what Wikipedia calls “the 'character walking toward the camera as neon signs flash by' camera effect” (I shouldn't make fun, I don't know what the technical term is either). I guess Billy Wilder just had a really good instinctive visual sense, since his pictures didn't look cool because he was showing off.
Here we see one of Billy's greatest strengths: getting performances out of actors. Ray Milland is crazy good in this. And, unlike the average 30s/40s Hollywood movie where every scene starts with one character pouring the other a drink—the source of the invariably fatal Humphrey Bogart Drinking Game—we actually see the consequences of alcoholism here. Sure, you'd see people get drunk in movies, and they'd get a little wobbly, maybe even slur their words a bit. But Ray Milland is fucking struggling in this movie. Check out his DT's in this scene (the next time I remember seeing a DT's scene this intense is when Yves Montand goes apeshit in Le Cercle Rouge . . . 25 years later. In a French movie.)
Deservedly won Ray Milland an Oscar, though it would have been interesting to see what the movie would have been like if the Hays Code hadn't forced Billy to cut the part in the novel about how the reason Ray Milland gets so fucked up all the time is because people found out he had homosex in college. But hey, give me $10 million and I'll make the gay version, half as well as Billy did even with the handicap that the censors gutted Ray Milland's motivation.
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Billy kills the hero . . . in the opening scene. Boo ya.
Like most movies about the business by people who've been irritated by experiences in it, there's a healthy dose of cynicism. Think of the cynicism like a pint container of ice cream. Sometimes it's a bit much for one sitting, so you put it back in the freezer. Sometimes you then go back and finish it. Other times, you just sit there and eat the whole fuckin' thing and enjoy that delicious, cold feeling. And, more often than not, feel kind of sick.
The thing that's cool about Sunset Blvd. is that even though the game is the game, no one in this movie is arbitrarily fucked over by it. William Holden may not be a super-successful screenwriter, but he gets pictures made. Gloria Swanson may not have been in any movies for twenty-some years, but she's batshit crazy. Erich von Stroheim may have been a hot shit director in the 20s, but he chose to be Gloria Swanson's butler instead (and if his character is anything like the real von Stroheim, he probably turned in an eight-hour cut of one of his movies and then got pissed when the studio was like, “uhh . . . can you edit this a smidge?”)
Being cynical about cynicism? Attaboy, Billy. Oh, and while we're talking about stuff he invented, let's give Mr. Wilder another credit: I don't recall any movies before this that brought back 20-30 year old pop culture icons—in ascending order of screen time, Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille, and la Swanson—so there's another reason why hipsters are dipshits for not being up on Billy. He invented being nostalgic about pop culture of days of yore. Okay, maybe that's stretching it, but there's no such thing as a gratuitous swipe at hipsters.
Stalag 17 (1953)
This might be Billy's best movie. Or maybe it's a ten-or-fifteen way tie. Wherever it ranks (assuming of course, that ranking movies can or should be done), it certainly has brilliant acting (the supporting cast mostly came from the Broadway cast of the play it was based on), particularly by William Holden, who cares so little about being liked that he actually goes almost the whole movie without correcting the misconception among his fellow POWs that he's giving information to the Nazis. Actually, Holden himself was very nervous about playing such a selfish prick and clashed with Billy about making him more likable but Billy told him to shut up and enjoy the Oscar he was about to win. As usual, Billy was right.
More in the ongoing “Billy Wilder was a master of every aspect of the medium of cinema” meme that I'm hammering you over the head with: the climactic sequence, when Holden busts the guy out of the camp, is goddamn incredible. The other directors I can think of who evoke such visceral response (I was on the edge of my chair screaming advice to William Holden) strictly through their technique are Hitchcock . . . Spielberg . . . Scorsese (sometimes) . . . shit, there's gotta be someone else . . . oh wait, Billy Wilder was a master of every aspect of the medium of cinema. Mount Rushmore.
Stalag 17 is particularly great if you've just seen a few shitty WWII movies, with all the cliches. This is a cliche-free zone. The camp isn't particularly hellish—it's not the Waldorf-Astoria by any means but it could be a hell of a lot worse. The Nazis are the bad guys, but Sig Ruman gets along with the prisoners okay, even though Otto Preminger is very bad indeed. The supporting cast, instead of the collection of boilerplate characters one usually finds in a WWII movie, are all rounded, nuanced, and come alive; you feel like the prisoners are real people.
Probably the most impressive thing is that Billy made a WWII movie that isn't depressing, and doesn't feel like the reason it isn't depressing is because it's skirting the issues involved. That's alchemy. Even Steven Spielberg—no slouch in the Making Entertaining Movies department—made WWII movies that leave you stunned, like you've been through the damn war. Billy's tone was more like “okay, war sucks, but you know what? We're gonna make it.” Without the “okay, war sucks” part seeming like a throwaway. Because Billy Wilder is a better writer than me.
Not terribly profound, but it's William Holden, Humphrey Bogart, and Audrey Hepburn in the same movie, which is an excuse to post a bunch of pictures of Audrey Hepburn.
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
See above, but substitute Marilyn Monroe. As per the frequent discussion of Billy and his underrated visuals, even the most civilian-y civilians in Civilianville know this one:
Billy really didn't like Marilyn Monroe: “Marilyn was mean. Terribly mean. The meanest woman I have ever met around this town. I have never met anybody as mean as Marilyn Monroe or as utterly fabulous on the screen.” The thing people always forget about Marilyn Monroe is that the bubbly, voluptuous, breathy-voiced bit was an act. Lee Strasberg favorably compared her to his other pupils, who were mostly just schmucks like Marlon Brando, and if you look at Marilyn Monroe movies remembering that that's not really her, she is a pretty impressive actor. She was also bitter about the way women had to get by in the business (after signing her first contract, she announced to the room with a sigh and a sardonic smile, “Well, that's the last cock I'll ever have to suck.”) and that bitterness made her mean. But Billy was all about the work, infinitesimal bullshit threshold aside.
This was one of the movies most responsible for Marilyn Monroe's elevation to icon status, precisely because to the main guy in this movie, she is a symbol, rather than a real person. She plays a model who makes a married man start having second thoughts about monogamy. Yeah, I know, “Wow. What a fucking stretch.” But there's being typecast, and there's being typecast, and the only actor in the world who could have played that part was Marilyn Monroe. And Billy knew it, and put up with her chronic lateness and “fuck you, motherfucker” attitude, because when you get a chance to make an all-time classic, you do it.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Oh, let's just make the best courtroom drama of all time that isn't To Kill a Mockingbird in our spare time . . . yawn . . . oh, sure, I'll take those Oscars. Gosh, that Marlene Dietrich is so much lower maintenance than Marilyn . . . though keeping Charles Laughton sober was a pain in the ass. Oh well. Win some, lose some.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
A brief autobiographical aside: when I was in elementary school and my primary cinematic interest was in Bruce Lee movies, I would occasionally consent to let my mom or dad pick the movie (mostly mom). This involved watching Grown-Up Movies. Some of which were Old. Now, being a sophisticated cineaste and a nuanced intellect, this was less torturous than it would be for the average, run-of-the-mill little kid, I was, nonetheless, still a little kid, so a lot of movies went over my head. Not all of them did, though:
Top 5 Grown-Up Movies (ages 8-12)
(5) Three Days of the Condor (1975), dir. Sydney Pollack.
(4) Shadow of a Doubt (1943), dir. Alfred Hitchcock
(3) The Quiet Man (1951), dir. John Ford
(2) The Maltese Falcon (1941), dir. John Huston
(1) Some Like it Hot (1959) dir. Billy Wilder
After you're finished being in awe of my precocious taste (if you still need help calming down, bear in mind my overall top 5 was exclusively Bruce, Arnold, Seagal, or Van Damme), let's kick it about how awesome Some Like it Hot is.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are musician buddies who inadvertently witness the Valentine's Day Massacre, and can ID George Raft as the bad guy. Naturally, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon shit a brick , because who in his right mind wants to piss George Raft off? A solution presents itself—a gig down in Florida—with the famous wrinkle: it's an all-girl band. Thus we get to see the glorious sight—toldja Billy Wilder's visual sense was underrated—of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as the frumpiest couple of broads you've ever seen in your life. But wait! There's more! The singer in the band they sign on with is Marilyn fuckin' Monroe! In one of the greatest self-referential, self-aware, yet still organic and vital performances of all time! So Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon have to make sure Marilyn Monroe doesn't think they're lesbians. Or, for that matter, men.
Once they get down to Florida, Tony Curtis grows weary of this subterfuge and decides to disguise himself as Cary Grant (basically) so that he can shtup Marilyn Monroe without it being gay. (I love this movie so much.) Meanwhile, Joe E. Brown—whose yacht Tony Curtis is borrowing in his side-splitting Cary Grant gambit—has a raging boner for Jack Lemmon, who finds the situation initially awkward, but one night tangos til dawn with Joe E. Brown, who proposes marriage. Jack Lemmon accepts, before Tony Curtis reality checks him (“motherfucker, gay marriage won't even be legal 50 years from now”).
Just when all these entanglements are almost sorted out, George Raft and other “Friends of Italian Opera” arrive for a conference at the hotel, with blithe disregard for all the gender identity issues at stake. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon have to figure out how to get the hell outta Dodge without breaking Marilyn Monroe's and Joe E. Brown's hearts. Fortunately, George Raft's wicked ways have earned the ire of the other Friends of Italian Opera, whose favored form of aesthetic critique employs a tommy gun. With George Raft sufficiently ventilated, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe E. Brown all end up heading out to Joe E. Brown's yacht. Marilyn Monroe is willing to accept Tony Curtis as a man who isn't Cary Grant. But this leaves Jack Lemmon to explain things to Joe E. Brown:
Jack Lemmon: Yeah, Osgood. I can't get married in your mother's dress. Ha ha. That-she and I, we are not built the same way.
Joe E. Brown: We can have it altered.
Jack Lemmon: Oh no you don't! Osgood, I'm gonna level with you. We can't get married at all.
Joe E. Brown: Why not?
Jack Lemmon: Well, in the first place, I'm not a natural blonde.
Joe E. Brown: Doesn't matter.
Jack Lemmon: I smoke! I smoke all the time!
Joe E. Brown: I don't care.
Jack Lemmon: Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I've been living with a saxophone player.
Joe E. Brown: I forgive you.
Jack Lemmon: [Tragically] I can never have children!
Joe E. Brown: We can adopt some.
Jack Lemmon: But you don't understand, Osgood! [Whips off his wig, exasperated, and changes to a manly voice.] Uhhh, I'm a man!
Joe E. Brown: [Looks at him then turns back, unperturbed]: Well, nobody's perfect!
Fuck. Yes. Even if it wasn't for the whole rest of his career, Billy Wilder would be God for that scene alone. There are movies being made today that aren't that hip, and this fucking movie came out during the fucking Eisenhower administration. Oh, well. Fortunately, Some Like it Hot is so funny that popping in the DVD will cheer you up under any circumstances whatsoever, even when pondering the horrible fact that we live in a country where Joe E. Brown can't marry Jack Lemmon.
Billy still had a couple classics in him (The Apartment, One, Two, Three), but at a certain point the business, movies themselves, and the world itself evolved. And so his brilliant career faded away, but not before inspiring a handful of directors and leaving behind one of the more impressive bodies of work in cinema. Impressive, and underrated. So the next time some tweedy critic is name-dropping directors you've never heard of and wish he'd shut up, remember: Nobody's perfect. Though Billy Wilder at his best comes damn close.