Thrilling and charming in a way that very few American comedies ever are.
"The Fortune Cookie" (1966) "Kiss Me, Stupid" (1964) "One, Two, Three" (1961) "The Apartment" (1960) "Some Like It Hot" (1959) "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957) "The Seven Year Itch" (1955) "Sabrina" (1954) "Stalag 17" (1953) "The Big Carnival" (1951) "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) "A Foreign Affair" (1948) "The Lost Weekend" (1945) "Double Indemnity" (1944)
Billy Wilder, cynic, wit, philosopher, genius, is dead at 95. One of a handful of indisputably great directors, he died at home late Wednesday in Beverly Hills, Calif., reportedly of pneumonia.
Mr. Wilder was a beloved Hollywood presence almost until the end, alert, funny, sharp-tongued. As Hollywood converged on the Academy Awards last Sunday, a giant billboard looked down on the arriving cars, with a photo and a quote from Wilder: "The only rule in the movies is, there are no rules."
Honors rained upon Mr. Wilder, who was nominated for 21 Oscars and won six, was the first man to win three for one film ("Sunset Boulevard"), added the Irving Thalberg Award for lifetime achievement, and when he was honored at a special academy gala in 1999, beamed down on the assembled crowd and sighed, "These things are so boring."
When the American Film Institute selected the greatest 100 American films of all time, there were four Wilder films on the list, and when it picked the 100 greatest comedies, his "Some Like It Hot" placed first. In my new book The Great Movies, only Wilder and Hitchcock have three titles among the 100 films.
More of a tribute is that his best films do not age or date, and retain the same fresh edge they had when new. Consider these titles to measure his achievement: "Sunset Boulevard," "Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment," "Double Indemnity," "The Lost Weekend," "Stalag 17," "The Seven Year Itch," "The Big Carnival," "One, Two, Three," "The Fortune Cookie" and "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes."
His films were instrumental in creating the screen images of Jack Lemmon, who was in seven of his films; Walter Matthau, who was in three; Marilyn Monroe (whose most famous single pose was when the wind blew up her dress in "The Seven Year Itch"); William Holden ("Sunset Boulevard" made Hollywood take him seriously as an actor); Shirley MacLaine ("The Apartment" was a career watershed), and Audrey Hepburn ("Sabrina"). He co-wrote "Ninotchka" (1939), which was Garbo's last great role; "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) was Gloria Swanson's comeback and, essentially, her farewell; "One, Two Three" (1961) was Jimmy Cagney's final leading role.
Born Samuel Wilder in an Austrian village in 1906, nicknamed "Billy" by a mother who adored things American, he was a newspaperman who gravitated toward the thriving film industry in Berlin, and left Hitler's Germany for America in 1933. Uncertain of his English ("I knew 100 words when I got off the boat") but with a sure hand for characters and construction, he teamed with Charles Brackett to write a series of successful '30s films, became a director with "The Major and the Minor" (1942), and in the 1950s, found a new writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, who collaborated on most of his remaining projects.
On the set of the Lemmon-Matthau "The Front Page" (1974), I watched him quietly confer with Diamond in a corner of the set before every shot. "If I.A.L. Diamond had been a Black Muslim," he confided to me, "his name would have been I.A.L.X."
His movies were famous for zingers, one-liners and great closing lines. "Some Like It Hot" is said to have the greatest closing line in Hollywood history. After Lemmon dresses in drag to escape murder by the mob, millionaire Joe E. Brown falls in love with him. "You don't understand, Osgood!" Lemmon tells him. "I'm a man!"
Brown: "Well, nobody's perfect."
His "Sunset Boulevard" screenplay with Brackett includes an anthology of classic lines. Holden tells Swanson, as an aging silent star: "You used to be big."
Swanson: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."
And at the end, after she has gone mad, she regally descends the stairs to be arrested: "All right, Mr. de Mille, I'm ready for my closeup."
His films are timeless because they rarely stooped to easy sentimentality. He anticipated and helped invent the modern age of irony. There was a jaundiced view of human nature, a dubiousness about too much sincerity.
In life as in his art, Billy Wilder had a gift for tactlessness redeemed by humor. Only Tuesday, I was talking with his good friend Wolfgang Puck, the chef who also comes from Austria. Mr. Wilder was a regular at Puck's restaurant Spago, where they usually spoke in German.
"One day," Puck said, "Tony Curtis comes in with some of his new paintings to hang on the walls for a little exhibition. I go over to Billy and ask him if he wants to see Tony's work. Of course Billy had a fabulous private art collection--Miro, Picasso, Matisse. He walks over and looks at one of Tony's paintings, and with Tony standing right there, he says, 'Lousy actor, lousy painter.' Then he sees the look on Tony's face and he wants to apologize. 'I'm sorry,' he tells him. 'I thought I was speaking German.' "
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