NEW YORK — You can always tell a Billy Wilder film. There’s a moment when everything snaps together and all one can say is “Billy Wilder is perfect.” The best example is the end of “Some Like It Hot,” when Joe E. Brown turns to Jack Lemmon to say “nobody’s perfect.”
Of the great many European Jewish filmmakers who fled Nazism, few had a greater influence in Hollywood than Wilder. Though he had several important collaborators, Wilder can claim responsibility for a surfeit of iconic screen moments.
Marilyn Monroe’s dress blowing from a grate in “The Seven Year Itch” was his, as was Gloria Swanson readying for her close up in “Sunset Boulevard.” Jack Lemmon starred in seven Wilder films, which nurtured his nice-guy-almost-overwhelmed-by-modernity persona (while also making spaghetti through a tennis racket in “The Apartment”). Wilder was first to pair Lemmon with Walter Matthau in “The Fortune Cookie,” and the trio would do two more films together after the Lemmon-Matthau coupling took off in other franchises.
Let’s not forget Edward G. Robinson’s “little man” in “Double Indemnity” (nor Barbara Stanwyck’s sunglasses-wearing femme fatale invading that most American of spaces, the modern supermarket), Ray Milland pawning his typewriter for booze in “The Lost Weekend,” or Charles Laughton calling Marlene Dietrich “a chronic and habitual LIAR!” in “Witness For the Prosecution.”
I could go on and on. Wilder directed 26 films, almost all of which are terrific, with even the lesser ones still worth a look. Prior to calling action from the director’s chair he worked as a screenwriter, first on silent films in Germany, then, after he fled Europe, writing for directors such as Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Mitchell Leisen (most notably on “Midnight”). He also worked for his mentor Ernst Lubitsch on “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” and the classic Greta Garbo satire “Ninotchka,” which somehow managed to be a romantic comedy about Stalinism.
He and his co-writers, first Charles Brackett and then I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond (who worked in an office festooned with a sign that read “what would Lubitsch do?”) crafted everything from brilliant screwball comedies to heavy dramas, always rich in wisdom and, when necessary, sarcasm.
Though rarely were there direct Jewish storylines, there is ample evidence of Yiddishkeit in his work. “Be a mensch!” someone tells Jack Lemmon in “The Apartment.” “He was hard at work in Bel Aire, making with the golf clubs,” William Holden says in voice over in “Sunset Boulevard,” mimicking an immigrant’s phrasing, thus acknowledging the hidden-in-plain-sight Jewish character of Golden Age Hollywood’s power players.
Wilder grew up in Sucha, which is now part of Poland, but back then was Austria-Hungary. His parents ran a railway café and his mother’s family owned a resort hotel. He moved to Vienna, dropped out of law school and supported himself as a “taxi dancer.”
His encounters dancing with wealthy women led to writing a series of articles, then jobs as a tabloid newspaperman. When Jewish-American “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman came into town, Wilder interviewed him, and ended up following him to Berlin. There he stayed, fell in with other writers, and ended up part of the movie business. He left for Paris when the Nazis came to power, then continued on to the United States. Much of his remaining family perished in the Holocaust.
Wilder’s first American film as a director was “The Major and the Minor” with Ginger Rogers in 1942 and his last was “Buddy Buddy” with Lemmon, Matthau and Klaus Kinski as “Dr. Hugo Zuckerbrot” in 1981. He died in 2002 at the age of 95 with 21 Academy Award nominations and two wins.
As difficult as it is to choose, here are my top five Wilder picks, three very well-known, the others a little more esoteric (and perhaps of more interest to Jews.)
“Some Like It Hot” (1959)
This massive commercial and critical success, which was ranked the best comedy ever made by the American Film Institute, still holds up. Though modern viewers may need to get over something of a politically incorrect hump, Wilder and Diamond’s screenplay works because it doesn’t take cheap shots; its comedy emerges from the situation.
That situation is Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis on the run from mafia hitmen, posing as women in an all-girl band. A parade of wacky hijinks ensue, with a dizzying set of complications, all of which end in the most “oh, how didn’t I see that coming?” manner possible. Along the way, they team up with Marylin Monroe as Sugar Kane, a projection of the male id’s into human form, but also (as the name suggests!) very sweet. Wilder famously found Monroe very difficult to work with, but the results on the screen are legendary — it is a brilliant comic performance.
“Ace in the Hole” (1951)
Though “Some Like It Hot” is frothy and life-affirming, another of Wilder’s bests is the bleak and cynical “Ace in the Hole.” Kirk Douglas stars as a down-on-his-luck newspaper man who stumbles into a big story. A man is trapped in a cave, and Douglas puffs it up until it becomes a media frenzy. He manipulates things to his advantage, losing all sight of his own humanity. Though it reeks of “fake news,” the film is, in fact, loosely based on two real events.
“Sunset Boulevard” (1950)
Before it was a Broadway musical it was one of the great film noirs and also one of Hollywood’s great stories about itself. Narrated by a dead man floating in a swimming pool, William Holden is a struggling screenwriter whose car breaks down in front of his destiny: the spooky mansion owned by fading silent film star Norma Desmond. Movie lovers can spot a Torah scroll’s length of in-jokes, but even if you don’t know your Keatons from your Chaplins you can enjoy this epic drama of manipulation, vanity and other ethical transgressions.
“A Foreign Affair” (1948)
This is not usually included in Wilder’s highlight reel because it was maybe a little ahead of its time. But it is a fascinating romance that’s involves a straight-jawed American officer stationed in postwar Germany and a Nazi collaborator (Marlene Dietrich). This film dares to suggest that people do not necessarily fall into easy categories of pure good or pure evil. Much of the film was shot on location in bombed-out Soviet-occupied Berlin.
“One, Two, Three” (1961)
If making a romantic film set in the devastation of World War II isn’t enough of a surprise for a man whose mother, stepfather and grandmother were killed in concentration camps, nothing tops the uproarious “One, Two, Three,” in which James Cagney plays the West Berlin rep of the Coca-Cola company, goofing around with a wacky troupe of Germans that say things like “Adolf who?”
“One, Two, Three” is, in my opinion, one of the funniest movies ever made, though you may need to come with it with some knowledge of 20th century history. There’s an Adlai Stevenson gag that absolutely kills, but may fly over some audience members heads.
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