Wicked and Wonderful: Billy Wilder

Based, in part, on a Smithsonian Associates Lecture by Sara Luckinson

Wilder was the brilliant rascal of the Golden Age of Hollywood, expanding the subject, styles, and biting wit of movies. From his dark take on Hollywood to sex farces and satirical comedies, he made us laugh and blush at human foibles, follies, and dreams.  Sara Luckinson

Austrian-American film director, producer, and screenwriter Billy (Samuel) Wilder (1906-2002) was born in Poland, raised in Vienna in the last days of the empire, then moved to Berlin. The young man earned his living as a taxi dancer (entertaining women at public teas) until securing a job at a tabloid newspaper. He had a twinkle in his eye for the dark even then. “I learned that dukes, fine ladies and political geniuses all have something of a rat in them.”

When Hitler came to power, Wilder left for Paris where he directed a single film before relocating to Hollywood in 1933. (His whole family died in the Holocaust.) He had $20 In his pocket and knew perhaps 100 English words. Wilder was auspiciously paired with Charles Brackett at Paramount Studios where 150 writers each delivered 11 pages every Thursday.

Initially called “the smart aleck and the gent” they grew to be known as “the team that God joined together.” The pair would work together 12 years. “It is impossible to tell from a study of one of their scripts where Wilder ends and Brackett begins.” (Journalist Phil Koury) Wilder, however, wanted control over his films. “I have ten commandments. The first nine are ‘thou shalt not bore your audience.’ The tenth is ‘thou shalt have final cut over the studios.’”

His first Hollywood success was Ninotchka, a collaboration with director and fellow immigrant Ernst Lubitsch. “Garbo Talks!” billboards boasted. “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo) travels to Paris to ensure the sale of jewels seized during the Russian Revolution. At the same time, bon vivant bachelor Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) attempts to secure them on behalf of their former owner. Richard Brody of The New Yorker wrote, “The romantic roundelay, linking fine emotions with fine lingerie, is shadowed by the brutality of Soviet tyranny.”

His third effort, Double Indemnity, Luckinson describes as “adultery, crime, and snappy one-liners.” The Hays (Production) Code had its way, but the public came, kicking off deep appreciation of film noir. Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson starred. “His characters were never men and women with good intentions. He was more interested in the underside of things,” the host remarks.

Two years later, Wilder adapted The Lost Weekend from a book by Charles R. Jackson. Again, Hollywood balked. It had never seriously depicted an alcoholic. The movie won the Palm D’Or (top prize) at The Cannes Film Festival and four Academy Awards including Best Picture. It also introduced Wilder to Ray Milland whom he used in multiple projects.

We watch an excellent short film on Wilder the host made for Kennedy Center Honors.

In 1950, he co-wrote and directed the iconic Sunset Boulevard, one of two films the host gives extensive time. (As most people attending the lecture have likely seen both, we might’ve more profitably skipped so many clips in favor of anecdotes about more movies.) It would be the last collaboration with Brackett. When the men went to see Gloria Swanson about playing Norma Desmond she was, Luckinson says, “52, in fighting form, and looking out the window for her second chance.” William Holden who played Joe Gillis had yet to act in a starring role.

The studio marked its script ‘top secret.’ “Wilder used pathos to lesson ridicule and humor to lighten the dark,” Luckinson notes. Buster Keaton, Hedda Hopper, and Cecil B. DeMille had cameos, but it was legendary German director Erich Von Stroheim who made an unexpected splash as Norma’s ex-husband, now butler and keeper-of-the flame. He’s marvelous.

Though full of self-loathing, Joe sells his soul for a cigarette lighter, some silk shirts, and a cushy environment. Norma excoriates Hollywood. Louis B. Mayer screamed at Wilder accusing him of betraying the movies. Who can forget the heroine’s retort to Joe’s “You used to be big.” “I AM big,“ she snaps. “It’s the pictures that got small.”

Indicative of Hollywood at the time, the so-called elderly Norma is identified as 50 years old! “There’s nothing tragic about 50, not unless you try to be 25,” Gillis comments on the way out. Watch the choreography that gets him, when fatally shot, from the patio to the pool. Wilder and Brackett together won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

Ace in the Hole with Kirk Douglas, a powerful piece about media exploitation of a caving accident came next. Then such as Stalag 17, Witness for the Prosecution (with his friend Marlene Dietrich), Sabina and Love in the Afternoon featuring a very young Audrey Hepburn, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe. “I’m engaged!” an ebullient Jack Lemon (in drag) giddily exclaims. “Congratulations!” Tony Curtis (in yachting clothes) responds, “Who’s the lucky girl?” “Me!” giggles Lemon.

The second more thoroughly examined film is The Apartment with Jack Lemmon (another of Wilder’s regular cast), Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray. Its idea germinated from the character in Brief Encounter who loaned protagonist Alec Harvey his apartment for a potential tryst. Here a mousy insurance clerk lends his apartment to executives for extramarital affairs hoping to get ahead, then falls for an innocent elevator operator having an affair with one of them. Billed as a comedy, Wilder never meant it to be one. “Lemmon could convey hurtful disbelief,” Luckinson observes. The question is whether the two somewhat lost souls will survive. When CC “Bud” Baxter (Lemmon) finally tells Miss Kubelick (MacLaine)he loves her, she smiles and responds, “Shut up and deal.” The film won five Academy Awards.

“Whether romantic, skeptical, sincere, or sour, he carried us into worlds with real people,” the host declares. Work after this was not as successful. The cold war comedy One, Two, Three, Irma la Douce, Kiss Me Stupid, The Fortune Cookie, Avanti…

Billy Wilder directed fourteen different actors in Oscar-nominated performances. He’s known for pushing the envelope of acceptable subject matter while combining cynicism and romanticism. Wilder co-created the “Committee for the First Amendment” of 500 Hollywood personalities and stars to oppose The House Un-American Activities Committee. He was married twice and amassed one of the finest, most extensive modern art collections in Hollywood.

Lukinson, a multiple Emmy Award winner, created more than 200 short biographical films for the Kennedy Center Honors. She teaches at NYU and the 92nd Street Y.

Part of the Series: “I’m Ready for My Close-up”: Favorite Movies and Their Times”

Opening Photos: Left- Billy Wilder- Wikimedia Commons- Public Domain. Right- Studio Publicity Photo of Billy Wilder and Gloria Swanson 1950- Wikimedia Commons- Public Domain

Other Streaming Lectures at Smithsonian Associates.

About Alix Cohen (1186 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.