Wilder's films were, if nothing else, fun. And very often, funny. Is there a funnier comedy than Some Like It Hot? The voters at the American Film Institute (AFI) sure don't think so, ranking the zinger-filled romp featuring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe No. 1 on its Top 100 list of American comedies.
Imagine a prisoner-of-war movie with chuckles (Stalag 17). Or a story told by a murdered writer (Sunset Boulevard). Or a domestic comedy in which both spouses cheat on each other and live happily ever after (Kiss Me, Stupid). Or a comedy where a couple is drawn together by a suicide attempt (The Apartment).
Two recently released, similarly named DVD gift sets capture the essence of Wilder's work. Last fall, months after Wilder's death at the age of 95, Paramount Home Video released the three-disc Billy Wilder DVD Collection: Sunset Boulevard (Collector's Edition), Stalag 17, Sabrina. Last Tuesday, MGM Home Entertainment cranked out the nine-disc The Billy Wilder DVD Collection: Witness for the Prosecution; Some Like It Hot; The Apartment; One, Two, Three; Irma La Douce; Kiss Me, Stupid; The Fortune Cookie; The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; Avanti! (A word about the sets' special features: there are very, very few on either. The Criterion Collection, this ain't.)
Covering 12 movies over 22 years, these two sets combined show an artist in his prime, as well as his decline. Viewed in sequence, they reveal the strengths, weaknesses and contradictions that often split Wilder's critics into two relatively distinct camps.
The first camp, clearly the majority, recognizes Wilder as an entertaining genius, building on the foundation laid by fellow immigrant director Ernst Lubitsch and his passion for witty romantic comedies and a cynical, sometimes anti-Hollywood storytelling groove. A sign on Wilder's office wall read, "What would Lubitsch have done?" (Oh, to be in New York City this month for that three-week Lubitsch retrospective at the Film Forum. Imagine 1932's Trouble in Paradise in all its deco glory on the big screen. Sigh.) His supporters argue that even at less than full strength Wilder was better than most of his peers, so crisp was his narrative, so zippy were his one-liners (from various writing collaborations), so in tune were his actors.
For the record, four of his films -- Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity and The Apartment -- made AFI's top-100 list of the greatest American movies of all time, released in 1998. Interestingly, the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound directors' poll ranked Wilder the seventh-greatest director in the world, while the critics left him off their poll altogether. (Critics ... go figure.)
The second camp, which includes some of the snootier critics around (including our old crusty favorite, David Thomson), dismiss him as a "trimmer" with no discernible oeuvre. These detractors often accuse his work of being devoid of a visual style, too dependent on voice-over narration, sometimes woefully lacking in characterization, and too easily betraying his vaunted cynicism with creeping sentimentalism.
Wilder's insistence that his films were "amusement parks" seems to fly in the face of such criticism. You can almost see the round-faced sprite, dressed to the nines, standing in front of his vast art collection, arms crossed, responding, "Yeah? So?" Critic Andrew Sarris, once a Wilder detractor, said there was "less than meets the eye," but eventually became a supporter of Wilder's. This suggests that Wilder's work stands the test of time.
But after falling in love with the punchy dialogue and film noir grit of Double Indemnity and laughing as a child at Stalag 17, then later appreciating the precision critique of Sunset Boulevard and the rapid-fire wit of Some Like It Hot, one has to look at the sum and the individual parts. Lining up these 12 films and knocking them down, in chronological order, certainly reveal chinks in the armor but does little to dismiss the notion that Billy Wilder remains one of Hollywood's greatest directors. That we now can see his prime (and mild fadeout) in all its fully restored glory puts his work in a more balanced, albeit still impressive, light. If his amusement-park rides were sometimes bumpy, they were nevertheless fun.
Regardless of where one stands with Wilder, there is one undeniable truth: he orchestrated some of the most memorable images and wrote some of the most memorable lines in Hollywood history -- sometimes all at once. Quick: Name an Oscar highlight reel that doesn't feature Gloria Swanson's delusional Norma Desmond trumpeting to the cops and media she believes are her cast and crew: "Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up!" My favorite line of Stalag 17 (one of the films that does not hold up well over time) is when William Holden's Sgt. Lefton begins his rescue of the rich lieutenant with the question:
"Want some brandy?"
Some Like It Hot is a movie of memorable one-liners -- to its detriment, some argue -- the best of which comes at the end as Jack Lemmon's cross-dressing Jerry/Daphne character finally confesses to Joe E. Brown's millionaire Osgood Fielding III that she's really a he, and Osgood closes the movie with, "Nobody's perfect."
That final line speaks volumes about the film, which was daring in its lighthearted treatment of gender roles and inferred fluid sexuality. Some Like It Hot might have been wafer-thin on characterization, but it spoke volumes about men and women and how, as Marilyn Monroe put it, women often "get the fuzzy end of the lollipop." When Tony Curtis' Joe/Josephine exasperatedly wonders why a man would marry another man, Jerry quickly shoots back, "Security." Is there no depth in that?
But as much as has been made of Wilder's love of the witty quip -- perfected in Some Like It Hot, which was the first writing collaboration with I.A.L. Diamond -- the zingers gradually lost their zing. One need only watch the woefully dated Cold War "farce" One, Two, Three, which forced a game James Cagney to try too hard with one limp comment after another. With each film, Wilder seemed to become more filled with melancholy. Maybe he was starting to feel his own mortality in exploring deeper themes: marital fidelity in Kiss Me, Stupid, personal authenticity in The Fortune Cookie (carried by Walter Matthau's performance), inner darkness of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
One thing becomes clear: Wilder and Diamond were wearing themselves, and their characters, down, often to ill effect.
Wilder's cynicism has been well-documented; in many ways, he was one of the "hippest" writer-directors of his generation because that attitude was at its peak during the aw-shucks innocence of the Eisenhower era. His noir sensibilities, developed in such works as Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, certainly showed he wasn't married to the happy ending. Few other American directors had the guts to use narrating protagonists who would tell their stories in flashback form either while dying or dead. That was dark stuff back then. Now, in the postmodern days of self-indulgent filmmaking, that cynicism feels a bit dated. But the further Wilder moved away from Sunset Boulevard, the less inclined he seemed to be to stick to his guns.
Take away Some Like It Hot's happily ambiguous ending (happy in its own curious way), and you have what sometimes feels like a cop-out. In the frivolous but quick-paced Witness for the Prosecution (1957) -- which kicks off the MGM set -- Marlene Dietrich's Christine shoots Tyrone Power's Leonard Vole when he betrays her, but Wilder isn't satisfied. The film ends with Charles Laughton's aging, heart-weakened barrister taking up Christine's case at the encouragement of his nurse and a delighted musical score. Kiss Me, Stupid, whose denouement features two spouses who wind up reluctantly cheating on each other to satisfy various cravings, broadly hints at a reconciliation. ("I never liked that picture very much," Wilder confessed to Cameron Crowe in their 1999 interview book, Conversations With Wilder.) And so on.
Which leads one to wonder where Wilder's heart really lies, or was he really that cold? Again, he said it was all about the fun; maybe he just took a different path to get there, or maybe he was softening his own edges.
But sometimes the cop-out criticism is taken too far. Thomson, in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, wrongly asserts that "Stalag 17 cheats by having its outsider hero (Lefton) eventually join the gang." Hardly. Lefton remains true to his character after the real traitor is exposed by volunteering to rescue the lieutenant because it will both get him out of the camp and earn a fat reward from the lieutenant's rich family. His final line to his "comrades": "One more thing: If I ever see any of you bums on the street corner, let's just pretend we never met." How is that cheating?
Wilder and Diamond were legendary for not having their ending written out when shooting began on their films, and the endings themselves bear out this notion. You keep wondering what, ultimately, Wilder is trying say as his films progress. Ultimately, by 1972's Avanti! (the last film in the MGM set), the thought process is truly muddled. Here Jack Lemmon is the crass, insensitive and downright rude American executive Wendell Armbruster traveling to Italy to retrieve the body of his father, who died in a car accident. Lemmon's character meets Juliet Mills' pudgy Pamela Pigott (well, pudgy by Wilder's apparent definition). Her mother was in the same accident, and they learn their parents were carrying on an annual romantic liaison. By the end of the film, Wendell and Pamela fall in love. But why? There's virtually no reason to like Wendell, who barely notices Pamela until a sudden, unexplained moment. Wilder's only point seems to be either that we are our parents' children or that Italy does wonders for the libido.
The ending features the pair agreeing to carry on the family tradition, so to speak -- as if the story was riding on some kind of automatic pilot or something. Is this cynicism?
As stated earlier, these two sets contain what are widely regarded as three of Wilder's four "classics": Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. (Double Indemnity being the fourth). Let's break down the rest. In the "good" category, let's toss in Sabrina, Stalag 17, Witness for the Prosecution and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. In the "interesting" category, there's The Fortune Cookie. There's the "overrated" category, populated by Irma La Douce, and, finally, "yawners": One, Two, Three, followed by Kiss Me, Stupid and Avanti! That's the easy part.
Do the "classics" hold up over time? Absolutely. Though its criticisms of Hollywood as a nightmare masquerading as a dream factory lack bite 50 years later, Sunset Boulevard remains iconic at the very least for letting actors essentially play themselves. Gloria Swanson was indeed a washed-up silent screen actress, Erich Von Stroheim a washed-up director (though not a butler). And Holden, though not a struggling writer, certainly had lost much of his star appeal 10 years after his rave reviews for Golden Boy. Some Like It Hot needs no more explanation. (For a more in-depth take, read Anthony Lane's excellent essay in The New Yorker, tucked inside last year's book, the appropriately titled Nobody's Perfect.)
This leaves us with The Apartment (1960), which marked the end of what could be called Wilder's golden age by winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Though considered a comedy, there's plenty of melancholy as Wilder explores the loneliness and isolation of single life in then-contemporary New York City. Of all Wilder's big hits, The Apartment, though a good film, feels a bit thin in retrospect.
There is much to love, however, most notably the irony of being so lonely in such a crowded city. It's a very modern take. My favorite scenes are centered around modern conveniences. The first one follows Lemmon's Bud Baxter, who loans out his flat in the early evening to his philandering co-workers, coming home to a date with a TV dinner and a commercial-interrupted viewing of Grand Hotel. (So many of Wilder's films are loaded with pop-culture references.) It's one of the first, if not the first, branding of the TV dinner as the meal of the loser. Then, there's the monologue by elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), as she tells her married lover (a superb Fred McMurray of Double Indemnity fame) why she's wasting her time. "For a while there you try kidding yourself that you're going with an unmarried man. Then one day, he keeps looking at his watch, and asks if there's any lipstick showing, then rushes out to catch the 7:14 to White Plains. So you fix yourself a cup of instant coffee and then sit there by yourself and you think, It all begins to look so ... ugly."
Of course, the paths of Bud and Fran cross right at the intersection of their respective dark secrets, his apartment. After a suicide attempt by Fran, they bond as he nurses her back to health, and fall in love, separate, reunite, but never kiss. In the final scene, as they break out of deck of cards to finish a game they'd started earlier, Bud looks over at Fran and says, "I love you, Miss Rubelik." Her reply: "Shut up and deal." It's a sour note to end a movie on, and you're even left wondering what brought them together besides their loneliness. Is that chemistry? Maybe, maybe not. But it is fun, and for Billy Wilder, that's what it was all about.