Billy Wilder's Œuvre Total, Part 1
Every time Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are standing at the train station — in drag — and Curtis says, “I’m Josephine” to which Lemmon spurts, “I’m Daphne!” I laugh out loud. And let me say that again, if I may. However many times I’ve seen the movie, I don’t smile inside, or smirk, or even giggle, I laugh out loud.
Every time Fred MacMurray is down on the floor, leaning against the doorframe, and Edward G. Robinson walks over and kneels next to him and MacMurray fights to get out, “The guy you were looking for was right across the desk from you” to which Robinson replies, “He was a lot closer than that, Walter,” I’m still moved.
Every time William Holden pops out of the floor — he comes back to those guys in that prison barrack — and gives that smile and half-salute, I think, “Well, everything’s going to be okay because William Holden just said so.” (And — PS — that’s how you do a “Hollywood ending.” And do it deftly.)
Every time Shirley MacLaine hands the carnation to Jack Lemmon as he’s on his way upstairs for the promotion — for me, that’s where “the work is done,” as they say (but we’ll get to that) — I smile, consciously realizing I’m watching one of the great — and, again, deft — “meet cutes” (regardless that they already know each other or the heavy, heavy drama about to hit).
And every time Gloria Swanson does her little performance — The Tramp — I think, “This plays trivial but it is crucial, telescoping her yearning to perform.” It portents the end — not the famous walk down the stairs (though that’s important too) but — when she’s standing outside after Holden’s just gone into the pool and she resides, “The stars are ageless, aren’t they?”
I could go on, and you probably have five moments of your own — maybe from five other movies — because he was that good.
Why are we talking about him? Especially on this site dedicated to The Theatre? Well, both are easy enough.
First, partly, an introduction.
My name is Michael Holland and I love Stories: Movies, TV, Old Radio Serials, Books, Comic Books, you name it. And I occasionally write about them on my BLOG, mostly from that Golden Era of the 30s – 50s. One of my undertakings has been my “Top 5s” where I pick an Actor / Actress and showcase five of their films; my picks of their five “best.” One of those Actors was Tyrone Power for whom I picked WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, re posting that for Mr. Wilder’s birthday last week.
This triggered my friend, Bitter Lemons’ own Jason Rohrer, to suggest we open that up to a bigger discussion. I said, “Sure, where?” He said, “Right here.” Well — blessed by Publisher Enci Box — talking about Mr. Wilder is indeed easy, so what’s the Theatre tie-in? Interestingly, just as easy: two of Wilder’s films — Stalag 17 and Witness For The Prosecution — were based on Plays, and three of his films — Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment — became Musicals (Some Like It Hot as Sugar and The Apartment as Promises, Promises). And, interestingly, it was just re talked about in January that Glenn Close is being courted to reprise her Tony-winning role of Norma Desmond in the Movie of the Musical of the Movie, Sunset Boulevard.
So we come full circle.
But enough of Why We’re Here, let’s get to Why We’re Here.
Mr. Rohrer and I are going to talk Billy Wilder Movies. Inevitably that will include some Bio of the gentleman (after all, his mother dying in Auschwitz had to affect him and his Storytelling) and how many Oscars he won (six, though do you have to be convinced he’s well regarded?). That said, I’m often reminded of Orson Welles’ line about peeking behind the curtain: “Do you want the greatest service to all artists? Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain the life of a man. Not the contrary.” So we’ll see how it goes, including Spoilers because we’ll presume you’ve seen the movies.
Which movies? Any! All! Why not? I noted in my Witness write-up that “Either a Billy Wilder title is in your Top 10 or you’re wrong. How do I know? Look at these:
Some Like It Hot
That’s only his Top 5” (and that short list doesn’t include Five Graves To Cairo, The Lost Weekend or Sabrina). Now, sure, not every Billy Wilder is a gem, and fair enough. Here’s five more:
The Spirit Of St. Louis
Kiss Me, Stupid
The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes
The Front Page
Wait, those five are your favorites? Fair enough too. That’s how it goes, art-wise.
So that’s why we’re here, to open up a discussion about the “Œuvre Total” as Mr. Rohrer said, wittingly. Not what made Billy Wilder tick, per se, but why he makes us tick … and ticked off? Why we’re still ticking about him at all. (Less witty a phrase, I grant you, but there it is.)
Where to begin? How about this, from the Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) book Conversations With Wilder (1999):
Crowe: I remember when I first came to your office. I gave you a poster to sign, and you paused and said, “I’m not going to write something funny.” And you signed, “Best, Billy Wilder.” And I realized the pressure you must feel sometimes to be Wilderesque.
Wilder: Yeah, but there’s no “Wilderesque.” It’s just … stuff.
As deft as he’s always been, that says a lot right there too. (Interesting he might have been most reticent about his comedy?)
One thing’s easy to say: Mr. Wilder endures. More for me than, say, Cecil B. De Mille. (And I don’t mean any disrespect to Mr. De Mille, he just popped in my head — Sunset Boulevard, sure — so I’m running with him.) Everyone says, “De Mille!” with such respect — and he no question deserves it — but there aren’t many De Mille Pictures you sit down and watch for fun (maybe Greatest Show On Earth or North West Mounted Police, but I digress). Billy Wilder, on the other hand, you do. You can study and critique, of course, but at the end of the day — like Woody Allen, mediocre Wilder is better than most — you can, still, sit back and enjoy his Pictures.
A hell of a lot of wonderful “stuff.”
Watch BL for Jason’s first attempted butchery of Michael’s sacred cow.