Friday, March 29

'Sophisticated, stylish and sometimes surprising' Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder died yesterday, aged 95. He lived just long enough to see the Oscars being awarded for the 74th time, and was involved in 69 films in 66 years (1929-95). In Hollywood––having famously arrived knowing only about 100 words of English––he started off as a writer (the story of One Exciting Adventure, 1934).

He will probably be remembered most for his comedies, but he was a master of several other genres as well. His economical, acerbic dialogue lent itself just as much to serious cinema. His first solo film, Ace in the Hole (1951, retitled The Big Carnival) was a cynical tale of a reporter cold-bloodedly capitalising on a tragedy. Though not a great hit with audiences, it earned him a Best Screenplay nomination.

J.M.C. Sween writes in his review at IMDb (http://us.imdb.com/Title?0046359) that Wilder's WWII POW comedy-drama Stalag 17 (1953) is 'arguably one of his best. The scripting is a perfect example of how to marry a tight plot with sharp dialogue and great characters . . . easily one of the finest films of its time, if not of all time, and I would encourage anyone who has never experienced its unique blend of cynicism, comedy, suspense and drama to check it out at the earliest available opportunity.'

Later in the same decade, Wilder directed Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959) (source: http://us.imdb.com/Name?Wilder,+Billy). In 1960 he won three Oscars––as writer, director and producer of The Apartment, which the IMDb reviewer 'DukeofPearl' calls 'the definitive movie for the comedy/drama genre' (http://us.imdb.com/Title?0053604).

Double Indemnity (1973), for which Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler in 1944, is a film noir. The Lost Weekend (1945; it won Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay), following the desperate life of a chronic alcoholic through a four-day drinking bout, is a serious study of alcoholism. And Sunset Boulevard (1950), Wilder's own favourite among his own films, is a Gothic melodrama that shatters Hollywood myths. From there to the 'screwball masterpiece' Some Like it Hot -- described by Gary Brumburgh (at http://us.imdb.com/Title?0053291#comment) as 'an uproarious Marx Brothers-like farce with mistaken identities, burlesque-styled antics, and a madcap chase finale'––is quite a step.

What makes Some Like it Hot so enduringly popular? The consensus is that it is a comedy classic, and many cinemagoers describe it as the funniest film they have ever seen. Why? Brumburgh gives us what is, perhaps, at least part of the answer:
‘For those headscratchers who can't figure out why the so-called "mild" humor of "Some Like It Hot" is considered such a classic today, I can only presume that they have been brought up on, or excessively numbed by, the graphic, mindless toilet humor of present-day "comedies." There was a time when going for a laugh had subtlety and purity––it relied on wit, timing, inventiveness and suggestion––not shock or gross-out value. It's the difference between Sid Caesar and Andrew "Dice" Clay; between Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon and Chris Farley and David Spade; between "I Love Lucy" and "Married With Children"; between Lemmon's novel use of maracas in the hilarious "engagement" sequence, and Cameron Diaz's use of hair gel in a scene that ANYBODY could have made funny. Jack Lemmon could do more with a pair of maracas than most actors today could do with a whole roomful of props. While "Some Like It Hot" bristles with clever sexual innuendo, today's "insult" comedies are inundated with in-your-face sexual assault which, after awhile, gets quite tiresome––lacking any kind of finesse and leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination.’
The three-hour AFI special documentary 100 Years . . . 100 Laughs (2000) revealed America's 100 funniest movies, as chosen by leaders of the entertainment community from a list of 500 nominated movies. The top ten funny movies were : 1. Some Like It Hot, 2. Tootsie, 3. Dr. Strangelove, 4. Annie Hall, 5. Duck Soup, 6. Blazing Saddles, 7. M*A*S*H, 8. It Happened One Night, 9. The Graduate and 10. Airplane!.

Wilder defined his own message as 'Don't bore people'. Looking back on his career, he said: 'I just made pictures I would've liked to see.' And he once said: 'A bad play folds and is forgotten, but in pictures we don't bury our dead. When you think it's out of your system, your daughter sees it on television and says "My father is an idiot."'

No, Billy Wilder, you were no idiot. Your later films may not have been as good as your earlier ones. And you may not have stayed in touch with the times. But who does? And as you put it yourself, in 1976: 'They say Wilder is out of touch with his times. Frankly I regard it as a compliment. Who the hell wants to be in touch with these times?' Your heyday lasted 25 years and, hey, that's longer than most people's. My hat is off and here's a big salute and thanks to you from me.

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Levity versus gravitas

Jemima Lewis, editor of The Week (‘All you need to know about everything that matters’) writes in Issue 350, 23 March 2002:

‘Nobody likes having their prejudices overturned, so I’m annoyed to find myself rather warming to George W. Bush. In the early days of his administration, the mere sight of Dubya brought me out in an allergic rash. This was, I admit, as much to do with looks as with policy. With his sloping shoulders, beady, nervous eyes and bobbing Adam’s apple, he seemed so utterly lacking in presidential gravitas. His attempts to appear manly––leaning against a wooden fence wearing an outsize Stetson and a bootlace tie––just threw his puniness into even sharper relief.

‘But it’s impossible to hate a man who makes you laugh––and Bush, it turns out, is a born joker. At college, he formed a “stickball” team and called it “the Nads” so that the chant from the stands would be: “Go Nads! Go Nads!” Time has not dimmed his powers of levity. During the presidential election, the New York Times reporter Frank Bruni travelled on Bush’s plane. “At least twice,” Bruni recalls in a new book, “I felt someone’s hands closing tight on my throat and turned around to see the outstretched arms of the future president, a devilish and delighted gleam in his eyes. On another occasion, he grabbed the sides of my head, pressed his forehead against mine and made a sound not unlike that of an exasperated pooch.” It’s hard to imagine Tony Blair fooling about like that, more’s the pity. Call me incorrigibly frivolous, but I like a world leader who doesn’t take himself too seriously.’
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