Writer-director's work spanned five decades

Filmed `Sunset Blvd.,' `Some Like It Hot'

Billy Wilder: 1906-2002

March 29, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The jaunty little man in the Tyrolean hat could do it all.

With Some Like It Hot, he wrote and directed one of history's funniest films. With Double Indemnity, he wrote and directed the film noir against which all other film noir is measured. With Sunset Boulevard, he wrote and directed a brutal indictment of Hollywood myopia that was also one of the tautest, leanest, most evocative tragedies ever put on film.

Billy Wilder, the closest thing to a Renaissance man behind the camera that Hollywood has produced, died Wednesday of pneumonia at his home in Beverly Hills.

"He made some of the great movies of our time," said Stanley Donen, who directed Singin' In the Rain. "Especially given that he came to this country hardly knowing any English, his accomplishments were amazing. He was a great man."

Mr. Wilder was 95 and, although he hadn't made a film in more than 20 years, he had long been a member of Hollywood royalty and a font of inspiration and expertise for any filmmaker interested in doing it right.

Writer-director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) recently published a book of conversations he'd had with the elderly director, who even late in life could be counted on for a good, pithy quote.

When asked by Mr. Crowe if he ever thought he'd live so long, Mr. Wilder replied, "Not at all. No. I've had so many crazy things happen in my life. But it would not have ended by suicide. It would not have been being caught with somebody's wife, or something like that. This is not my style. I'm too clever for that. I wrote that too often."

True enough, except that Mr. Wilder, a man of extraordinary creativity, could never write too much. From 1950 to 1960, he wrote and directed, one after the other, Sunset Boulevard, Ace In the Hole (aka The Big Carnival), Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, The Spirit of St. Louis, Love In the Afternoon, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment.

Not even Alfred Hitchcock put together a streak so impressive, or so consistent.

Mr. Wilder was so good at so many things, it might have kept him from gaining the popular recognition he deserved. Mr. Hitchcock had no equal when it came to suspense. John Ford did Westerns better than anyone. Preston Sturges defined the screwball comedy. David Lean made epics like no one's business. All are acknowledged as masters of their forms and are revered accordingly.

"I, you know, am all over the place," Mr. Wilder told Mr. Crowe. "Every category of pictures I have made, good, bad or indifferent. I could not make, like Hitchcock did, one Hitchcock picture after another. I wanted to do a Hitchcock picture, so I did Witness for the Prosecution, then I was bored with it, so I moved on."

Mr. Wilder was sometimes taken for granted. When film critic Richard Schickel and director Peter Bogdanovich compiled books of interviews with the great directors, neither included Mr. Wilder.

Surely, however, that must have been oversight, not conscious omission. For few directors have been able to get at the heart of their films like Mr. Wilder, whose dialogue could alternately cut like a knife or tickle like a feather. As a director, his films were marvels of economy, with nary a wasted scene or word. Films that you never wanted to see end.

Think of the dying Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, explaining into a Dictaphone how a scheming Barbara Stanwyck had gotten him to kill for her, and played him for such a patsy: "I killed him for money and a woman. I didn't get the money, and I didn't get the woman."

Or of an unhinged Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, reflecting on the silent-screen glory she once had, glory that would soon mean next to nothing: "We didn't need dialogue in those days. We had faces then!"

Or of an irritable Greta Garbo, fending off the advances of a besotted Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka: "Must you flirt?" she asks Douglas.

"Well, I don't have to, but I find it natural," he answers.

"Suppress it," she says.

Read those lines, and you understand what the whole movie was about.

Samuel Wilder was born June 22, 1906, in Vienna. Although he first worked as a reporter in Vienna and later in Berlin, a long-time fascination with the movies eventually won out. He wrote his first screenplay in 1929, when movies were still silent, and never had any trouble finding work. But Hitler's rise to power forced the Jewish writer to leave Germany (his mother, grandmother and stepfather all died at Auschwitz), and after stops in France and Mexico, he arrived in Hollywood - knowing fewer than 100 words of English.

He proved a quick learner, and in 1937, he sold his first screenplay. Soon after, he began working with Charles Brackett on the screenplay for Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938, with Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper and directed by Mr. Wilder's mentor, Ernst Lubitsch).

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