Bright Lights Film Journal

The King Steps Out: Goodbye to Billy Wilder (1906-2002)

“A brain full of razor blades and a heart full of chutzpah”

In his screenplay for The Fortune Cookie (1966), Billy Wilder, who has died at age 95, described ‘Whiplash Willie’ Gingrich (Walter Matthau) as having “a brain full of razor blades and a heart full of chutzpah.” During the 1960s, Wilder himself was often described as only marginally less cynical. With hindsight, the films and the sharp raconteur seem like a call for complexity and maturity in an age of rhetorical display.

Wilder learned to forge compelling stories about a brutal world in the inflation-riddled Vienna of the ’20s. Rejecting the preferred vocation of middle-class Jewish parents, he dropped law and became a reporter. Dispensing with the flowery feuilletons of traditional Viennese reportage, Wilder wrote tough, realistic pieces on sporting personalities, local celebrities, and visiting jazz musicians. According to biographer Maurice Zolotow, he introduced sports writing into Austria single-handed.

In 1926, bandleader Paul Whiteman invited Wilder to be his guide on a tour of Berlin. Wilder never returned to Vienna and became a dapper Americaphile, driving a Chrysler and, reputedly, learning English by memorizing song lyrics. Drifting into screenwriting, his career will emulate that twentieth-century paradigm: the European Jew emigrates, buys into the American Dream, resells the dream in Europe.

In 1934, Wilder received the invitation to Hollywood, ghostwriting, then cowriting –Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), Midnight, Ninotchka (both 1939) – a string of the era’s most sophisticated boudoir confections. But being a writer without power over what he wrote rankled, and a dispute with director Mitchell Leisen over a scene from Hold Back the Dawn (1941) led to Wilder’s graduation to direction. There followed three decades of articulate and telling commentaries on American manners and mores, most of them written by one or the other of Wilder’s two great screenwriters, I. A. L. Diamond and Charles Brackett.

According to Zolotow, Wilder appended the words “Cum Deo” (With God) to each screenplay he wrote. Whether or not he believed in the author of all, Wilder believed in the sanctity of a good script, cowriting, directing, and, latterly, producing his films from 1942. In absorbing and transparent works like Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and The Apartment (1960), Wilder became a leading Hollywood storyteller. A realist before Hollywood rediscovered real locations, he melded the new social and sexual realities of the postwar years into fictions owing more than a little melancholy to his middle-European Jewish sensibility.

During his career, Wilder worked with Kirk Douglas, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Tony Curtis, making stars of William Holden and Jack Lemmon. Wilder understood how an individual’s allure could be cashed out on screen, casting not merely for an actor’s technical fitness in the role but with reference to the resonances of studio casting history. Using Erich Von Stroheim to play silent star Norma Desmond’s butler in Sunset Boulevard subverted Stroheim’s domineering ‘Teutonic’ image, while Gloria Swanson, DeMille’s submissive “little girl” in the ’20s, now ruled with a rod of iron. Elsewhere, Stanwyck did tricksy working girl, then scheming killer for Wilder, while George Raft was made cartoonish and Curtis parodied Cary Grant for Wilder.

If he was branded a cynic in the ’60s, it was because films like One, Two, Three (1961) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) tried too hard to inhabit the times, Wilder failing to predict, as he had so astutely in the previous decades, where film fashion was going. Set in Berlin as the Wall was going up, One, Two, Three crudely satirized a delicate political balance. Wilder said that the best practice you could have for becoming a screenwriter is journalism. Mired in the sights and sounds of his adopted country, it is the tabloid-style stories Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole (1951) that linger longest in the mind.

The films still pop up on television. Double Indemnity remains popular with film students, while Some Like It Hot (1959) is the loud and busy movie choice of many. But yet another long-service award, new Wilder studies, interview requests, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard made little difference to Wilder himself. Among the last of his generation to survive into the twenty-first century, he was among the liveliest chroniclers of that “American Century.”