May 30, 2014
The first Billy Wilder film I ever saw was Sabrina starring Audrey Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. It wasn’t the most eye-opening film I had seen at the time (Apocalypse Now would do that a couple of years prior), but it was one of the first that subverted my expectations and start my lifelong love of well-made romantic comedies. Sadly, this film didn’t really make much of an impression of me when concerning its director at the time. But going back to it, I realize how much care and concern that he had with those characters, how Sabrina was the light and the anchor in this film. Wilder loved his female characters as much as his males, even when some of the actresses made it very difficult for him in reality.
When I watched Sunset Boulevard for the first time, I was speechless. I was amazed by the narrative twists and turns, the performances, the setting, the direction. Billy Wilder had once again crossed my path, but this time I saw him for his accomplishment in this film. The way that Gloria Swanson’s character seemed to lure the camera to her like a moth to flame, how the framing around the card table both seemed intimate yet illuminated the star-studded cast around that table. And that final glorious shot, the one that could be argued as one of the best final shots ever filmed.
After seeing that, I had to see more. Stalag 17, The Apartment, The Lost Weekend, The Fortune Cookie. These films felt so different from one another that it nearly seemed intimidating going from one film to the other. Then I had seen a film that didn’t just hit me like a boulder, but knocked me out: Ace in the Hole. The irony is that what could be considered his finest work was the one that was least appreciated. In fact, it was long considered lost until 2005 when the Criterion Collection got their mitts on it.
So why does Billy Wilder have such a strong hold over me as a film lover? Why would I dedicate an entire month to discussing his work? If you talk to any film snob or hardcore film lover, Billy Wilder isn’t merely known, but seems to be outright mainstream. Yet you talk to any modern movie goer, this name is lost entirely on people who have never tried his work. We could debate on why older movies aren’t appreciated more, but there’s more to it. Wilder’s films weren’t simply crowd-pleasers, they were statements about modern life as he saw it, the trials by fire and the constant desire to be seen as the heroes of our own story, even when the prevailing evidence goes against that being the case. Wilder wasn’t afraid to do things differently or to play in territories that might be considered risky. His protagonists were usually misfits trying to survive fates worse than death (or at least in their own mind). As a misfit that had seen myself both as hero and villain in my own story, such complexity in characters were a breath of fresh air from white hat/black hat mentality that was prevalent during Wilder’s time and that has not yet gone away even now.
Take Ray Milland’s character in The Lost Weekend; He’s a drunk who knows that he has a serious problem but can’t seem to know how to conquer it over a horrible weekend. One of the finest and most horrific depictions of alcoholism ever filmed during a time where such topics were frowned upon by audiences and the censors. Billy Wilder, along with Milland, understood that in order to understand the plight of this character, you needed not to feel pity but to feel empathy for a character that is pathetic but also slimy.
Even in characters that he wanted to show nothing but contempt for, he was able to show glimpses of humanity. Take the Nazi officer in Stalag 17 who showed respect and straightforwardness with the Allied prisoners of his war camp, though his own feelings were clouded by loss and the pain of exile at their hands.
All of this is visible even without knowing the backstories or the rumors. Wilder’s films are transparent enough to give you enough to know how he feels without it becoming self-congratulatory or vain. In fact, the humility of his films are a trademark towards his craft, the sense that he’s not trying to pull one over on the audience, but let them into to character conflict without obfuscation. In Ace in the Hole, we know Kirk Douglas is a horrible person from the first moment we see him, but we also know he doesn’t want someone’s death on his hands and not merely for the selfish reasons. Yet Wilder doesn’t stop trying to show how horrible the character is. This is probably how he can manage to pull off beginning the film with the narrator’s dead body and still pull off the tension it does through flashback.
More people should know Billy Wilder’s work and should go down in pop culture the same way that Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg had. His accomplishments towards cinematic history are vital in ways that are as subtle as his films are. I want my contemporaries and newer generations of movie lovers to see that Wilder’s work is timeless and fascinating as any newer film coming out. That these films are as good if not more amazing than the imitators were. In short, Billy Wilder isn’t important enough for just one day, his importance requires a month.
Let #BillyWilderMonth commence.