August 20, 2019

Culture, High & Low

Billy Wilder made movies — not auteur films in the manner of Truffaut, not carefully composed scenes like Hitchcock, not “cinema.” But movies that were mostly witty and almost always entertaining. It seems fitting that this 93-year-old writer-director should be honored (Jan. 13) by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and fortunate (for us) that a retrospective of his pictures will play in town for the next two weeks.

And what movies they are. “Some Like It Hot” with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe; “The Apartment” with Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine; “Stalag 17” with William Holden; “Sunset Boulevard”; and of course the original “Sabrina” with Holden, Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

Wilder’s stories are driven by the script and an irreverent point of view. His heroes (in “Sunset Boulevard” and “Stalag 17,” for example) are often anti-heroes — wisecracking males without illusions, and just a bit on the make. His dialogue can be hilarious, and like many writers he was constantly changing and completing the story until the last moment.

He tells Cameron Crowe (a director himself, in the splendid new book “Conversations with Wilder,” published by Knopf) that he and I.A.L. Diamond couldn’t find an ending for “The Apartment;” they just knew they “didn’t want to have that kiss ending.” It would be too “schmaltzy,” according to Wilder. So they just wrote in the lines for MacLaine: “Shut up and deal.” And, Wilder tells Crowe in the book “she deals the whole deck, you know, not just ten cards” as the credits come up.

In “Some Like It Hot,” they couldn’t figure a way to close the story. Jack Lemmon, dressed as a woman, tries to list all the reasons he/she cannot marry millionaire Joe E. Brown, only to have them rebuffed. Finally Lemmon says: I can’t marry you because I’m a man. Brown’s closing line is: “Nobody’s perfect.” Fade out.

Perhaps the humor and the sardonic point of view can be attributed to his European origins (he was raised in Austria); perhaps to his hustling career as a journalist, first in Vienna then in Berlin, where he once posed as a dancing gigolo in order to write about the experience; perhaps because he has distanced himself — at least in public — from the fact that three-fourths of his family perished in Germany’s concentration camps.

In any event his scripts assume an affectionate tolerance for the fallibility of most men and women, and in the process adopt a broad nonchalant view towards such matters as adultery and sexual conquest.

If you can, take in some of Wilder’s motion pictures at UCLA’s James Bridges theater between the 14th and 30th of this month. If not, do what I did last week: Rent a half dozen or more and watch them on your VCR.