Billy Come Lately

A satirist's belated acclaim mirrors our own screwy self-image

 In the Forties, his dipsomaniacal soap opera/horror movie The Lost Weekend (1945) was like an x-ray of the Greatest Generation's scaredy-cat innards. In the Fifties, he veered from the Mulholland Gothic of Sunset Blvd. (1950) to a millionaire's speedboat in Some Like It Hot (1959), site of the greatest last line ("Nobody's perfect!") in Hollywood history. But the Sixties were rough for Billy Wilder. Pauline Kael described the director's One, Two, Three (1961) as "a comedy that pulls out laughs the way a catheter draws urine." (To this day, I still don't understand that. Wilder draws laughs... slowly? Uncomfortably? Through a tube?) And Andrew Sarris, the American dean of the auteur theory, planted Wilder squarely in the ranks of the Terminally Uncool. (The Wilder-worshiping director Cameron Crowe probably loved seeing his idol there--in the very spot where Sarris would likely inter the geek who made Almost Famous.)

Suddenly the wily cynic who had cranked out one gem after another--like Steven Soderbergh on an electrolyte spree--was yesterday's news. You could wrap fish in his critical scorecard. Now, a few months after his death at the age of 95, at the start of a six-film retrospective at Walker Art Center's movies-and-music series in Loring Park (starting Monday), Billy Wilder is routinely regarded in CNN-style obits as "the greatest director of Hollywood's golden age." What gives?

In fact, Wilder's screwball progression from soigné sophisticate to used-up old-timer to art-house oddball to underappreciated genius perfectly mirrors that of Hollywood's own self-image--as an elephant graveyard in the last days of the old studio system, as the teenage wasteland of today. In the Sixties, the director found himself getting poleaxed from both sides. Sarris and the auteurists, and Kael and her minions, agreed on almost nothing except the irrelevant tastelessness of Billy Wilder. (The third member of the holy trinity of American film critics, Manny Farber, deposited Wilder in the place beneath the place that was beneath contempt.)

Cosi, not cozy: Dean Martin and Ray Walston  in 'Kiss Me, Stupid'
Billy Wilder
Cosi, not cozy: Dean Martin and Ray Walston in 'Kiss Me, Stupid'

But particularly by today's standards, the filmmaker's Sixties output seems nothing less than astounding. His Cold War satire One, Two, Three (screening July 15) moves at a noxious rat-a-tat-tat clip, mocking the all-American capitalism of James Cagney's Coca-Cola exec while tattooing "Kick Me" signs on the backs of gray-suited Soviet commissars. The great opera director Peter Sellars once claimed that Wilder's jet-black sex comedy Kiss Me, Stupid (July 22) from 1964 was the American cinema's closest equivalent to Mozart's Cosi fan tutte; indeed, as Ray Walston's small-town piano teacher proceeds to pimp his sad-dumb-hottie wife (Kim Novak) to a leering Dean Martin, you can practically hear Dwight Eisenhower burying himself alive to escape the coming revolution. Hell--even Wilder's more routine Sixties entries (e.g., The Fortune Cookie) continue to shine. So where was the love?


Surely a Billy Wilder picture is as personal as that of an auteurist hero such as Douglas Sirk or Alfred Hitchcock. But Wilder transgressed: He defied the auteur critics' political correctness. Ideologically liberal, Sarris espoused an ethics based on honor and manliness--typified by the stoic decency of John Ford. Like a Democrat saluting a cop, the critic felt compelled to popularize his political beliefs by drenching them in old-fashioned, pokerfaced machismo. Therefore the flat, laconic style of Budd Boetticher's grade-Z Westerns was infinitely more valuable than the "effeminate" razzle-dazzle of John Frankenheimer or the girlishly "emotional" quality of Elia Kazan's Method fests. And while Wilder was no sissy, he possessed a quality that Sarris found unmanly and un-American: sophistication. There were no tobacco-chewing cowboys hawking monosyllabic loogies in Wilder's comedies; rather, his characters' wiseass quips and Tommy-gun comebacks flew like ejaculatory spurts of Champagne. To put it another way: Billy Wilder was to Andrew Sarris as Robert MacNamara was to LBJ: There's just something about the highfalutin' city slicker that a man can't trust.

The director didn't get any respect uptown, either. Pauline Kael and the highbrow/lowbrow male critics who followed her around like she was Auntie Mame (they were known as "Paulettes") just couldn't get with Wilder's decaying-urbanity shtick. While they were busy grooving on the freshness and emotional violence of work that was truly of its moment--Bonnie and Clyde, Godard's rarified pulp, the politicized panic attacks of Marco Bellocchio--Wilder came to seem like a rich uncle with a grating second wife and a bellyful of booze. Enough with Walter Matthau's hangdog mug, Gramps: We'd rather hang out with Anna Karina and Steve McQueen. It was fitting that Wilder fashioned a grotesque, Feydeauish sex farce around Dean Martin: To the youthquake Paulettes, Wilder's routine was as flat as the apple juice that Dino used as phony Scotch.

By the end of the 1970s, Wilder's work had become as majestic and remote as the faded face on a civic monument. In one of the bravest late-career moves ever executed by an old-school Hollywood pro, Wilder remade his own Sunset Blvd. as the even sourer, moldier, more harrowing Fedora (1979). In it, William Holden--a craggy, alcoholic shade of his gorgeous Sunset self--redoes his Joe Gillis role as a late-middle- aged man chasing the Garbo-like recluse of the title (Marthe Keller). While the Wilder-like Holden laments "this new generation of kids coming up--the ones with the beards," Fedora dreams a beautiful dream of her soon-to-be-happening new project with Michael York. (It's a sign of Wilder's characteristic comic cruelty that York's own star had already dimmed before production began.)

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