Billy Come Lately

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

Like other late-period Wilder pictures, including the tweedy, eccentric Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Fedora was accorded a certain grudging respect--even by Andrew Sarris. But it was clear how Wilder's maturity was being treated. The director had ripened, all right: He had become his own Norma Desmond. His 1981 swan song, Buddy Buddy, a creaky last go-round with Matthau and Jack Lemmon (not counting the four subsequent trips to the bank that the pair made without their favorite director), employs corny rear projection and "topical" gags that drop the jaw. (At one point, a hippie is seen singing "Happy birthday, little Elvis!" to his newborn baby--in 1981, for chrissakes!) The movie is so nutty, so crassly funny, and so wildly out of touch, it's as if Godard had taken over the helm of a late-Seventies TV special hosted by Charles Nelson Reilly. It received one positive review: from the Chicago Reader's arch auteurist Dave Kehr.

Then in the Nineties came a twist ending: An aging Sarris revised his pantheon of American directors and placed Wilder beside Hitchcock and Griffith and Chaplin--right next to those manly men Hawks and Ford! "How could I not have understood?" asked Sarris like some morning-after Scrooge. Another question: Why did the stubborn critic reverse his position? The answer should be obvious to anyone who has visited a multiplex in the past 20 years. Studio pictures have gone to hell in a hand basket; even the middle of the road is poorly paved. For a reality check, compare the abominable technique of the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind with even the most middling work of longtime auteurist foes such as George Stevens and William Wyler. Released today, Wilder's least appreciated films would leave audiences flabbergasted; Buddy Buddy would be enough to send Adam Sandler and the Farrelly Brothers to the rear of the class. As Sarris must have known when he penned his Wilder reassessment, critics no longer have the luxury of bickering over which personal Hollywood filmmaker is the best; they must be happy to witness any trace of personality whatsoever. (This critic eagerly awaits his own deathbed conversion to the charms of Wes Anderson.)

These days, Wilder's reputation is secure. Crowe released a bound volume of interviews with the director--based on Truffaut's conversations with Hitchcock--that can be found on the bookshelves of countless Hollywood hacks. Everyone from Roger Ebert to Harry Knowles has raised a glass of Dom Perignon to Wilder, the Greatest of the Great. But the rise and rise of Billy Wilder isn't merely the product of seismic shifts within the critical establishment. It has more to do with a pervasive self-disgust within American culture in general--a vertically integrated, market-crazed culture whose spiritual impoverishment has become a subject so trite as to be beyond articulation. The endless nostalgia that seems to unify all intelligent culture-consumers--whether it's a yearning for World War II heroism, a longing for Seventies grit, or the all-purpose obscurantism of the sort of hipsters featured in Ghost World--is really a shared recognition of our fallen world. Wilder, for all his 20th-century savvy, was more a gentleman of the 19th Century--an Ernst Lubitsch in sharkskin. You wouldn't catch him, like his aesthetic grandson Soderbergh, describing his work in language better suited to a studio pitch meeting. He belongs to the America that flourished before salesmanship took over everything.

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'

The battleship-hard craftsmanship of Wilder's pictures has always delighted us; today it shames us. This is why his membership in the pantheon of American directors will be valid forever.

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