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.)

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.)

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.

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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