Saturday, December 21, 2013

Film History Student Final Paper #2 - Billy Wilder

I am fortunate to teach Film/Video Production History in the Motion Picture/TV Department at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. At the end of each semester, the students (who range from ages 18 - 21, usually) are required to write a paper about an auteur filmmaker of their choice. They are to provide an overview of the filmmaker's career and identify specific stylistic and/or thematic traits in his/her work that are "signatures," i.e. the things that make the filmmaker an auteur. I ask the students to write the paper in an informal, conversational tone, as if they are telling a story to a young person who knows nothing about the subject.  

I have picked three papers out of the bunch that I feel are worthy to be published here on my blog.

Second Paper:  BILLY WILDER, written by DIANA PETERS

Billy Wilder: An Auteur Filmmaker
Billy Wilder is among the greatest filmmakers of all time. He isn’t always recognized for the great contributions he made to cinema as a whole. He lacked the recognizability and distinctness that directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles had, and never quite became a face of pop culture like they did.  The man himself once said, “The best director is the one you don't see.” It’s unfortunate that Billy Wilder isn’t exactly a household name considering the films that he made, his most popular being Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and The Apartment, just to name a few. Billy Wilder is definitely remembered as an auteur filmmaker. Many of his films reflect similar ideas, themes, and traits. Few directors were as dedicated to their craft. Every film of his is just that—his. Wilder was not just a director, but also a writer. He wrote/co-wrote many of his films. He also wrote screenplays for films he didn’t direct. Wilder considered himself more of a writer than a director throughout his life. He has 78 writing credits on IMDB, and 27 directing credits. His headstone even says, “I’m a writer, but then, nobody’s perfect.” Billy Wilder was an auteur who should be celebrated for his work, which has made a big impact on cinema.
“Wilder is often called a cynic by movie critics because his protagonists are all antiheroes - men or women with grave character flaws. While he never hit his audience over the head with moralizing, his movies are profoundly moral nonetheless” (Mason, M.S.  Christian Science Monitor. January 30th, 1998.) Billy Wilder’s cynicism can be traced back to his days living in Europe. He was born with the name Samuel Wilder, on June 22, 1906  in Austria-Hungary, and his family later moved to Vienna. Being Jewish, he made the decision to leave Germany and move to Paris when Hitler had risen to power. Until recently, it was believed that his mother, stepfather (his biological father died young), and grandmother had died at Auschwitz. Regrettably, what really happened was not any better at all. They had all been killed at concentration camps, except for his grandmother, who was murdered in a ghetto. Billy Wilder was so disturbed by concentration camps and what the Nazis had done that he made a short documentary called Todesmuehlen or Death Camps, to expose these atrocities many people in the U.S. didn’t even realize were happening. It’s amazing that Wilder wasn’t more cynical. It’s also amazing that he not only made comedies, but some of the greatest and most influential comedies of all time. But he could switch between being dark and cynical to wickedly funny. Not many writers or directors are capable of that. He was perceived as a very cynical man though, regardless of his comedic capabilities.
Wilder was indeed defined by his cynicism. No film demonstrates that better than Ace in the Hole. From 1951, Ace in the Hole is the story of a ruthless journalist who pursues a story about a man who has fallen into a hole and can’t get out. It should also be noted that I’ve never heard a more clever film title in my life. Billy Wilder was extremely critical of the industry that he worked. This was very much a part of his ever-present cynicism. Sunset Boulevard, which is one of his most well known films, is a very cynical look at Hollywood. But cynicism isn’t enough to make a film great. I could name endless films that are dark and cynical and fail because they come from such a dark, unpleasant place. But Wilder’s films are still very enjoyable in spite of the heavily cynical tone so many of them take. He had a cynical outlook on life, and that was reflected in his films in an artful way. For example, there’s a scene in Ace in the Hole, in which the main protagonist/antihero Chuck Tatum, played by Kirk Douglas, has to deliver the news that Leo, the man stuck in the hole, has died. This is in the middle of a big “Leo-fest” as I’d call it, where people are mindlessly celebrating Leo as some kind of hero. There are many problems with this. Leo is not a hero, he is a man trapped in a hole. They are paying more attention to the fun party for Leo than to Leo himself. A terrible person by all accounts, Chuck becomes more dependable and kind to Leo than all of those people, to the point that they don’t even know he’s dead, they’re all too busy having a good time.
Billy Wilder was extremely ahead of his time. He was very critical of Hollywood. It’s incredible that what we see in Sunset Boulevard is still so relevant today. The idea that we take actors and actresses, make them larger-than-life celebrities who are admired by millions of people one moment, and then forget them the next. In fact, this happens even more now than it did in 1950, when Sunset Boulevard came out. I’d like to think that maybe it went over people’s heads a bit back then, maybe because Hollywood was relatively new and this was the first time it was happening in cinema history, where actors were being chucked to the side when they got old so a crop of new, talented, pretty people could replace them. I think it’s possible that people just weren’t truly aware of how being a film star works, unlike today. The film wasn’t unsuccessful then, but it was controversial. It was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but lost to All About Eve. Sunset Boulevard probably should have won, because many regard it to be the better film, however I’m sure that the Academy was less than thrilled by this very obvious criticism of the Hollywood system.
Fedora was Billy Wilder’s tragically underrated, penultimate film. Fedora, is very much like Sunset Boulevard. Both films star William Holden. Both films are narrated by Holden in voiceovers. Both films are about a retired, reclusive, and aging actress. It doesn’t reach the level of greatness compared to that of Sunset Boulevard, though. Not even close. But it’s still worth checking out if you can find it. Why do I bring it up? Well, I’ve heard that Billy Wilder and William Holden wanted this movie to be made to prove that they were both still relevant. His previous film, The Front Page, was underwhelming and unmemorable, and I think he lost some credibility because of it. But Fedora is never given enough credit; it is his most interesting movie from his later career. It’s more interesting than The Front Page or The Fortune Cookie (I cannot personally vouch for Avanti! or Buddy Buddy as I have not seen them). But Fedora is very, very...weird. It’s just a downright weird movie. It sometimes doesn’t feel like a Billy Wilder movie. It feels like a relatively low-budget European film from the late 1970s because, at its core, that’s what it is. Sure, Wilder’s sharp and witty dialogue comes through. And Wilder is excellent at directing actors, so unsurprisingly, the performances are excellent. A review from The Passionate Movie Goer’s blog sums it up well, “Fedora is an atmospheric, chilly affair, not quite as companionable as Sunset Blvd., and while Wilder opted for color cinematography (courtesy of Gerry Fisher's painterly hues) rather than black-&-white, he conjures up dreamy shadow imagery that efficiently distills his film's disturbing themes. (A French-German co-production, Fedora is essentially the European sibling of Sunset Blvd.)” (Joe Baltake, review of Fedora. February 15th, 2012.) The film is not bad at all and it wasn’t critically panned either. It was just...kind of a weird movie. The kind of weird movie that didn’t have much of an audience. Which is why I find it so charming. But the thing about Fedora that links back to what I was saying before is that I think, even in 1978 when Fedora came out, it went over a lot of people’s heads. Just as Sunset Boulevard went over people’s heads in 1950. Maybe the reason that it wasn’t loved was because it was just so darn cynical. It’s nowhere near as cynical as Sunset Boulevard, but  in 1978 people wanted to go to the theater to see Grease and Superman. People didn’t want to see a mystery film about a disturbed, reclusive actress, or a film about why the film industry is problematic. This film was a pretty big risk for Billy Wilder. He hadn’t made a picture in four years before Fedora and, to reiterate, his more recent films were met with underwhelming response, critically and commercially. I don’t know if he thought that Fedora would be successful, but I’d like to think he wanted to make this movie badly enough that he didn’t care. I’m sure that that isn’t true, because it was reported that he was very disappointed by the lack of interest among film distributors; he was also subsequently disappointed in the film’s limited run in theaters. But this was the film he wanted to make, and he made it, like a true auteur; not existing to make films just to please the masses.
Billy Wilder was also excellent at blending genres before that had even become common. He wasn’t the first one to do this, of course, but he started doing this early on and, in my opinion, really perfected it. Very few of his films can be easily defined by a single genre. The Apartment is a great example of this. Is it a comedy? There are some very darkly comedic moments, like when Fran, played by Shirley MacLaine, hears the cork pop and thinks it’s a gunshot. But overall, I think it’s too dark and unhappy to be a full-on comedy. Is it a drama? Kind of...but Jack Lemmon is cracking jokes throughout and maintaining a positive attitude despite his obvious disgust for what the people around him are doing. It could be called a romance, but it doesn’t get ‘romantic’ until the very end. It’s a satire, but unlike many satires, it doesn’t go over the top with its message and no one behaves too ridiculously. Many of his films are like this. Fedora is not just a drama; not just a thriller. It’s not a comedy for sure, but William Holden gets some funny moments. It’s everything and it’s nothing. Wilder’s movies are completely original pieces of cinema that are not defined simply by their genre. 

One of Billy Wilder’s greatest contributions to cinema was Double Indemnity, considered by many to be one of the greatest film noirs of all time. Like so many of Wilder’s films, the main character, Walter Neff, is an anti-hero. The film is an amazing achievement, not only for the genre of film noir, but film in general. Adapted from James M. Cain’s book of the same name, Double Indemnity follows an insurance salesman who finds himself committing an unthinkable crime. The film escalates brilliantly, and it’s a very clever psychological study of a man who makes a very bad decision, and comes to regret it. It’s not just the story of a crime, it’s the way these people are affected by this crime. Glenn Kenny wrote an entire article about the importance of Phyllis Dietrichson’s anklet, “And the anklet—the equipment of a woman, you know, that is married to this kind of man.’ It is curious that Wilder, reflecting on a film he made 53 years prior, was considering these in terms of the significance they had in the character's marriage to a man she eventually helped murder. An insight into how creative artists, the great ones, maintain ‘the whole equation’ in themselves. Because relative to the film's momentum, the person most affected by the anklet is Neff. It's brought up four times within seven minutes. Observing it, Neff says, ‘That's a honey of an anklet you're wearing, Mrs. Dietrichson. As I was saying, I'd hate to see the policies lapse.’ And after a bit more innocuous chit-chat, Neff's eye goes for the glint once more: ‘Wish you'd tell me what's engraved on that anklet.’”(Kenny, Glenn. Woman’s Equipment: Barbara Stanwyck's Anklet in "Double Indemnity". October 14th, 2013).This is proof that Wilder had extreme attention to detail. He clearly paid attention to every aspect of his films, and even the little, seemingly insignificant things were meticulously planned, and had meaning to them. Wilder also called it his best film on a technical level. He had this to say about the film,  “I never heard that expression, film noir, when I made Double Indemnity... I just made pictures I would have liked to see. When I was lucky, it coincided with the taste of the audience. With Double Indemnity, I was lucky." And how great is it to make such a large contribution to such a highly regarded and important genre...without even knowing it.

It would be unfair of me to talk about Billy Wilder as an auteur without mentioning the contributions he made to comedy. His best comedies are, in my opinion, Some Like it Hot and One, Two, Three. Some Like it Hot starts out with two musicians that are witnesses to the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and are on the run from the gangsters who committed the crime they had seen. It seems, at first, like it’s going to be a very dark gangster film or something of the sort. The scene where the massacre happens is serious and nothing is played for laughs. But as the men dress in drag and join a travelling women’s band, the film stays consistently funny. To just call it funny is a disservice to the brilliant writing of Billy Wilder and his co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond, as well as the comedic timing of Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe. It has been voted the #1 comedy according to the American Film Institute’s list “America’s Funniest Movies.” That is really saying something, as it is listed above Blazing Saddles, Duck Soup, The General, and City Lights. Some Like it Hot should be noted because with it Billy Wilder really pushed the boundaries of The Production Code. Many of his films pushed boundaries with overt sexual innuendo and raciness, but Some Like it Hot had men dressed in drag, which was unheard of at the time. It had sexually explicit dialogue, like the scene where Joe is trying to woo Sugar by suggesting that he’s impotent, to encourage her to have her way with him. And even a little bit of nudity: Marilyn Monroe’s breasts are in plain view...almost. She didn’t want to wear her dress and just wore the mesh part. So she was covered only by mesh and strategic lighting. I think that Billy Wilder enjoyed controversy, and enjoyed working slight risqué content into his films. One, Two, Three is another one of his great comedies. The controversy comes from the film taking place during the Cold War, before the construction of the Berlin Wall. Many jokes about the Soviets are made. Finland even banned the film, in hopes of not hurting their relations with the Soviet Union. The film has (again) a main character anti-hero, who cheats on his wife, struggles with his job and his boss, and constantly gets angry at everyone around him. The best comedic moments come at the end of the film, when Mac and his friends are transforming Otto into an upstanding aristocrat. The comedy is fast paced and begs for repeated viewings, and the satire remains interesting with every re-watch.
Billy Wilder had a plaque in his office that read “How would Ernst Lubitsch do it?” I can only hope that there are modern-day directors with a plaque that says “How would Billy Wilder do it?” My hope is that Billy Wilder will be remembered for his enormous contributions to film, as a form of art and entertainment. He deserves to be remembered for his witty and smart writing, as well as his brilliant style of directing. And maybe he is being remembered, after all, who was it that Michel Hazanavicius thanked in his acceptance speech at the 2012 Oscars for The Artist? Oh yes, “I want to thank Billy Wilder, I want to thank Billy Wilder and I want to thank Billy Wilder.” Maybe Michel Hazanavicius has one of those plaques.
Works Cited
Baltake, Joe. "Cinema Obscura: Billy Wilder's Fedora (1978)." N.p., 15 Feb. 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2013.

Kenny, Glenn. "A Woman's Equipment: Barbara Stanwyck's Anklet In "Double Indemnity"" All Content., 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

Mason, M.S. "Billy Wilder's Sophisticated Touch." Christiansciencemonitor. N.p., 30 Jan. 1998. Web. 
            09 Dec. 2013. 

1 comment:

  1. Well-done, Diana! I also love Billy Wilder's films and enjoy watching them often.