Film Commentary: BILLY WILDER’S OEUVRE TOTAL, PART I

by Michael Holland on October 11, 2016

in Film

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SOME LIKE IT WILDER

[Editor’s Note: Oeuvre Total is a film-discussion series between producer Michael Holland and critic Jason Rohrer, begun at Bitter Lemons and continuing here at Stage and Cinema. The first ten-part Oeuvre Total exchange concerns Billy Wilder. After we run the previously-published seven original entries, beginning with Part I below, new posts will appear in the coming weeks.]

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Every time Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are standing at the train station — in drag — and Curtis says “I’m Josephine” to which Lemmon spurts “I’m Daphne!” I laugh out loud.  I’ll say that again.  However many times I’ve seen the movie, I don’t smile inside, or smirk, or even giggle; I laugh out loud.

Every time Fred MacMurray is down on the floor, leaning against the doorframe, and Edward G. Robinson walks over and kneels next to him and MacMurray fights to get out: “The guy you were looking for was right across the desk from you” to which Robinson replies “He was a lot closer than that, Walter,” I’m still moved.

Every time William Holden pops out of the floor — coming back to those guys in that prison barrack — and gives that smile and half-salute, I think, “Well, everything’s going to be okay because William Holden just said so.”  (And, P.S., that’s how you do a “Hollywood ending.”  And do it deftly.)

Every time Shirley MacLaine hands the carnation to Jack Lemmon as he’s on his way upstairs for the promotion, I smile, consciously realizing I’m watching one of the great — and, again, deft — “meet cutes” (regardless that they already know each other or the heavy, heavy drama about to hit). That’s where “the work is done,” as they say (but we’ll get to that).

And every time Gloria Swanson does her little performance of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character, I think “This plays trivial but it is crucial, telescoping her yearning to perform.”  It portents the end (not the famous walk down the stairs, though that’s important too) when she’s standing outside after Holden’s just gone into the pool and she says, “The stars are ageless, aren’t they?”

I could go on, and you probably have five moments of your own, maybe from five other movies, because he was that good.

Billy Wilder.

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My name is Michael Holland and I love stories:  Movies, TV, Old Radio Serials, Books, Comic Books, you name it.  And I occasionally write about them on my blog, mostly from that Golden Era of the 1930s – 50s.  One of my undertakings has been my “Top 5’s” where I pick an actor / actress and showcase five of their films; my picks of their five “best.”  One of those actors was Tyrone Power, for whom I picked Witness for the Prosecution, re-posting that article for Mr. Wilder’s birthday June 22.

This triggered my friend, Stage and Cinema’s own Jason Rohrer, to suggest we open that up to a bigger discussion.  (Considering the theater tie-in, Stage and Cinema is the perfect place for such a dialogue.  Two of Wilder’s films, Stalag 17 and Witness For The Prosecution, were based on plays, and three of his films were the source material for musicals: Some Like It Hot turned into Sugar; The Apartment became Promises, Promises; and Sunset Boulevard kept the same title.)

Mr. Rohrer and I are going to talk Billy Wilder movies.  Inevitably that will include some bio of the gentleman (after all, his mother dying in Auschwitz had to affect him and his storytelling) and how many Oscars he won (six, though do you need convincing that he’s well regarded?).  That said, I’m often reminded of Orson Welles’ line about peeking behind the curtain:  “Do you want the greatest service to all artists?  Destroy all biographies.  Only art can explain the life of a man.  Not the contrary.”  So we’ll see how it goes, including spoilers because we’ll presume you’ve seen the movies.

Which movies?  Any!  All!  Why not?  I noted in my Witness write-up that “Either a Billy Wilder title is in your Top 10 or you’re wrong.  How do I know?  Look at these:

Double Indemnity
Sunset Boulevard
Stalag 17
Some Like It Hot
The Apartment

That’s only my Top 5 (and that short list doesn’t include Five Graves to CairoThe Lost Weekend or Sabrina).  It would be fair to say that not every Wilder film is a gem.  Here’s five more:

The Spirit of St. Louis
Kiss Me, Stupid
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
The Front Page
Buddy Buddy

Yet, perhaps, those five are your favorites.  That’s how it goes, art-wise.

So that’s why we’re here, to open up a discussion about the “Oeuvre Total” as Mr. Rohrer said, wittingly.  Not what made Billy Wilder tick, per se, but why he makes us tick, or even ticked off.  Or why we’re still ticking about him at all (less witty a phrase, I grant you, but there it is).

Let’s begin here:  From the book Conversations With Wilder (1999) by Cameron Crowe (Jerry MaguireAlmost Famous):

Crowe:  I remember when I first came to your office.  I gave you a poster to sign, and you paused and said, “I’m not going to write something funny.”  And you signed, “Best, Billy Wilder.”  And I realized the pressure you must feel sometimes to be Wilderesque. 

Wilder:  Yeah, but there’s no “Wilderesque.” It’s just … stuff.

As deft as he’s always been, that says a lot right there too.  (It’s interesting to notice that he might have been most reticent about his comedy.)

One thing’s easy to say:  Mr. Wilder endures.  More for me than, say, Cecil B. DeMille.  (No disrespect to Mr. DeMille, he just popped into my head because of Sunset Boulevard.)  While DeMille deserves the respect he gets, there aren’t many DeMille Pictures you sit down and watch for fun (perhaps Greatest Show On Earth or North West Mounted Police, but I digress).  Billy Wilder, on the other hand, you do. You can study and critique, of course, but at the end of the day you can, still, sit back and enjoy his pictures (as with Woody Allen, mediocre Wilder is better than most).

Wilder made a hell of a lot of wonderful “stuff.”

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Up next will be Jason Rohrer’s first attempted butchery of Michael’s sacred cow.

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