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

by Michael Holland on October 21, 2016

in Film

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AUTEURIAL BLOOD

[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 (Part II by Mr. Rohrer last week; Part III by Mr. Holland below) new posts will appear in the coming weeks.]

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Every writer, I think, has a natural triptych* [see Editor’s Note below] to their writing, whether they know it or not; never mind whether they admit it or not. And never mind finding it or not, looking for Billy Wilder’s is one of the things that makes him endure. Look at this, from his childhood.  When asked if he got his sense of humor from trying to make his mother laugh:

She was a very tough laugh. My father was a rather easy laugh. My father had kind of everyday humor. He, for     instance, would construct a joke. He would come out of the bathroom and I would say to him, “Dad, you forgot     to button your pants” – in those days we had buttons – and he looked at me and said, “I have not. There is a         law that you don’t know, my son, which says, ‘Where there is a corpse, the window must be open.’”

I don’t care if it’s true or not, that’s wonderful. And telling. And if it isn’t true; he constructed the memory? Just as wonderful and even more telling.

That we’re still talking about Billy Wilder at all proves he endures. I said in the first part of this series that we were going to talk Billy Wilder movies, and I look forward to getting back to that. I’m honored Jason Rohrer invited me to be part of this discussion. In his inciteful insightful Part 2, he went behind the curtain – and Orson Welles’ back – to portray a bit of the why in Wilder’s work. I fronted the concession that it would prove inevitable not to, and Jason does it immeasurably better than the likes of Andrew Sarris or John Patterson. And we’ll get to that. But before we can “talk Billy Wilder movies,” let’s continue the triptych by jumping to its end.

Nobody’s perfect.

Yes, it’s the line Some Like It Hot goes out on; perhaps the line from Mr. Wilder’s movies. While it was written by co-writer I.A.L. Diamond, it’s no less famous for being the line Wilder himself went out on.  But, interestingly, the key to his epitaph is, “I’m a Writer,” and we’ll get to that too.

Because, let’s not forget, “Nobody’s perfect” is also a line that can be said of any artist; Poet, Painter, Composer, Novelist, especially Film Director. If you say Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the greatest films ever made while The Lost World: Jurassic Park is one of the worst, we are dancing to the very same tune. Does that take anything away from Jaws or Schindler’s List; or enhance A.I. or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Of course not. Because, while they were all directed by the worthily renowned Steven Spielberg, nobody’s perfect. And, as I also fronted in Part 1, while I champion Five Graves To Cairo and Stalag 17 by our boy of the hour, who’s to say you’re wrong about Avanti! and Fedora? (Doesn’t make you right but, then again, nobody’s …) Not Kipling, Picasso, Mozart, Hemingway; masters all. Least of all someone talking about art (viz yours truly). But why, especially, isn’t a Film Director? That’s its own rabbit hole, but it goes back to what Andrew Sarris was most blind to.

Ugh, I suppose we should just start here. I really do just want to talk Billy Wilder movies but Mr. Rohrer said two words that might as well be “Cleaning Woman” to Rigby Reardon. I’m talking about Andrew Sarris and the total horseshit that is the auteur theory. To begin, Jason also references John Patterson who wrote in 2012:

I’ve never quite forgiven the critic Andrew Sarris for backing down on his famously negative assessment of Billy Wilder’s movies in his 1968 auteur-based survey The American Cinema. Far from placing Wilder in his pantheon of the greatest directors, Sarris quarantined him within his starkly named “Less Than Meets the Eye” section.

For those of you wondering, “Who is Andrew Sarris?” (and you should be grateful) he was the leading American proponent of the auteur theory. His book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968 (1968), berated Wilder … and Stanley Kubrick … and David Lean. Now, I have no problem critiquing art (viz again), and I can even understand why the auteur theory came about in the first place. For that, we go back to three Directors:  Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.

To keep us on the same page, briefly, the auteur theory came out of France – this is the mid 50s – where Godard and Truffaut helped propel the notion that the director was the author of the film. And they needed a hero; an until-then critically-ignored director who had, in their minds, a personal vision. Well, at that time, Mr. Hitchcock was on a truly amazing run: (starting in ’54) Rear Window, To Catch A Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North By Northwest, Psycho and (by ’63) The Birds. But – this is true of that time – he was not taken seriously. He was renowned as the great sculptor of sophisticated thrillers, already a legend, but not yet important. Just what they were looking for.

Suddenly there was a wave of serious criticism surrounding Hitchcock and there was no greater peak than the now famous book Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966). Now, I’m not knocking Mr. Hitchcock. And, as I say, at least Godard and Truffaut were directors. Love ‘em, hate ‘em, at least they’ve been there. (Quickly, for my money, look at Godard’s Une Femme Est Une Femme [1961] and Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine [1973].) But two years after Hitchcock/Truffaut, Sarris – a critic never having, you know, written or directed a movie – was looking down on Billy Wilder? (And while his berating Kubrick sounds insane today, Sarris’s book came out in ‘68: He’d not yet seen 2001. So, while Kubrick had already two of my favorites, The Killing and Dr. Strangelove, Sarris’s venom was – God I hate giving him anything – badly timed.)

But David Lean?

As I’ve said, nobody’s … but propelling the auteur theory? Godard and Truffaut come up with it, fine. But how does Andrew Sarris – a smart writer – so much as hear it and not simply start laughing?

Because he’s never been there. And here’s what I mean by that.

For my bread and butter, I work in Hollywood; have, for better or worse, for over twenty years. And I’ve never met a fellow technician – not another writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, you name it – who believes in the auteur theory. I’ve never even met a single director who believes in it.

Believe me when I tell you there are nine “people” who make a film (and I delineate there because they’re of course departments).  And all nine have to be at their best for the movie to work. Listed alphabetically: Actor(s), Cinematographer, Director, Editor, Producer, Production Designer, Scorer, Sound Designer/Mixer, and Writer. You want to add Visual Effects to that? Fine by me, a lot of my friends are VFX Artists, but their needs vary per film. The other nine? Indispensable. To elevate any of them isn’t just wrong, it’s insulting to the team.  Because it is a team.  To say any one of them is the author is, simply (if not eloquently), horseshit.

{Doublespace.}

Because am I off my soap box? Rant over? Yes, if you’ll permit me to circle back to our boy of the hour.

Billy Wilder was no auteur, nor was he perfect. Sure, he was what 1940s’ Studio Bosses called a “hyphenate” (I want to say the coiner was Daryl Zanuck but don’t quote me); that is, he was a Writer/Director. So is he a little more on the line than my nine crucials? Welllll, no one questions a certain thumbprint to certain names: say, Frank Capra “then;” Quentin Tarantino “now.” But it’s tough to throw Mr. Wilder in there because he did things as disparate as Double Indemnity and Some Like It Hot. And while it was my Witness for the Prosecution article that started us down this path, remember that was one of my picks in my Tyrone Power Top 5. So if we ever get back to talking Billy Wilder movies, I’ll stand by my original list of Wilder’s:

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

If you want to throw in Five Graves To Cairo, The Lost Weekend, Ace In The Hole, Sabrina and Witness for the Prosecution, well, you and I are still dancing to that same wonderful tune.

And, Christ, that’s ten films that are damn good.

{Doublespace again, because the orchestra’s started.}

I’ll close this part of the series by re-touching on the beginning and the end. I wrote that every writer has a triptych. And I don’t think that Billy Wilder’s is particularly cynical. Was Will Rogers’? Is Aaron Sorkin’s? I question Mr. Rohrer putting “The Best Years of Our Lives up against The Lost Weekend on every level of good taste and permanent usefulness.” Because who’d put Wyler’s masterpiece up against The Lost Weekend? If any of Wilder’s, it goes up against The Apartment. Wyler and Wilder. Maybe Mr. Rohrer – better than a damn good writer – is just being a little more inciteful insightful.

{Yep, the orchestra’s really trying to play me off now.}

When anyone talks about Wilder not being as good a Director as he was a Writer, I posit there are a number of good “Directed By”s in his repertoire. But, more importantly, he considered himself “a Writer.” So I think it was natural – and smart –  for him to know when to get out of the way of a great script, or work like hell with another writer – Brackett, Chandler, Diamond – to make the script great, therefore making the movie great. And what of his directing? I like this, from Jonathan Coe’s 2006 piece for The Guardian:

… despite his predilection for crafted dialogue and memorable one-liners (which, again, his detractors have somehow managed to turn into a vice), the most powerful moments in his films are not exclusively verbal. Rather, they arise from a masterly conflation of all the key cinematic elements – dialogue, visuals, music. In Some Like It Hot, for instance, there is a scene where Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe return at dawn, by speedboat, from their romantic night on Joe E Brown’s yacht. At the same time, Brown returns, on foot, from his romantic evening with Jack Lemmon. Curtis – guileful, treacherous – drives the speedboat up to the jetty in reverse. Brown – guileless, well-meaning – jumps into the boat and zooms off, forwards. All the time he is humming the tango to which he and Lemmon have been dancing all night, and momentarily, miraculously, it overlaps with Monroe’s orchestral love theme on the soundtrack, producing a transient, bittersweet harmony. All the film’s motifs of deception, role-reversal and romantic aspiration are beautifully contained in that wordless sequence.

But here we go again, talking Billy Wilder Movies. Sorry about that.

Wilder’s epitaph is cute (so is Jack Lemmon’s) but Wilder tychs his trip a bit further. Here’s what he said when asked if he wrote the line, “Nobody’s perfect:”

It’s always very difficult for me to say, “This is mine and this is his [I.A.L. Diamond, co-writer of Some Like It Hot],” always, except of course I have to give him credit for that. Because that’s the thing they jump on … and it wound up to be our funniest last line. I was asked by many people, “What is going to happen now? What happens now to Lemmon? What happens to his husband?” And I always said, “I have no idea.”  “Nobody’s perfect.” Leave it up there on the screen. You cannot top that.

If we ever do get to talk Billy Wilder movies, well, I think there’s a lot left up there on the screen.

To applaud.

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*[Editor’s note: On Mr. Holland’s use of the term “triptych,” in his own words: “I first heard it used by Paul Thomas Anderson when we were on Punch Drunk Love; he citing the colored interstitials. When he said it I immediately thought of the AAA Triptik – a book of maps specifically designed and printed to your trip (my dad always had them made for our road trips; and I’m talking these bulky things back in the 80s when we drove cross country). I said so to Paul, who said his father did the same thing. Funny enough, I guess, so I asked him what he meant by it. It wasn’t his original, he forgot who first used it, but it’s a followed beat or meter to a story. I’ve heard it a bunch since too – used it a bunch since too – including David Fincher talking about his use of a Trent Reznor piano theme throughout The Social Network.  So perhaps it doesn’t always involve writing specifically but a beated throughline to story.”]

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Watch Stage and Cinema for Jason Rohrer’s rebuttal (Part IV).

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