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

by Michael Holland on October 26, 2016

in CD-DVD,Film

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JAWSING

[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 new posts will appear in the coming weeks. The most recent was Part IV by Jason Rohrer.]

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One of the wonderful things about the written conversation is each party gets to do it alone. They can get their thoughts down on paper in as organized (and hopefully as entertaining) a fashion as possible. Well, one of the horrible things about the written conversation is each party has to do it alone. It isn’t really a conversation at all; at least not a fluid one.

Throughout this series – and thank you, dear readers, for continuing with us – Mr. Jason Rohrer and I are talking Billy Wilder Movies and navigating that idea’s various roads in writing. If Mr. Rohrer and I sat and talked Billy Wilder Movies, we’d of course have a conversation and move forward a lot more quickly.  But we parry and thrust like Flynn and Rathbone; both of us, I suspect, happy to play both parts.

Point being, before I move on with this part as its own, I’d like to touch on – just touch on, I promise – a couple of things. Because, frankly, I like talking with Mr. Rohrer, even writing back and forth. (After all – never mind Yakima Canutt and my father were friends – who else knows who Mr. Canutt is, much less references him so well?)

First, let’s indeed put Andrew Sarris to bed. He was a smart writer and, as I’ve said many times, everyone is entitled to their opinion; and I wholeheartedly agree you don’t have to work in Hollywood to be able to talk about her. We all buy popcorn and, more than anything, just want to enjoy the movie when the lights dim. When it does or doesn’t move us enough to make us say something about it? Of course we should. And I don’t think any director is untouchable – Kubrick, Lean, nobody’s perfect – but I stand by the preposterousness of anyone purporting directors to be something more than another part of the engine. To that bed-putting, I’ll say this:

I’ve always thought, as you know, that the job of the director is overrated, overinflated, and I think the director must think of himself as the servant of the story – even when he wrote the story.

And:

I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of filmmaking. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit.

And, yes, those two are so interesting (if I do say so myself) that I even made them pull quotes. Why? Because I love my writing that much? Hardly. They’re not even mine. The first is from Orson Welles and the second is from Stanley Kubrick. Whatever you think of these gentlemen, both are worthily renowned directors who think nothing of the director pedestal they’re put on (while believing many many other pedestals).

I just deleted two pages here on Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Why? Because it was a looooong road from Mr. Wilder. But, briefly, why is it ever thought of like that – Steven Spielberg’s Jaws – when the first thing you think of — admit it, the first thing — is the music.  (You understand how important score is to a film.  I don’t mean loved or hummed but important. Viz Chariots Of Fire. Okay, we can keep moving …) We’ve all heard how difficult the Jaws shoot was, far worse than The Godfather, to the point that editor Verna Fields moved a KEM into her own guesthouse just to get it finished. Now, I’m not taking anything away from Mr. Spielberg’s direction – smartest move he ever made was putting the camera in the water, lapping half the frame – but I can say Verna Fields’ & John Williams’ Jaws with as much authority. You want to add Carl Gottlieb? Go for it, you know how I love to champion the, you know, writer. Carl Gottlieb’s & Verna Fields’ & John Williams’ Jaws. But then it was really Richard Zanuck & David Brown producing that set the tone. And Bill Butler shot it. And Bob Mattey – and please understand how crucial this gentleman was – came out of retirement to build Bruce. But here we are getting all sorts of people out of bed again and for what? Peter Benchley’s Jaws; yes, obviously that’s the best yet. For proof of all this? Find Carl Gottlieb’s masterful recount, The Jaws Log. Anyway, there were two pages here, I deleted them, and we can keep moving …

Mr. Rohrer’s example of how crucial a good editor is – noting the difference between Miss Menke and Mr. Raskin on Mr. Tarantino – is spot on. (And God knows I appreciate Quentin Tarantino. His films, most of each of them, but definitely his New Beverly Theatre here in Los Angeles where tonight (7/16/16) my wife Diana and I are seeing a double feature of Double Indemnity and Body Heat; and Happy Birthday Barbara Stanwyck who would have been 109 today. And, no, it does not matter that we own the DVDs, as tonight will be 35mm projection with a crowd. And you understand how important a crowd is to a film. If not, I touch briefly on that here with some popcorn.)

Mr. Rohrer also points out the will of the producer. Sure, The Golden Age was the era of “the producer’s film,” and he correctly cites Val Lewton while, for my money, the example is David O. Selznick on Gone with the Wind; that movie – six known directors working for him over its course – was his. Mr. Rohrer also correctly points out how many good great directors disappear into their work: Michael Curtiz’s because of his disparate projects…

… while Billy Wilder shines.

If you ask me why I love Billy Wilder, the simplest answer is I genuinely enjoy at least ten of his films after multiple viewings. (And read that again if you need to: ten.)  He has an oeuvre, if not total, that I like. Critique them as films? Sure. But for me they’re simply great movies. Now, if you ask me why I rank Billy Wilder, the simplest answer – the easy-to-defend answer – is because of how disparate those movies I love are. (And should I actually start saying “seemingly disparate?” Doesn’t disparate imply they can’t be compared? And here we’re doing just that. Anyway again …) Mr. Wilder did Some Like It Hot and Double Indemnity – two vastly different projects – both inarguably well.

But I wonder. If you took the credits off and showed them to cinema virgins, even bright ones, if they’d be able to say it was the work of the same creative team?

(And, listen, “creative team.” I’m off my Director-Auteur fetish. Anti-fetish. Let’s just move on. We want to talk Billy Wilder Movies? Well, let’s at least give him the credit he deserves as being a Writer/Director. In fact, this is partly where I think this new road might be interesting.)

Take my Top 5 of his:

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

And give our cinema virgins these five names:

Michael Curtiz
Ernst Lubitsch
William Wellman
Billy Wilder
William Wyler

Do you think they’d be able to pick out all five films as Mr. Wilder’s? (And sorry it was a lot of W names; I pulled them from our recently chatted-about roster.) Picture it: our lab rats have never seen these films, never heard of them. You just sit them down, screen them, and ask, “Who did what?” Do you think they’d see something that screamed “the same hand?”

Is there really something Wilderian?

Remember, he himself said, “No,” and I’ll bet there are a lot of people that would be shocked to learn the same guy made The Major and the Minor and Five Graves to Cairo. Or The Lost Weekend and Sabrina. Forget comparing Sunset Boulevard to The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Sure those two are different and are great examples of how varied his talent was. But Holmes is a title with an asterisk because, of Wilder’s work, it’s the least “his.” Not the least like him, per se, but the fact is: It was taken away from him. (You know that, right? Holmes was supposed to be a three-and-a-half-hour road show but Wilder was shut out and United Artists chopped it down to the two hours most people see. Surprised? Well, that kind of thing happens all the time … yes, even to Billy Wilder after he had six Oscars.)

But other films of his. Comparing others. Can you spot … him? I don’t know. (And don’t hate me for this: I simply enjoy posing the question.) As I say, how (seemingly) disparate his work is is one of the things I love about him; believe it makes him easy to defend as one of the greats; and, yes, even separates him from other greatness. While I genuinely enjoy Kubrick (mostly), would I line up for a Kubrick farce? Ha! Now that I just wrote that, yes, probably, because who wouldn’t want to see a Kubrick farce? Why? Because, for me, Kubrick is proven ground. Untouchable? Not at all. But I give him full berth to try something else. In the same way, Wilder has proven himself enough that I trust him with what’s next. Look, you love ten Wilder movies? Really love them? Then, yes, you should try:

A Foreign Affair (another Marlene Deitrich!
The Spirit of St. Louis (Never mind James Stewart hated the fly, it’s James Stewart!)
Love in the Afternoon
(Cooper as a, wait for it, lover!)
One, Two, Three
(James Cagney!)
Irma La Douce
(back with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine!)

And ready for this? These five are within the same twenty years of his ten highlights.  (Think about that for a second. Between ’42 and ’63 he made eighteen features, ten of which are the ones most people know and revere, was nominated for twenty-one Oscars, and took home six.) That he attempted – and succeeded – at so many different kinds of movies is, at least to me, proven solid ground.

I’d like to end by going back to the beginning: the beginning of Mr. Rohrer’s last Part when he talked about the ending of Some Like It Hot. (Follow that?)

I think Mr. Rohrer’s again spot on for spotlighting the end … those few seconds after the famous last line. Because those few seconds indeed tell us something about being Wilderian, if there is such a thing. The straight man is always funnier than the comedian (not just in Wilder’s world) and while Jerry/Daphne is funny, as soon as he takes the wig off, drops the façade altogether, he’s as straight as they come (pun not necessarily intended). And – after the line – we get to watch him just wonderfully try and fathom all the outcomes about which Wilder himself gets asked. “What happens next?” Which, as Mr. Rohrer points out, makes us ask, “What the hell does Osgood mean by that? Who is this guy?” That Wilder holds us on Lemmon’s look is indeed the mark of what he does best.

Billy Wilder is often called cynical; ad nauseam, if you ask me, and I don’t just mean by Mr. Rohrer (and I do smile when he calls it a “jaundiced view”). But I dare say it’s Billy Wilder being mischievous. The questions without answers. Toying with us, enjoying toying with us. Because he can. He called himself “just a writing director,” constantly shying from anything that sounded like artiness. “I don’t do cinema,” he said. “I make movies.”  Cynicism.  Mischievousness.  When you’re as funny, scathing, richly textured and whipsmart as Wilder was, call it what you like.

Just keep calling me down that road.

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Oeuvres Total, to date:

Part I by Michael Holland
Part II by Jason Rohrer
Part III by Michael Holland
Part IV by Jason Rohrer

Part VI coming soon…

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Leon Russom October 27, 2016 at 12:36 pm

Quibble: I would say Kubrick did direct a farce. Brilliantly. Unless you narrowly define farce to the logistics of sexual shenanigans, what is Dr. Stangelove but black farce? (It’s also my favorite American film, despite my longtime attachment to Out of the Past.)

Note: Wilder directed both my second favorite American comedy Some Like It Hot and my second favorite noir Double Indemnity.

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Jason Rohrer October 29, 2016 at 1:02 pm

I would point also to Kubrick’s Lolita, which has strong elements of farce. Is Strangelove farce, entire? I dunno. There’s a strong argument for it. The fact that they shot the war-room pie fight but left it on the cutting-room floor doesn’t answer either way.

What I love about Michael’s points here is the love that motivates him to honor the work. We needn’t agree on specifics to agree generally about the importance and value of so many artists.

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Michael Holland October 30, 2016 at 12:31 pm

Thank you, Mr. Russom. It’s an honor for you to have read, much less comment on, Part V. In my thought-out-loud I was merely pinning Dr. Strangelove as satire but you’re not at all wrong. And I noted in my recent look at Touch of Evil that Out of the Past (a favorite of mine as well) is THE Noir (and I was thrilled to get to talk to Mitch a little about it). And, thank you, Mr. Rohrer for the kind words. This really has been a fun conversation.

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