Friday, May 18, 2012

Profile of a Director

Master Story-teller: Billy Wilder

When I first watched Sabrina(1954) couple of years ago, I went for it just because of my undying love for Audrey Hepburn. I had no idea that Humphrey Bogart starred in it or Billy Wilder directed it. Now, over the years, even though I have seen many better movies in the careers of Hepburn, Bogart and Wilder, Sabrina will always hold a special place in my movie-watching experience just because it introduced me to two legends of cinema - Humphrey Bogart and Billy Wilder and Hepburn learning to break an egg is still one of my favorite moments. Born Samuel Wilder to a Jewish family in what is now Poland in 1906, Billy Wilder moved to Paris after the rise of Nazi Party in Germany and then relocated to Hollywood in 1933 despite not knowing any English. Nicknamed Billy apparently for his mother's fascination of Buffalo Bill, same name stuck to him as he used it as first name during his immigration formalities. By this time, his writing career has already started with few German and French movies and some of his movies like Midnight(1939) were well received as well. However, he came to limelight in Hollywood circles with an Oscar nomination for writing Ninotchka in 1939, a film directed by Ernst Lubitsch whom he considered an Idol. Billy Wilder, even though a skilled director with 8 Oscar nominations, second only to William Wyler and winning couple of them as well, was and always will be known for his writing skills, for which he had 12 nominations and won 3 Oscars. Admittedly, he only became a director to protect his scripts which he felt were misinterpreted by his directors.

After Ninotchka, even though he made commercially successful films as a writer like Ball of Fire(1941) and Hold Back The Dawn(1941) and also made his directorial debut in Hollywood in The Major and the Minor(1942), next movie that he made impact with was Double Indemnity(1944). Considered as first true film-noir which set the bar for many more to come also garnered him two more nominations for Direction and Screenplay. Personally, this movie introduced me to one of the original femme fatale - Barbara Stanwyck. He followed it up with The Lost Weekend(1945) which is also considered to be the first film to handle theme of Alcoholism which led to his first Oscar win as a Director and Screenplay which he shared with Charles Brackett, his co-writer since early days of screwball comedies. It also has two more Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor for Ray Milland in its repertoire. Even though I haven't seen the next movie he made A Foreign Affair(1948), I surely have seen one of his most dark, cynic and acclaimed movies Sunset Blvd(1950) for which he brought silent movie star Gloria Swanson back from retirement to play reclusive silent movie star who hopes to make a comeback into the talkies. For the third time, he got double nomination for direction and screenplay and his second screenplay Oscar. I should also mention WIlliam Holden in one of his many pairings with Wilder and it will be criminal not to mention beautiful and radiant Nancy Olson as well here. Next in line was equally dark and equally brilliant Ace in the Hole(1951). Kirk Douglas steals the show as a vile, cynic journalist trying to make money out of someone else's misery. It really is very unfortunate that it is the only Kirk Douglas movie I have seen but it sure is enough to make a case for him. Billy Wilder's writing prowess is in full display here with few of the most memorable one-liners.

Most of the movies he did in 50's were comedies which started with Sabrina(1954) but not before he gave William Holden his acting Oscar for Stalag 17(1953), playing an unlikable, almost villainous character in the story of American sergeants in German prison camp trying to escape. Most notable thing about Stalag 17 for me was amount of comedic touches he could incorporate without loosing the seriousness of the subject. I have already told you about Sabrina and the reason why it will be close to my heart. He followed it with The Seven Year Itch(1955) with Marilyn Monroe in probably her most memorable role as an actress. In my honest opinion, Marilyn Monroe was a massive star but if she was anywhere close to an actress, it was in her two collaborations with Wilder, second being Some Like It Hot(1959), one of the most famous comedies of all time. After The Seven Year Itch, he also directed second Audrey Hepburn vehicle, Love in the Afternoon(1956) with Gary Cooper playing a playboy. He also directed his only non-comedic movie in the form of adaptation of Agatha Christie story in Witness for the Prosecution(1957). Even though initial comedic nature was a bit of turn off for me, last 15 minutes of it make up for it perfectly. However, what came next is a personal favorite and can also be called a highlight of his career in a sense that it earned him 3 Oscars for Best Direction, Screenplay and Picture - The Apartment(1960). A satirical comedy about a simple clerk letting the executives in his office use his apartment for one-night stands and such, an absolute gem of a movie which can make you as happy as sad. It comes with wonderful performances from everyone but especially Jack Lemmon and even though I always knew Shirley MacLaine to be a great actress, she has never been prettier than this. However, unfortunately everything goes downhill from here. I have only seen a couple of movies he did after this, but consensus is he never found the spark after The Apartment, probably because it glowed the brightest then.

Even though there are two distinct phases in his career, one earlier in his directorial career with dark and serious movies with lot of dramatic tones like Sunset Blvd, Ace in the Hole and another little later with his comedies like Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch, he is one of the very few writers to have done memorable films in multiple genres like Double Indemnity in Film-noir, Drama in The Lost Weekend, War in Stalag 17, Romance in Sabrina and comedy in The Apartment. Being Writer first and foremost, his movies always concentrated more on story and dialogue rather than any other aspects of it. However, he made them memorable with his focus on characters and tight plot lines. Even though he used somewhat conventional approach to direct his movies, he never shied away from making movies based on unconventional themes, topics that were frowned upon like alcoholism or adultery or sexual comedy. He had his way with actors as well, like directing them to 14 Oscar nominations under him or bringing veterans like Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim out of retirement.  He also never hesitated from casting an actor in a role out of their screen persona or comfort zone like Bogart doing a romantic role in Sabrina or Fred McMurry playing sort of immoral character in Double Indemnity and The Apartment. He was also skilled to bring out the best in his actors. Marilyn Monroe, as I have previously stated, is probably the best example of this.

His impressive resume and position as one of the greatest has garnered him whole bunch of awards. He also got AFI Life achievement award in 1986, Irvine G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1988 and National Medal of Honor and star on Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1993. Widely regarded as one of the most influential directors Billy Wilder has inspired a generations of directors after him. During his acceptance speech, Michael Hazanavicius also mentioned him in this year's Oscars. I will end this profile with my favorite 5 films of Billy Wilder.
Previous Profiles:
Christopher Nolan


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  2. Excellent post on a truly fascinating director. Wilder is definitely one of my favorite directors, with The Lost Weekend easily occupying my choice as his best film. American movies simply didn't (and couldn't) do that in the '40s. I'll never understand how he was able to pull that off, but damn if it doesn't work.

    1. Thanks Alex !! He definitely chose a lot of daring subjects for making his movies, even Comedies.

      I saw The Lost Weekend very recently. But, knowing how much you love Shame, it is easy to see why you love The Lost Weekend so much. I kept on comparing them all the time while watching The Lost Weekend.


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