Billy Wilder, 1906-2002

He had zero tolerance for fools, but he trusted his audience completely -- and we trusted him back

Published March 29, 2002 9:00PM (EST)

"I'd like to thank God, but I don't believe in God, so I'd like to thank Billy Wilder."
--Director Fernando Trueba in his 1993 best foreign film Oscar acceptance speech for "Belle Epoque"

Anyone who cares about well-written and well-made movies owes a debt of gratitude to Billy Wilder. In the contemporary movie climate, screenplays so often seem to be written in a rush, with zero care, for a quick buck; others start out good and are doctored or rewritten altogether until they're almost unrecognizable. Whatever the reasons, the art of screenwriting is deteriorating before our very eyes.

Wilder, whose talents as a director both equaled and meshed with his writing skills, leaves behind a body of work that rings with wit and sophistication; his best pictures are textbook examples of craftsmanship. In a better world than the one we live in, his death would mark not an end but a beginning: It would jostle every aspiring (not to mention practicing) writer and director to use both brains and heart, to give the movies of the future both a shape and a heartbeat, as Wilder did.

The Austrian-born Wilder worked for a time in the '20s as a newspaper reporter in Vienna and Berlin before he became smitten with the world of movies. He emigrated to the United States in 1933, ultimately making his way to Hollywood and, in 1937, earning a chance to write for his idol, Ernst Lubitsch, collaborating with writing partner Charles Brackett on pictures like Lubitsch's 1939 "Ninotchka." He turned his hand to direction with 1942's "The Major and the Minor," which set him on course to make some of the most appealing, intelligent and beautifully crafted motion pictures to come out of Hollywood, among them "Double Indemnity" (1944), "The Lost Weekend" (1945), "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) and "Some Like It Hot" (1959), the last co-written by Wilder's longtime writing partner I.A.L. Diamond. (The two would team up on later pictures like 1960's "The Apartment" and Wilder's last movie, 1981's "Buddy Buddy.")

Wilder was a writer and filmmaker who knew his first and only job was to serve his audience: To delight them, to tweak them, to surprise them. Cameron Crowe's 1999 book "Conversations With Billy Wilder" includes Wilder's tips for writers, beginning with (No. 1) "The audience is fickle" and wrapping up with (No. 10) "The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then --" (No. 11) "That's it. Don't hang around."

Those 11 tips for writers are a gold mine of advice, but they also offer clues to the hidden undercurrents that made some of Wilder's pictures so wonderful. Wilder may not have been as subtle a director as his mentor Lubitsch, but like him, he always respected the intelligence of his audience. He didn't coddle them or talk down to them, but he was never guilty of snobbery, either. It's right there in rule No. 7: "A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever."

Off the screen, Wilder's clever, dry wit -- not to mention his lack of tolerance for idiocy -- is the stuff of a million stories. The most famous one involves the remark Louis B. Mayer made after seeing "Sunset Boulevard": "This Billy Wilder should be sent back to Germany!" he roared. "He bites the hand that feeds him!" Wilder overheard the remark and responded, "I am Mr. Wilder, and why don't you go fuck yourself!"

Few people in any of Hollywood's strata had the guts to talk to Mayer that way, but Wilder's retort is simply an embodiment of the directness and confidence he brought to his film projects. David O. Selznick warned him that "Some Like It Hot" would be a disaster. ("You cannot combine comedy with murder," he explained, in reference to the fact that the movie's action is set into play by the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.)

The picture was a success, of course, but even more significantly, it's one of the greatest comedies in the history of filmmaking. The jokes swing around gracefully and hit with just the right ping, one after another. The movie's joyousness -- buoyed by its three leading ladies, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe -- is gloriously sustained from the first frame to the last.

That was part of Wilder's great gift: To make pictures that moved along with grace and ease, unerring in both their ability and their desire to give pleasure. He knew we could add up two plus two, and so he let us. And for that we'll love him forever.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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