In recognition of MGM’s release of a Collector’s Edition DVD of Billy Wilder’s brilliant comedy Some Like It Hot, here are my thoughts on the great writer-director composed shortly after his death in October 2002 and published in the Hudson Institute’s American Outlook magazine:

Wilder in Retrospect

by S. T. Karnick

Filmmaker Billy Wilder—winner of six Oscars and countless other awards, and widely respected as one of the greatest directors of the American cinema—died earlier this year, at the age of 95. Wilder was sometimes vilified as shallow and cynical, and even several obituaries remembered him this way. In fact, he was neither. He was a great satirist whose true motives were often misunderstood. Among other attributes, Wilder’s patriotism has received insufficient notice, especially because it stands in such stark contrast to the attitudes of so many of today’s Hollywood celebrities.

Billy Wilder

Wilder began his career in the 1920s in Vienna, Austria, as a newspaper reporter, but he was attracted to the cinema and began to write films in Germany in the early 1930s before trying his luck in Hollywood. The acclaimed German expatriate director Ernst Lubitsch teamed Wilder with a genteel American writer, Charles Brackett, and the two soon whipped up a series of witty, sophisticated screenplays including Midnight, Ninotchka, and Ball of Fire. In 1941 Wilder began to direct the films they wrote, creating hits such as The Major and the Minor, Five Graves to Cairo, and The Lost Weekend.

With Raymond Chandler, Wilder cowrote and then directed Double Indemnity (1944), one of the most intelligent and morally complex entries in the film noir style that it helped popularize. Wilder classics from the late 1940s and ’50s included A Foreign Affair, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Seven Year Itch, The Spirit of St. Louis, Love in the Afternoon (with new collaborator I. A. L. Diamond), Witness for the Prosecution, and Some Like It Hot. His only musical, The Emperor Waltz (1948), was not a box-office or critical hit, but it is still well worth watching.

It is also a good illustration of Wilder’s American patriotism. Wilder had loved America since childhood—the name Billy (his first name was Samuel) was reportedly taken in honor of Billy the Kid—and he said that the day he became a U.S. citizen, in 1939, was the most important moment in his life. He served in the U.S. Army in Berlin just after World War II. Wilder tends to be cynical about the nation’s big cities, as in The Lost Weekend and the crime and scam films, but highly respectful of small-town American life, as in The Major and the Minor. In The Emperor Waltz, Wilder directed Bing Crosby as an itinerant American gramophone salesman in beautiful pre-World War I Austria who shows a countess (Joan Fontaine)—and the Emperor—that the American way, with its respect for entrepreneurship, individual freedom, and the family, is the best thing going.

Similarly patriotic but with rather more sophistication, Stalag 17 depicts a group of American POWs in Nazi Germany, trying to discover who among them is a spy—and learning exactly what it means to be an American. Cynical hustler J. J. Sefton (William Holden) reminds his fellow prisoners that financial success is no sin and that the politics of envy can have disastrous consequences. The Spirit of St. Louis presents Charles Lindbergh (Jimmy Stewart) as a model American. In Sabrina, the all-work, prototypical American businessman played by Humphrey Bogart proves more attractive to the elegant young lady played by Audrey Hepburn than does playboy William Holden, and a romance undertaken to further a business merger blossoms into true love.

Wilder’s vision soured significantly in the 1960s, as so many other things did. Wilder had always been known as something of a cynic, and Sunset Boulevard and his 1950 film, Ace in the Hole, certainly cemented that impression. But even his most apparently cynical films upheld bourgeois values, usually by showing the consequences of their absence. In The Apartment (1960), junior executive Calvin Baxter (Jack Lemmon) makes it in the world of big business in New York City by lending his apartment to higher-ups so that they can conduct their extramarital affairs safe from discovery. Ultimately, however, he and elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), his boss’s mistress, decide to change their ways and get married. In Irma La Douce (1963) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), marriage and sexual fidelity are once again at the center, so much so that the Catholic Legion of Decency banned the latter film. Nonetheless, the central assumption of both of these films, however appalling the supposedly humorous events depicted in them, is that marriage and fidelity are good things that are lamentably undermined by circumstances and the characters’ weaknesses. In The Fortune Cookie (1966), a photographer (Jack Lemmon) injured during a football game fakes serious injuries and sues the team, persuaded by his brother-in-law, a sleazy lawyer known as Whiplash Willie (for which Walter Matthau won a well-deserved Oscar). But his real motive is to get his ex-wife back, and in a further twist, we know that she has never been faithful to him, can never do so, and has no intention of doing so, wanting to get back with him only for the money.

Given that America had become more grotesque than even a brilliant satirist such as Wilder could depict in films without driving audiences away in horror, it is little surprise that the director’s career began a steady decline in the late 1960s.

In his prime, however, Wilder was one of the greatest of all filmmakers, and in my view the greatest American satirist of the twentieth century. Wilder recognized that to be truly effective, satire has to have a core of decency to which to compare the manifold evils of the world. For Wilder, the Austrian immigrant who achieved wealth and fame in America, this core of decency was ordinary, bourgeois American life. That life was far from perfect, as Wilder well knew, but it was the best thing on offer, and those benighted souls who thought themselves too good for such an existence and tried to escape it paid a heavy price in his films.

Wilder rightly saw himself as a realist, and he should be remembered as one, but he was no materialist. Happy endings may seem a cliché to sophisticated people who pride themselves on their realism, but Wilder knew that life does provide happy endings for those who live honestly, decently, and right. Wilder said, perhaps rather surprisingly, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles isn’t a realist.” This greater, deeper realism is the one that Wilder strived for and surprisingly often achieved. That America makes such a natural home for people of Wilder’s abilities and tenacity is a miracl
e that Wilder himself appreciated, exemplified, and depicted on film for all the world to see. For all their surface ugliness and cynicism, Wilder’s movies are a sustained love note to America and its way of life.