In defense of Billy Wilder, Hollywood’s most over-attacked and underappreciated director

June 15, 2012

Milos Stehlik

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In his influential 1968 book, American Cinema, critic Andrew Sarris placed Austrian-born Hollywood director Billy Wilder outside the ranks of great directors and pigeonholed him in the “Less Than Meets the Eye” section of the book. (Sarris later backed away from these claims).

Last Sunday, L.A.-based film critic John Patterson wrote a piece for The Guardian entitled “Billy Wilder, still less than meets the eye.” The story’s slug read: “He’s made some classics and is seen as the godfather of modern Hollywood but the world is still not wild about Billy Wilder."

A cardboard foundation for a rather meaningless “think piece,” truly. Here was Wilder, the director of Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Irma la Douce, Sabrina, One, Two, Three, The Apartment, The Seven Year Itch and the co-writer for Ninotchka, being re-calibrated, largely on issues like whether or not his best films were always those where he had the best collaborators (like Charles Brackett).

 Isn’t that true of most filmmakers? Didn’t Fellini’s best films come from collaborations with his co-screenwriters, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano?

Wilder had a sharp, no-nonsense wit. His razor-sharp tongue is credited with such snippets as: “He has Van Gogh’s ear for music,” advice on the film business (“I have ten commandments. The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have right of final cut”) and self-critical observations: “My English is a mixture between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Archbishop Tutu.”

I think what bothers critics — even today — is that Wilder’s films cover a very broad range; the Wilder “style” is elusive. There is huge distance between a comedy like Some Like It Hot, a brilliant portrait of alcohol addiction in The Lost Weekend and the quirkiness of Wilder’s late — and under-appreciated — The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

The solid ground on which Wilder built his films is often brilliantly written scripts. Many of these reflect the Austrian sensibilities Wilder gleaned from his early 20th century Vienna childhood, including the intellectual and moral atmosphere generated by Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud. Familiar European illusions of empire lost are re-imagined in the context of the Hollywood empire in Sunset Boulevard, one of Wilder’s — and Hollywood’s — greatest films

Over the next six weeks, the Music Box Theatre will screen a number of Wilder films, including Sunset Boulevard and the offbeat comedy One, Two, Three, which features an amazing performance by James Cagney. Many of Wilder’s films are also available on DVD.

So ignore the so-called critics. Wilder’s films speak for themselves: