Billy Wilder: The Genius in His Eclectic Body of Work
Sad leading ladies in quirky comedies or poignant dramas on war, Wilder’s work is a rare miss.
Published on August 15, 2014 | Filed under editorial
Billy Wilder

With some of the most remembered films, yet ill-remembered as the man behind them, Billy Wilder’s contributions to pop culture were vast and important. Responsible for not only the iconic scene in Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe in the white dress standing over an air vent, but also the chilling line, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up” in Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s work really could not be labelled under any one genre other than his own. His films, although often with an air of lightheartedness, were almost always rooted in deep, dark themes that added relatability to each. His characters faced realistic circumstances, such as heartache, prosecution, rejection or paranoia, but they were written with enough endearing quirks and characterization to make the films as consumable as any other cheerful film. The following are some of Wilder’s movies that I find myself watching again and again, and always meet with the same sadness or laughter that ensued when I first watched them.

Some Like It Hot

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Undoubtedly a film I can watch every day for the rest of my life and still find it just as funny, Some Like It Hot is more than worthy of the attention that it stirred. Laden with raunchy references and subtle jokes, this film is timelessly interesting for its subject matter and execution. Following Tony Curtis as Joe and Jack Lemmon as Jerry, who are two musicians who witness a mob hit during the time of Prohibition (an obvious reference to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre). Fear of being killed themselves, they flee the state, pose as women (even though they both look absolutely nothing like women) and join an all female band, which is fronted by Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe). Kane is a lonely romantic who numbs her pain with alcohol, but she is fun, beautiful, and voluptuous, which quickly gains the attention of Joe and Jerry.

This movie stands the test of time for comedy. Jack Lemmon steals every scene as Jerry by being outstandingly funny in delivery and mannerisms, especially after he “transforms” to his female counterpart, Daphne. He is effortlessly effeminate, compared to Tony Curtis’ stiffness and inability to speak in a female voice (all of his female dialogue is dubbed). It’s hard for me to even describe my favourite scenes in the film, largely due to the weight placed on how Lemmon performed the jokes. One scene in particular that is a classic example of his subtle humour is when Daphne says that “she” hates to mingle with men. She adds that they are “rough, hairy beasts with eight hands” and they “only want one thing from a girl.” But it is after Lemmon delivers the line when he adds a disgusted sneer to the only man in the room; that the scene becomes so funny that I can’t help my laughter every time that I see it.

Kiss Me, Stupid

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

Starring the crooner, Dean Martin, basically just playing himself; Kiss Me, Stupid is a perhaps less recognized film in Wilder’s output. It follows Orville, a piano teacher and talented song writer, with an outstandingly beautiful wife named Zelda. When the famous nightclub singer, Dino, finds himself stranded in the small town of which they live, Orville desperately sends his wife away so that Dino won’t woo her from him. He then hires Kim Novak’s character, Polly the Pistol, to pose as his wife so that he can soften the singer into listening to his songs.

Watching this film, I really particularly enjoy Dean Martin’s sleazy, womanizing character. It’s funny to watch him be effortlessly cool around men but then drooling any time something with curvy hips and nice legs walks by. Dino’s less than shining morality is a great offset to Orville, which adds a lot of sympathy to his character for viewers, even though Dean Martin’s on-screen presence is inherently more captivating. Similar to many of Wilder’s films, there are some dark themes that are weaved in, such as prostitution (as Polly is presumably a prostitute) and adultery; but also as with his other films, it is executed in a way that doesn’t weigh down the film into dramatic realms.

Stalag 17

Stalag 17 (1953)

Featuring William Holden, who would star in multiple Billy Wilder films, Stalag 17 follows the life of men in a German POW camp during the war. After two prisoners attempt to escape through a tunnel, Sefton (William Holden) bets that the men won’t make it to their destination before they’re killed or brought back. Almost immediately afterward, the men are shot down by German guards, which arouses suspicion among the other prisoners on how the guard’s could have known of their plan for escape. Sefton is later assumed to be working with the enemy in order to barter and gain goods like cigarettes, blankets, and other comforts. Through several misunderstandings, the prisoners begin to solidify their suspicions of Sefton, while remaining unaware of whom the real spy is.

Stalag 17, with its heavy themes on life in the war, is likely a realistic depiction of the fears and paranoia that might have come with that situation. The film is a stunning example of Wilder’s versatile capabilities because he could handle a war film just as easily as he could handle a romance film; still taking dark themes and weaving them in subtly. Stalag 17 was recognized justly in that year’s Oscars with Holden winning best actor and Wilder receiving a nomination for best director.

The Apartment

The Apartment (1960)

Probably my favourite Billy Wilder picture, the film stars Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, a man who is trying to work his way up in his company by offering his nice apartment as a getaway for executives to cheat on their spouses. Soon, romantic complications ensue with the quirky and intelligent, Fran (Shirley MacLaine), who seems to possess something that would later be sampled in the female archetype of several indie romance films. She’s aloof, she’s funny, she’s cute, and she’s very, very sad.

The Apartment is laden with memorable pieces of dialogue and painfully sweet moments for Lemmon’s character. The repeated line, “That’s the way it crumbles… cookie wise” in response to the Murphy’s Law that all of the characters face is something that always sticks with me for days after watching it. Although the film is a sweet love story about characters in the wrong situations trying to get into the right ones, it deals with heavy themes of suicide and adultery, but once again, due to Wilder’s genius style, it still appears as light as any other.

Billy Wilder’s diverse and well crafted films are enormously important to movie history. Very often with a person who is as prolific as he was, there is a sea of bad films for every genius one, but with Wilder, he seemed to hit the mark more often than not. Although often dealing with characteristically sad themes such as suicide, adultery, prostitution or betrayal, Wilder’s films are easy to watch and enjoyable. Instead of weighing down the film with the dark themes that are often present, Wilder allowed the subject matter to add reality and pertinence, which is one of the several reasons why they were so successful.

Writer at HorrorTalk.com and Rue Morgue magazine, gritLIT Readers and Writers Festival committee member, social media coordinator for the Blood in the Snow Film Festival, editor at MuffSociety.com, occasional talky-lady on podcasts, mostly Alone in the Dark.

Richelle Charkot