There’s a creepy principle that celebrity deaths tend to occur in groups of three. That macabre belief was fulfilled last week when three well-known personalities in the entertainment field passed away: Milton Berle, Dudley Moore and Billy Wilder. (For those who would include the Queen Mother, who died over the weekend, she’s in a whole ‘nother category.)
Of the three, six-time Academy Award®-winning Billy Wilder may have the most enduring impact. The Austrian-born writer/director/producer’s career spanned six decades and included some of the greatest American films ever made, such as “Sunset Boulevard,” “Some Like It Hot” and “Stalag 17.”
My personal “must see” Wilder films include the last two, plus “The Apartment,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” “One, Two, Three,” “Irma La Douce,” “Ace in the Hole” and “The Fortune Cookie.”
Incidentally, only one of those films (“Irma La Douce”) is in color! For the last 40 years, few films have been made in black and white (“Schindler’s List” being a notable exception). But Wilder seemed to prefer that austere process, which tends to draw attention to the acting and story rather than costumes and set design.
What makes Wilder so treasured is the diversity of subject matter he handled so skillfully, regardless of the genre, and the brilliance of his fast-paced screenwriting. He was as adept at thrillers and mysteries as he was at dramas and comedies.
Furthermore, his striking characters, like Fred MacMurray’s gullible insurance agent ("Double Indemnity") or Gloria Swanson’s faded movie actress ("Sunset Boulevard") and Ray Milland’s pathetic alcoholic ("The Lost Weekend"), among others, are unforgettable.
Recent Oscar® winner Ron Howard remarked after Wilder’s death: “His characters ran the spectrum as far as their moral standards were concerned, but they were all human beings and therefore relatable to all moviegoers.”
By the climax of many of his films, Wilder reveals his characters for what they really are, rather than what they seem to be.
I first appreciated Wilder’s writing talent when I saw his 1961 film, “One, Two, Three,” a hilarious comedy with capitalism and communism facing off in a divided Berlin. I guess the budding writer in me respected Wilder’s wit and snappy dialogue; especially star James Cagney’s verbal tirades that leave the viewer, and the actor, breathless. The film is Cagney’s funniest, yet it isn’t considered one of Wilder’s best. However, that’s not necessarily a negative observation in a career that includes a treasure trove of American classics, such as “The Lost Weekend.”
For that film, he achieved the distinction as the first to win Oscars® — writing, directing and producing — for one film. Only three others have since accomplished the feat: Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather II”), James L. Brooks (“Terms of Endearment”) and James Cameron (“Titanic”).
Another Wilder film I enjoy for its top-notch acting, directing and superb script is “Ace in the Hole,” which the filmmaker once referred to as “the runt” of his cinematic litter, probably because it was his first box office disappointment. Essentially, the 1951 film’s plot forecasts the modern “media circus.” It also has the alternate title, “The Big Carnival,” an obvious reference to the atmosphere created when a cynical, self-serving journalist — powerfully depicted by Kirk Douglas — prolongs the rescue of a man trapped in a cave-in, turning a local story into a national sensation for his personal gain. Presumably, just six years after the end of World War II, and in the midst of nationwide Communist witch-hunts, filmgoers were not in the mood for such a downbeat theme and the film was far from a box-office success.
Another personal favorite, “The Fortune Cookie,” is the second funniest film Wilder co-wrote and directed, but it takes a back seat to the uproarious farce, “Some Like It Hot.” In the former, Jack Lemmon, who starred in both comedies, portrays a good-natured TV cameraman who sustains a minor injury working the sidelines during a football game. His shyster lawyer brother-in-law, played flawlessly by Walter Matthau, intervenes and dupes him into transforming insignificant discomfort into a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. This 1966 film hilariously forecasts our excessively litigious society.
At the time of his death at age 95, Wilder had been retired for more than 20 years, but movie lovers and cultural historians will forever treasure his film legacy.
If you’ve never seen a Billy Wilder film, buy, rent, borrow or steal (don’t tell anyone I suggested it) one and watch it at your earliest convenience.
And if you haven’t seen “Ace in the Hole,” “The Fortune Cookie” or “Some Like It Hot” in a while, do yourself a favor and see ‘em again! You’ll definitely be wilder about this cinematic genius.