Billy Wilder, In Memoriam

Last week saw the passing of Billy Wilder: a caustic wit, a clear-eyed romantic, a biting social observer, a legend of Hollywood's Golden Age.

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Billy Wilder, In Memoriam

They say it comes in threes. Last Wednesday, March 27, was such a day: Milton Berle, Dudley Moore, Billy Wilder. Three entertainment giants all died on the same day. None of these men's deaths could be said to be a surprise: Two of them were in their 90s, and the other suffered from a degenerative brain disorder. Yet the death of Billy Wilder at the age of 95 evokes an unequaled sadness. Not only does his passing extinguish one of our last living links to Hollywood's Golden Age, it silences one of the industry's great voices: a caustic wit, a clear-eyed romantic, a biting social observer, a studio screenwriter who got into directing in order to protect his scripts from being mangled by others. It is Wilder's authorial voice that distinguishes his movies from all others. Even offscreen, some of Wilder's quips remain just as memorable as his films. Wilder began his career as a journalist, working in Vienna and then Berlin. He broke into film in 1929 as a screenwriter, but in 1933, immediately after the Reichstag fire, Wilder presciently left Germany for good. Only 10 months after he landed in the States, with little grasp of the English language, Wilder had so immersed himself in American culture that he was invited to Hollywood to write scripts. Throughout his career, Wilder was famous for always working with a writing partner -- early on it was Charles Brackett; later, I.A.L. Diamond -- and one of the reasons he cited for these collaborations was his non-native command of the language. He needn't have worried. Wilder's sardonic wit was always in evidence, no matter the type of film or genre. Crackling, sophisticated, and morally ambiguous dialogue was the signature attribute of his films -- no matter if they were romantic comedies like Ninotchka, Some Like It Hot, Sabrina, or Ball of Fire; satires like One, Two, Three, The Seven-Year Itch, or The Fortune Cookie; or dark dramas like Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Stalag 17, Sunset Blvd., or The Big Carnival (aka Ace in the Hole). Often his films crossed genre boundaries: The Apartment, a combination romantic comedy and social satire about adultery and the corporate ladder starring his frequent leading man Jack Lemmon and ingenue Shirley MacLaine, earned Wilder three Oscars for writing, producing, and directing. In all, he wrote and directed 25 films in America and receives screenwriting credits on another 50 or so. "Nobody's perfect," cautions the closing line of Some Like It Hot. But study the complete filmography of Billy Wilder and you'll see that his career is the exception that disproves the rule.

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Billy Wilder, Ninotchka, Some Like It Hot, Sabrina, Ball of Fire, One, Two, Three, The Seven-Year Itch, The Fortune Cookie, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Stalag 17, Sunset Blvd., The Big Carnival, Ace in the Hole, The Apartment

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