In Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review of Billy Wilder’s 1951 drama, Ace in the Hole, the critic complained that, “Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque.” Crowther took issue with the cynical drama’s portrait of an unscrupulous newspaperman (Kirk Douglas) who goes to great lengths to take advantage of a tragic cave disaster, all in the name of promoting his own career. Crowther found the film ugly and unrealistic, and audiences seemed to agree — Ace in the Hole was the first bomb of Wilder’s directorial career.
In the decades since, Wilder got the last laugh as Ace in the Hole’s stock continues to rise. It is a great film — with startlingly vicious performances from Douglas and co-star Jan Sterling and scabrously witty dialogue. But that’s only part of the movie’s appeal. Modern audiences recognize the mob that springs up around the tragedy, and they recognize Douglas’ “journalist.” Fifties audiences were scandalized, but in our own era of tabloids, Geraldo Rivera, and Jerry Springer, the media frenzy is all too familiar. It wasn’t the first time that Billy Wilder would find himself ahead of the curve, and it wouldn’t be the last.
It’s the pictures that got small
“I am big; it’s the pictures that got small,” snarled Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) to gigolo screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Wilder’s magnificent Hollywood satire, Sunset Boulevard. Few modern directors can match Wilder’s sophistication, caustic wit, and uncanny knack for becoming an early adopter of attitudes and trends that would only later become common.
1950’s Sunset Boulevard wasn’t the only movie about Hollywood to come out of that decade: Singin’ in the Rain, The Big Knife, The Bad and the Beautiful, and In a Lonely Place are some of the others. But Sunset Boulevard is the one that most thoroughly deconstructed the industry and its starmaking machinery in tale of a has-been silent star’s increasingly desperate delusions of celebrity. It would be decades before films like The Day of the Locust, The Player, and Barton Fink challenged Hollywood again. When Wilder’s film came out, it was like a shot to the heart. MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, upon seeing the film, famously attacked the director, “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!”
But Sunset Boulevard did more than tweak Wilder’s Hollywood masters. Once more Wilder was ahead of the times. It would be the mid-’60s before Andy Warhol coined his notorious aphorism, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” And it would be our own era before instant scandals, tabloid talk shows, and reality programs like Survivor seemed to bring Warhol’s prophecy to fruition. But Norma Desmond predicts it. Her obsession with stardom mirrors the current celebrity mania; she just doesn’t realize that her own 15 minutes are up. She does inadvertently hit on a way to earn a little more time in the sun. When she kills Joe Gillis, the media that ignored her returns. As she vamps in front of the newsreel cameras, convinced in her madness that she is back in the studio about to film her comeback, and says, “Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” she is not far wrong. Just ask O.J. Simpson.
Some Like It Hot
In 1959, Wilder made Some Like It Hot, starring Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as musicians who flee Chicago after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, disguising themselves as women and joining an all-girl band to make their escape. It is one of Wilder’s finest comedies (indeed, one of the finest movie comedies of all time, period), a buoyant valentine that builds on Curtis’ romantic pursuit of Marilyn Monroe. But that’s not the only romance in the film. Lemmon, too, finds a love interest — in Joe E. Brown playing a millionaire who becomes besotted with Lemmon’s “Daphne,” delighting “her” with a marriage proposal. A decade before Stonewall would kick-start the gay rights movement and the fight (far from over) for the acceptance of homosexuals in American society, Wilder ended his film with one of the most memorable lines in movie history when Lemmon finally reveals to Brown that he’s a man. Unperturbed, Brown answers, “Nobody’s perfect!”
A year later, Wilder returned with The Apartment, the comedy that would finally earn him a Best Picture Oscar. Once again, he was working with a subject that had fascinated other filmmakers throughout the previous decade, the modern white-collar office. Already enshrined in movies as diverse as Patterns, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Best of Everything, and Executive Suite, the office offered fertile ground for Wilder and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond to explore the price of ambition.
Ostensibly a racy romantic comedy about J.J. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a go-getter office clerk determined to breach the executive ranks by any means necessary, including lending his apartment to the boss for his extramarital trysts. Complications ensue when Baxter falls for the boss’ mistress (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator at the firm who is as ambitious in her own way as Baxter — but the promotion she seeks is through marriage.
But The Apartment’s subtext is all about ethics: What lengths will Bud go to in order to curry executive favor? In its time, when political and corporate shenanigans were not everyday newspaper fodder, that aspect of the film barely registered with moviegoers. Forty-two years later, after Watergate, Iran-Contra, the savings-and-loan fiasco, junk bonds, and Enron, Wilder’s question is more pertinent than ever.
Kiss Me Stupid!
In 1964, Wilder suffered through another flop with Kiss Me, Stupid (this is the movie that Peter Sellers was working on and trying to get out of when he had the first of his heart attacks), a sex farce that both critics and audiences rejected as coarse and vulgar. In it, a Dean Martin-like singer named “Dino” and played by Martin becomes stranded in a Mojave Desert town. There, a songwriter (Ray Walston) tries to convince him to buy one of his tunes by making it clear that he doesn’t object to the crooner dallying with his “wife” — a local pro (Kim Novak) hired for the occasion. It is an outrageous comedy, breathtaking even today in its characters’ amorality.
The real revelation in Kiss Me, Stupid, though, is Martin. Always the second banana to his Rat Pack pal Frank Sinatra, and consistently underrated as an actor, Martin deserves all the credit in the world for allowing Wilder to explode his public image. Once more, Wilder (and partner Diamond) proved himself to be a man far ahead of his times. In making one of the first films that comments on the American obsession with the famous, he was also the first to deconstruct a real icon. It would be nearly 40 years and 1999’s Being John Malkovich before another actual celebrity allowed a movie to so thoroughly reinterpret his stardom.
Wilder closed out his career in 1981 with Buddy Buddy, a black comedy about a hit man (Walter Matthau) and the suicidal man (Jack Lemmon, Wilder’s favorite leading man once again) in the hotel room next door. “A slight but irresistible” comedy, according to the New York Times’ Vincent Canby. Slight, maybe, but Cameron Crowe, in his book Conversations with Wilder, calls the film “The Godfather of a genre that would take hold years later — the hit man comedy.” Even in his sunset, Wilder’s prescience is still on full display, as any viewing of Prizzi’s Honor, Pulp Fiction, or Grosse Pointe Blank will corroborate.