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.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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