Billy Wilder

Erich von Stroheim as Max von Mayerling and William Holden as Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Erich von Stroheim as Max von Mayerling and William Holden as Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd. (1950)

  • Born:  1906
  • Died:  2002
  • Rank:  9
  • Score:  807.40
  • Awards:  2 Oscars / DGA / 2 Golden Globes / 2 NYFC
  • Nominations:  8 Oscars / 8 DGA / 5 Golden Globes
  • Awards Note:  6 total Oscars and 21 total nominations
  • Feature Films:  26
  • Best:  Sunset Blvd.
  • Worst:  Kiss Me Stupid

Top 10 Feature Films:

  1. Sunset Blvd. – 1950
  2. The Apartment – 1960
  3. Double Indemnity – 1944
  4. Some Like It Hot – 1959
  5. The Lost Weekend – 1945
  6. Stalag 17 – 1953
  7. Sabrina – 1954
  8. Ace in the Hole – 1951
  9. One, Two, Three – 1961
  10. Witness for the Prosecution – 1957

Top 10 Best Director Finishes  (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1934 – 3rd – Mauvaise Graine
  • 1943 – 7th – Five Graves to Cairo
  • 1944 – 1st – Double Indemnity
  • 1945 – 1st – The Lost Weekend
  • 1950 – 1st – Sunset Blvd.
  • 1951 – 7th – Ace in the Hole
  • 1953 – 2nd – Stalag 17
  • 1954 – 5th – Sabrina
  • 1957 – 7th – Witness for the Prosecution
  • 1959 – 2nd – Some Like It Hot
  • 1960 – 1st – The Apartment
  • 1961 – 9th – One, Two, Three

In Vienna in the 30’s, there was no question that Billy Wilder worshipped Ernst Lubitsch, but the bigger influence on his first directorial effort seems to be Fritz Lang with his use of sound in a crime film.  But his humor came more from Lubitsch and after fleeing Europe, Wilder eventually ended up writing for Lubitsch, earning an Oscar nomination for his script of Ninotchka.  It wasn’t too long before he was back to directing again, with a solid first effort (The Major and the Minor – mostly remembered today for giving us the classic line “Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”).  But then he took it up a notch with Five Graves to Cairo, getting to work with another idol, Erich von Stroheim (who he would make great use of in Sunset Blvd.).  Then Wilder hit the jackpot with Double Indemnity, one of the great all-time film noirs and earning his first Oscar nomination for Best Director.  The next year he topped that, winning Best Picture, Director and Screenplay.  He only made two more films the rest of the decade, both of them among his least efforts.  But then came the fifties.  He began the decade with Sunset Blvd., widely hailed as a masterpiece, winning him a third Oscar (though it lost Picture and Director) and its the film I hail as the greatest ever made.  And the rest of the decade showed it was no fluke.  He earned five Best Director nominations in the decade and followed Sunset with Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17 and Sabrina.  Then came Marilyn Monroe and the famous skirt scene in The Seven Year Itch before he earned another Best Picture nomination for Witness for the Prosecution.  He dipped a bit with Love in the Afternoon and Spirit of St. Louis, but then he finished the decade with Some Like It Hot and his first film of the sixties, The Apartment, won him three more Oscars (Picture, Director, Original Screenplay).  He would follow the next year with One, Two, Three, one of the most consistently funny films ever made, then reunited Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine for Irma La Douce.  He then followed with his weakest film (Kiss Me Stupid – though no Wilder films are bad and even his weakest are watchable) before creating the team of Lemmon and Matthau.  Walter Matthau won an Oscar for The Fortune Cookie and of Wilder’s final five films, two were Lemmon / Matthau comedies with a third starring Lemmon on his own.  These are the best of his later films and except for The Odd Couple, Lemmon and Matthau were never as good as they were with Wilder.  Wilder stopped making films in 1981, but he was around as an elder statesman and Cameron Crowe mined him for his book in the late 90’s, the natural spiritual sequel to Truffaut’s Hitchcock book.

5 Reasons why Billy Wilder was the best at writing and directing endings of films  (SPOILERS AHEAD):

Billy Wilder's tombstone in Westwood, CA

Billy Wilder's tombstone in Westwood, CA

  1. Sunset Blvd. – “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.”
  2. Some Like It Hot – “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
  3. One, Two, Three – James Cagney stopping to get a Coke and coming up with a Pepsi.
  4. Ace in the Hole – Kirk Douglas falling forward into the camera, dead.
  5. Irma La Douce – The other Lord X walking out of the church.

Sunset Blvd. – #1 film of 1950 / #1 film of all-time

Was there a serious film fan who walked into American Beauty in 1999, heard Kevin Spacey’s monologue telling us how he would be dead in one year’s time and didn’t think of Sunset Blvd.?  There are certain films that are designed to make you think of other films (the way the great opening track shot of Boogie Nights is designed to make you think of Touch of Evil).  It wasn’t just that the lead character in each film was narrating from beyond the grave, explaining the decisions that would send him there.  It was also that Kevin Spacey, had he been around in 1950 would have been the perfect person to play Joe Gillis.  He had the right touch of cynicism, the right type of sly humor.

There are so many ways of looking at the characters in the film.  Who is Norma Desmond?  Is she someone who didn’t understand that her appeal would slip as films moved from silent to sound and that she would be washed away in the tide (much as Gloria Swanson’s career disintegrated, a combination of the exile of von Stroheim, the introduction of sound and the withdrawal from Hollywood of her benefactor, Joseph Kennedy).  Or has she truly gone mad, written a truly awful script and is divorced from reality that she should be pitied?  What are to make of the man she has killed, Joe Gillis?  I’m a writer by nature and a cynic by practice so I am drawn to his character on both fronts.  I understand the desperate desire to try and succeed as a writer (and having grown up in Southern California, also the need to hold on to your car).  But does he perhaps deserve what he gets?  He seduces young, naive Betty while he is a kept man, but then pushes her away after she has actually gone and fallen in love with him.  He has lived off Norma’s money and then walks away from her, leaving her to her delusions and her ghosts.  But perhaps he has reached the end of where cynicism can take him.  A true romantic would have gone with the girl.  A true cynic would have gone with the money.  In the end, Joe is unable to do either and he is thanked with bullets in the back.

Perhaps the most interesting character is actually the butler, the bizarre Max von Mayerling.  He is the one playing the closest to type.  He nurtured his stars in his days as a director, only to find his career in tatters and forced to take acting jobs to stay in films.  Is there something poetic in that von Stroheim, like John Huston, was a masterful director, who nevertheless played a key (and brilliant supporting) role in a film better than any he ever directed himself?  Or is it just cruel irony?

So what is it about this film that makes me champion it over the other 6000+ films I’ve seen?  It’s not the only film to hold this spot.  At various points the top spot has been held by Star Wars, Chinatown and Grand Illusion, but Sunset has held for nearly a decade now and it seems unlikely that I will champion any other film in this manner.  For it has everything that I look for in a film.  It is a film about a writer (close to my heart) and a film about Hollywood (my passion).  I have long been a fan of movies about movies and this is the best of the lot (a pretty good lot at the time, as two years later two more great ones would come along: Singin in the Rain and The Bad and the Beautiful.)

First, it has first rate writing and directing (Wilder supposedly said to his cinematographer on the final shot “Keep it out of focus.  I want to win the Foreign Film award.”).  It has a magnificent voiceover by William Holden that carries us through the story without actually being forced to carry the story.  It has crisp, crackling dialogue (“The chart from the astrologer.  She read DeMille’s horoscope.  She read mine.”  “Did she read the script?”).  And of course there is one of the most famous lines ever put on screen: “You’re Norma Desmond.  You used to be in pictures.  You used to be big.”  “I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small.”  (trivia note:  What do Sunset Blvd., Citizen Kane, Chinatown, Pulp Fiction and L.A. Confidential all have in common?  In spite of the fact that all are widely considered to be the best films of their respective years they all lost Best Picture and Best Director but did win Best Screenplay.)  Wilder’s sharp wit wasn’t limited to the screen.  When Louis B. Mayer complained loudly coming out of the premiere that Wilder should be tarred and feathered for biting the hand that feeds him, Wilder said “I’m Mr. Wilder and you can go fuck yourself.”

It has first rate technical aspects.  The Editing and Cinematography are fantastic (both were Oscar nominated) and the Score and Art Direction both won Oscars.  How many films these days can find anything in their computer generated scenery to match something like the big empty mansion that hovers over the entire film, shadowing it in failure and doom?  While it won 3 Oscars among 11 nominations, at my Nighthawk Awards it wins 13 out of 14.

There is, of course, the acting.  It is one of the rare films in which all four primary actors were nominated for actors.  Gloria Swanson gives one of the great film performances of all-time as the aging, desperate actress who shows all the skills that once had on screen.  There is William Holden, who wasn’t a star before this film, but certainly was afterwards.  It wouldn’t have worked as well if Montgomery Clift had played Joe as originally planned, because Clift, in spite of his method, was never really able to come close to this kind of cynicism, the same kind of manipulation and lack of sympathy that would win Holden the Oscar three years later.  Then there is Erich von Stroheim, the brilliant actor / director who had long been pushed aside by Hollywood, but found a kind of redemption in fantastic supporting roles (not just here, but also Grand Illusion and Five Graves to Cairo).  He presents the kind of epic dignity you would expect from a man who added the word “von” to his name after emigrating to the United States to make him look more aristocratic.  And we can’t forget Nancy Olsen.  Of the four, she is far and away the least known, but her performance as Betty is so pitch perfect – she is absolutely believable as the young script reader who would try to redeem a pathetic aging writer and help him find the talent he mortgaged along the way.

And of course, let’s not forget the bookends of the film.  The film originally started in the morgue with Joe telling the story to the other corpses, but after previews, they cut that device and settled with the brilliant opening of the mansion and the body floating in the pool, the body who would tell the story.  And as he finally finishes telling the story, as we understand how he came to end up floating in that pool, we get that amazing finale, the way Max arranges everything, the way she comes down the stairs and the way everything does indeed go out of focus and she says those lines that have become so iconic in film history.

“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.”