- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 7, 2002

An appreciation of a Hollywood figure, however notable, may seem a bit misplaced amid the dire headlines of the day. But in marking the death of Billy Wilder on March 28 at 95, we pay homage not only to a remarkably creative career in motion pictures, but to a man whose life, neatly spanning practically the entire 20th century, bore witness to events of recurring relevance.

Mr. Wilder's sterling screen credits alone, of course, are more than enough to merit reflection, not to mention ample gratitude. "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and "The Apartment" (1960), a pair of comedies he directed and co-wrote with I.A.L. Diamond, are among the more famous titles that won the writer-director and producer six Academy Awards and 21 nominations (12 for writing, eight for directing and one for producing). Others include "Sunset Boulevard" (1950), a ghoulishly memorable riff on Hollywood, "Stalag 17," a taut tragi-comedy about a Nazi-run POW camp (1953) and "Sabrina" (1954), a Cinderella romance.

Devotees look back farther still to his collaboration with Charles Brackett that began in 1938. In their dozen years together, the writing team produced a sparkling flow of film marked as much by versatility as by excellence. There were stylish, comedic confections such as "Midnight" (1939), with Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche, "Ninotchka" (1939), with Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, and "The Major and the Minor" (1942), with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. There was the perfect film noir "Double Indemnity," (1944) with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck and, to date, the most harrowing depiction of alcoholism "The Lost Weekend" (1945) with Mr. Milland. There was romance "Hold Back the Dawn" (1941), an immigration melodrama with Olivia de Havilland and Charles Boyer, and "Arise My Love" (1940), with Miss Colbert as a Europe-roving columnist and Mr. Milland as a Spanish Civil War veteran. Leslie Halliwell summed up this last one as "unique, sophisticated entertainment gleaned from the century's grimmest headlines, ending with a plea against American isolationism."

There was also the singularly great war-movie-cum-spy-thriller "Five Graves to Cairo" (1943). Set amid Rommel's victorious sweep through North Africa, the drama unfolds in a Libyan hotel where a stranded British soldier (Franchot Tone) assumes the identity of a dead manservant just as Rommel himself (Erich von Stroheim) is setting up his staff headquarters. You could call this another one of those "unique, sophisticated entertainments gleaned from the century's grimmest headlines."

In many ways, so was Billy Wilder's life. Born a Jew in 1906 in what is now Poland, Mr. Wilder began his screen-writing career in Berlin in the 1920s. He later became one the first to flee Nazi Germany in 1933. "A lot of my friends had a fear of going to a country where they didn't speak the language," Mr. Wilder would later tell the New York Times. "But anyone who had listened to the speeches knew that Hitler would want Austria and the Sudeten part of Czechoslovakia. I was on the train to Paris the day after the Reichstag fire." Not long afterward, Mr. Wilder, who also knew no English, was on a boat to New York. He was prescient. His mother, his grandmother and his stepfather would die in Auschwitz.

"As quickly as possibly, Mr. Wilder made himself into an American," his obituary noted. "He avoided the cafes and living rooms where refugees met to drink coffee and speak German. Instead, he lay on a bed in his rented room and listened to the radio and learned 20 new English words every day." This partly explains how he alone among the many German emigres who prospered in Hollywood as actors, directors and producers would become a master of the American idiom as a writer. And there was no looking back: "I had a clear-cut vision," he later said. "This is where I am going to die."

But, thankfully, not before becoming one of America's greatest writer-directors, endowing his adopted land with an impressive film legacy.

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