- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2006

During a career that flourished from the late 1930s to the middle 1960s, writer-director Billy Wilder (1906-2002), the subject of a centennial retrospective series now in its first weekend at the AFI Silver Theatre, remained a singular Hollywood sophisticate, cynical wit and polished professional.

Nominated 21 times for Academy Awards, Mr. Wilder won three Oscars for screenwriting (“The Lost Weekend,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Apartment”), two for directing (“Lost Weekend” and “The Apartment”) and one for producing (completing a hat trick for “The Apartment”).

He survived a pair of longtime writing collaborators, Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, and several one-shots, notably the detective novelist Raymond Chandler. With the latter, he shared a famously incompatible but cinematically brilliant partnership when they were adapting James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity” (1944), a film noir classic well before anyone (even the French) had coined the overripe term.

Born Samuel Wilder to a respectable Jewish family in a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire that is now in Poland, the future movie immortal brought a curiously knowing baby face to early family photos. Later portraits suggest a natural progression to cherubic satyr.

William Holden, whose stellar career never would have been the same without two Wilder vehicles, “Sunset Boulevard” and “Stalag 17,” once described his director as “a tall, loose-jointed man with a brain full of razor blades.” In retirement, Mr. Wilder likened his indelible Viennese accent to “a mixture of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Archbishop Tutu.”

According to family legend, the nickname Billy originated with his mother, who spent some time in the United States during her youth and adored Buffalo Bill Cody’s showmanship. While ostensibly studying for a law degree, Mr. Wilder dropped out of the University of Vienna to pursue a more precarious trade, freelance newspaper journalism. Despite rudimentary English, the ardent jazz lover contrived an early byline coup by spending a day with Paul Whiteman, the most popular American bandleader of the 1920s.

Moving to Berlin, Mr. Wilder continued celebrity journalism for an afternoon tabloid, for which his subjects ranged from Jackie Coogan to Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. He also began grinding out movie scenarios (“about one a week” according to a later estimate) and acquired enough finesse on the dance floor to supplement his income as “a teatime partner for lonely ladies” at the Eden Hotel.

He was one of the collaborators on a beguiling semidocumentary feature of 1929 titled “People on Sunday,” which contributed several directors to Hollywood: Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann as well as himself.

An active screenwriter in Berlin during the early 1930s, Mr. Wilder was astute enough to arrange a multistage migration to the United States via France and Mexico. While awaiting a visa, he secured work as a screenwriter at 20th Century-Fox, where he had a mentor in the transplanted German director Joe May.

The aspirant was becoming fluent with colloquial English by the time he was hired at Paramount, where he met a more successful directing model in Ernst Lubitsch, along with a native American writing partner in Charles Brackett.

The initial Lubitsch-Brackett-Wilder collaboration was the screwball romantic comedy “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” in 1938. Their second was “Ninotchka” the following year. It resulted in acclaim and Oscar nominations for most of the principals.

Mr. Wilder was permitted to observe Lubitsch at work during “Ninotchka,” although he was cautioned to be discreet lest he spook Great Garbo. He was granted the same privilege by Howard Hawks two years later during the production of another Wilder-Brackett romantic comedy, “Ball of Fire.”

By that time, Mr. Wilder was lobbying to direct the screenwriting team’s material himself. Preston Sturges already had demonstrated to the Paramount management that a clever writer might be the optimum director for his own stuff. The studio decided to humor Mr. Wilder as well. The immediate payoff, in 1942, was “The Major and the Minor,” still one of the most entertaining and accomplished romantic farces ever hatched in Hollywood.

With the exception of the Chandler interlude on “Double Indemnity,” the partnership with Charles Brackett endured through “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). The co-writers earned a considerable amount of autonomy during the 1940s, and they came to personify clever screenwriting during the golden age of the studio system.

“Eighty percent of a picture is writing,” Mr. Wilder once insisted. “The other 20 percent is the execution, such as having the camera on the right spot and being able to afford good actors in all the parts.”

The partnership with I.A.L. Diamond, which began in 1957 with “Love in the Afternoon,” produced almost as many features (11) as the Brackett years (13). Evidently, Mr. Diamond accepted his partner’s habitual sarcasm, which soured most of the short-term relationships, from Raymond Chandler to Harry Kurnitz (engaged for the theatrical whodunit “Witness for the Prosecution”). Mr. Wilder also preferred collaborators who liked to play gin rummy between creative surges.

The high point of the Wilder-Diamond output was “Some Like It Hot” in 1959. Their failure to win Academy Awards for that cross-dressing farce put Hollywood in a decisively receptive mood a year later for the comedy-tear-jerker “The Apartment.”

Although never averse to happy endings while formulating romantic comedies, Mr. Wilder didn’t like to be mistaken for a pushover. The grudging sentimentality is reflected in the final exchange of “The Apartment,” when Jack Lemmon declares “I absolutely adore you” and Shirley MacLaine replies, “Shut up and deal.”

Mr. Wilder had to buck a strict censorship system for many years, so it was a triumph of misanthropic ingenuity to realize movies as stylishly unsavory and fatalistic as “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard.” He seemed to suspect that people were no better than they should be.

The suspicion that he liked to rub in the weaknesses was reinforced in his most compelling flop, “Ace in the Hole,” which cast Kirk Douglas as an unscrupulous and doomed reporter.

Judiciously, Mr. Wilder had cut a concluding sequence of a prison execution from “Double Indemnity” and a prologue set among ruminating cadavers at a morgue from “Sunset Boulevard.” It seemed sufficient for the former movie to sustain a flashback told on the brink of death and for the latter to rely on a postmortem narration.

The AFI Silver portion of the this centennial tribute, “Billy Wilder at 100,” revives a dozen of the 26 features he wrote and directed, ranging from “The Major and the Minor” to “Fedora,” his next-to-last, released in 1978. The National Gallery of Art retrieves other titles beginning next month. If your acquaintance with Billy Wilder remains slight, an optimum year for catching up has begun.

EVENT: “Billy Wilder at 100”

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, and the auditorium of the East Building at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: Now through April 27 at the AFI Silver (schedule of showings available at theater’s Web site); National Gallery programs begin in April.

ADMISSION: $9.25 for the general public and $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and older); free at the National Gallery

PHONE: 301/495-6720 for the AFI Silver; 202/842-6799 for the National Gallery

WEB SITES: www.afi.com/silver; www.nga.gov

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