Jewish World Review April 5, 2002 / 24 Nisan, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | An appreciation of a Hollywood figure, however notable, may seem a bit misplaced amid the dire headlines of the day. But in marking the passage of Billy Wilder, who died last week 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.
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, 8 for directing and 1 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 Mr. Wilder's 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 was the perfect film noir -- "Double Indemnity," (1944) -- and, to date, the most harrowing depiction of alcoholism -- "The Lost Weekend," (1945) with Ray Milland. There was also romance -- "Hold Back the Dawn," (1941), an immigration melodrama based on Mr. Wilder's own dicey experiences as an visa-needy immigrant, and "Arise My Love," (1940), which starred Claudette Colbert as a Europe-roving columnist and Ray Milland as a Spanish Civil War vet. 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 movie 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 screenwriting career in Berlin in the 1920s. He later became one the first to flee Nazi Germany in 1933 as a refugee of the kind of anti-Semitism that still twists world events today. "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 Sudetan part of Czechoslovakia. I was on the train to Paris the day after the Reichstag fire." Not much later, Mr. Wilder, who also knew no English, was on a boat to New York, about to embark on the American experience as an immigrant. He was prescient. His mother, his grandmother and his stepfather would die in Auschwitz.
Billy Wilder's chart may have been set by cataclysm and flight, but these are not recurring themes in his work, not even in his darker and more cynical explorations of human nature. Having decided to become an American, Mr. Wilder left his past behind. "As quickly as possibly, Mr. Wilder made himself into an American," his Times 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 ĒmigrĒs who prospered in Hollywood as actors, directors and producers could master the American idiom as a brilliant screenwriter. And there was no looking back: "I had a clear-cut vision," he later said. 'This is where I am going to die.'"
Thankfully, not before becoming one of America's greatest writer-directors, endowing his adopted land with an enduring film
JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.