Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review April 5, 2002 / 24 Nisan, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

The Wilder life | 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 legacy.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


04/02/02: Acting, equality and the Academy
03/31/02: Speeding to conclusions
03/25/02: Hard to remove blood (libel) stains
03/21/02: The tale of Nixon's tapes --- again
03/19/02: The Big Lie lives on
03/15/02: The tunnel vision of '9/11'
03/13/02: The American Auschwitz?
03/08/02: Hating the indoctrination of hate
03/05/02: Clinton and Enron: Old friends
03/01/02: Pickering doesn't polarize, the process does
02/26/02: Destiny's prefabricated child
02/22/02: The White House heist
02/20/02: Making the grade
02/11/02: Studying student visas
02/06/02: Understanding arrogance
02/04/02: The professor's war
01/29/02: Disconnected dialogue
01/23/02: Anti-Indiscrimination
01/18/02: How much is enough?
01/15/02: Oh brothers, where art thou?
01/10/02: Air on the side of caution
01/04/02: Blacks seeing red at Harvard
01/02/02: Clinton's campaign continues
12/26/01: A tale of two exhibitions
12/24/01: Taliban Idyll
12/19/01: Right is right
12/17/01: Hillary strikes out
12/13/01: Lost files, lost presidency
12/10/01: Revolutionaries never grow up
12/05/01: Immigration reform talk is not just for 'haters' anymore
12/03/01: A new symbol of justice
11/30/01: Beyond morality
11/26/01: Can't keep a good man down
11/20/01: Tough talk at the United Nations
11/19/01: Hollywood's other battle
11/14/01: What's the matter with Sara Jane?
11/09/01: A beef with bin Laden's Beef Noodles
11/07/01: Facing up to the FBI's past mistakes
11/02/01: A school that teaches patriots to shutup
10/30/01: The gap between Islam and peace
10/26/01: The ties that bind (and gag)
10/24/01: This war is more than Afghanistan
10/22/01: The fatuous fatwa
10/19/01: Left out
10/16/01: Whose definition of terrorism?
10/11/01: Post-stress disorder
10/08/01: How the West has won
10/01/01: Good, bad or ... diplomacy
09/28/01: Drawing a line in stone
09/21/01: Prejudice or prudence?
09/14/01: When our dead will finally rest in hallowed ground
09/07/01: We want our #$%^&*() audience back!
08/24/01: The transformation from Green Mountain State to Green Activist State is all but complete
08/17/01: Enlightenment at Yale
08/10/01: From oppressors to victims, a metamorphosis
08/03/01: Opening the dormitory door: College romance in the New Century
08/01/01: How-To Hackdom: The dubious art of writing books about writing books
07/20/01: Hemming about Hemmings
07/13/01: Justice has not been served in the Loiuma police brutality case
06/22/01: When PC parades are too 'mainstream'
06/22/01: When "viewpoint discrimination" in our schools was not nearly so gnarly a notion
06/15/01: Lieberman flaunts mantle of perpetual aggrievement
06/07/01: Is graciousness the culprit?
06/01/01: The bright side of the Jeffords defection
05/29/01: Campus liberals should be more careful
05/18/01: 'Honest Bill' Clinton and other Ratheresian Logic
05/11/01: Dodging balls, Bugs, and 'brilliance'
05/04/01: Foot in mouth disease and little lost Tories
04/20/01:The last classic Clinton cover-up
04/20/01: D-Day, Schmee-Day
04/06/01: For heaven's sake, a little decency!
03/30/01: The sweet sound of slamming doors and clucking feminists
03/23/01: America's magazines and the 'ick-factor'
03/09/01: Felony neglect
03/02/01: Who's sorry now?
02/23/01: 'Ecumenical niceness' and other latter-day American gifts to the world
02/16/01: Elton and Eminem: Royal dirge-icist meets violent fantasist
02/12/01: If only ...

© 2001, Diana West