5 for the Day: Billy Wilder’s Wares

Wilder’s movies are full of greedy characters out for themselves no matter what the cost.

5 for the Day: Billy Wilder's Wares
Photo: United Artists

While accepting the Foreign Film Oscar for Belle Epoque, director Fernando Trueba said “I would like to believe in God in order to thank Him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder, so thank you, Mr. Wilder.” Legend has it that, to request a screening of Belle Epoque, Wilder called Trueba and greeted him by saying, “Hello, Fernando? This is God.”

I’ve thanked De Lawd plenty of times, but somehow never got around to thanking my favorite director. Today’s 5 for the Day attempts to reconcile that grievous error. Yet rather than listing five Wilder films (which you’re welcome to do in the comments), our list goes the thematic route, opting to cite five themes consistently found in Wilder’s work. This isn’t a scholarly lecture, nor is it a reach-around and post-coital foot massage for auteur theorists. I’m doing it this way solely so I can cheat. I’m greedy, and asking me to talk about only five Wilder movies is like asking Matt Seitz to disregard The New World.

The cynic in Mr. Wilder would be proud. After all, his movies are full of greedy characters out for themselves no matter what the cost. Herewith, the Wilder Side of the Odienator:


If the Deity of Trueba handed commandments to Moses, Chuck Heston would have only gotten nine. Adulterers and would be adulterers are legion in Wilder’s work; his obsession seems to be to break this commandment and, as far as commandments go, it’s more breakable fun than the one about worshipping False Idols. Married Tom Ewell’s pursuit of the Girl With No Name (Marilyn Monroe) in The Seven Year Itch (1955) gave cinema its most indelible image of Marilyn. Walter Neff’s (Fred MacMurray) attempt to sell insurance to married Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944) produced a no less indelible cinematic shot of Stanwyck. Is it coincidence that both scenes focus on the actresses’ legs, as if the road to damnation were trod by them? Even Fran Kubelik’s (Shirley MacLaine) legs come into play in The Apartment (1960), except she uses hers to trod off Damnation Road when idiotic corporate peon Jack Lemmon tries to make her walk off a sleeping pill overdose.

With movies like Avanti (1972) aka “See Jack Lemmon’s flatter than Kansas naked ass and Hayley Mills’ sister’s ta-tas!” and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), we’ll be here all day if we stay on this topic. Speaking of Kiss Me, Stupid


Billy Wilder was a cynic, a sexist, and a pervert…see why I love him? There’s always something dirty and blatant going on under the surface of his pictures, threatening to escape and throttle the Catholic Legion of Decency. Subtly rendered smut was for Preston Sturges, whose “hide the naughty premise” masterpiece, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) is a eureka! moment of cramming an R-rated scenario into a G-rated picture. Compare that with Some Like It Hot (1959) and the scene that puts Jack Lemmon in a confined space with several scantily clad women, all the while making a less-than-hidden allusion to Lemmon getting a boner in drag.

With the escalating crumble of the old Code rules, Wilder tossed out Irma La Douce (1963) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). The former has Wilder’s De Niro, Jack Lemmon, becoming the accidental (accidental?!) pimp of a woman whose name looks like a feminine hygiene product. To keep her from ho’ing, Lemmon buys all her time. The latter is Wilder’s smarmiest dirty joke, wherein Dean Martin (playing a womanizing singer named “Dino”) shows up in Climax, Nevada, goes to a cocktail lounge named The Belly Button and winds up boning the wife of a songwriter named Orville J. Spooner (Ray Walston). The fact that Spooner actually DID want Dino to bone his wife, in exchange for getting Dino to sing some of Spooner’s songs, is just part of the dirty joke. The punchline is that Spooner hired a hooker named Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) to portray his wife in the seduction. Instead, Dino winds up being seduced by Spooner’s ACTUAL wife, Zelda (Felicia Farr). Zelda gets wind of her hubby’s deception and decides to give Dino something Wilma Flintstone never did. Got all that?


“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and my Monkey,” sang the Beatles. In Wilder’s view, people had plenty to hide. Ginger Rogers pretends she’s a twelve year old girl (and looks about as realistically 12 as Martin Short looked 8 in Clifford) to deceive Ray Milland in The Major and the Minor (1942). Jack and Tony pretend to be Coyote Ugly chicks to escape George Raft in Some Like It Hot (1959). Garbo pretends to have a sense of humor in Ninotchka (1939). And Mr. Lemmon deceives a Cleveland Browns player by hyping up the extent of his injuries in The Fortune Cookie (1965).

People’s monkeys also had plenty to hide, as far as Wilder was concerned. The Absent Minded Professor’s monkey had to hide its exploration of Barbara Stanwyck from Edward G. Robinson (“where’s that Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse?” says Edward G.) lest his owner be pinned to a murder. Joe Gillis’ (William Holden) monkey has to hide its displeasure in exploring Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) on Sunset Boulevard (1950) so that she’ll think he loves her, will buy him things and support his starfucking habit. Ray Milland’s monkey has nothing to hide, at least not in this picture, but its owner has a penchant for stashing booze in the chandelier during The Lost Weekend (1945).


Since we’re hanging from Milland’s light fixture, let’s shine some light on Wilder’s treatment of addiction. The obvious choice is The Lost Weekend, with its still-shocking DT sequence and its shaken and stirred protagonist. But there were other addictions to be had: Kirk Douglas’s addiction to the media spotlight has fatal consequences in Wilder’s unfairly maligned Ace In the Hole (1951). James Cagney’s addiction to Coca-Cola and Scorsese-style-speed-speaking causes Communist confusion in the underrated masterpiece One, Two, Three (1961). And Wilder’s own addiction to Jack Lemmon (whom he used seven times) caused him to make Buddy Buddy (1981), a movie so bad Wilder retired after making it.


I’ve said enough. It’s time to let 21-time Oscar nominee Wilder and his cohorts, Charles Brackett, I.A.L. Diamond, Raymond Chandler, and D.M. Marshman Jr. speak for themselves. See if you can figure ‘em out.

a) “She married a communist? That’s going to be the biggest thing to hit Atlanta since General Sherman threw that little barbecue.”

b) “I picked you for the job, not because I think you’re so darn smart, but because I thought you were a shade less dumb than the rest of the outfit. Guess I was wrong. You’re not smarter, Walter… you’re just a little taller.”

c) “When you’re in love with a married man you shouldn’t wear mascara.”

d) “There’s nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five.”

e) “He’s so full of twists. He starts to describe a donut and it comes out a pretzel.”

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Odie Henderson

Odie Henderson's work has also appeared in The Village Voice, Vulture, Cineaste Magazine, MovieMezzanine, Salon, and RogerEbert.com.

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