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Master of zany comedy

Billy Wilder, who died recently, didn't know English when he arrived at Hollywood. Soon his films were a hit... A nostalgic piece by V. GANGADHAR.


Billy Wilder ... he excelled both in sensitive black comedy and the sparkling light kind.

AT A very young age, when my interest in Hollywood had just begun, I wondered if Elizabeth Taylor was Robert Taylor's sister. There was also some confusion in my mind over Buddy Adler, William Wyler and Billy Wilder. Later I learnt that Adler was a leading producer for 20th Century Fox, while the other two were famous directors with Wilder being an outstanding scriptwriter. How I loved his punch lines! At the end of Wilder's hilarious comedy, ``Some Like it Hot," Jack Lemmon, disguised as a woman tells his male suitor that they could not marry because he was not a woman. Without batting an eyelid, the suitor replies, ``So what? No one is perfect!" Can you imagine a better ending to a zany comedy? It is amazing that such lines came so easily to someone who came to Hollywood without any knowledge of English. Yet within 10 years of his arrival in the U.S., Wilder was regarded as an outstanding director and one of the most brilliant scriptwriters. Nominated 21 times for the Oscars, he won six, three of them for one film, ``The Apartment" (best film, best director and best screenplay). First with Charles Brackett, and then with I. A. L. Diamond he collaborated on dozens of scripts that were made into outstanding movies. Wilder (real name Samuel Wilder) who died Friday last at age 95, was a Polish Jew who fled Germany to escape Nazi persecution and arrived in the U.S. in the early 1930s. His mother, who, along with her second husband and father, died in a Nazi concentration camp, gave her son the name ``Billy" because she admired the Western hero, Buffalo Bill!

The young genius with an atrocious accent was quickly at home in Hollywood, often laughing at his own English, which he later described as a ``mixture between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Archbishop Desmond Tutu."

With writer Charles Brackett, Wilder directed hit comedies like "Midnight", "Ninotchka" with Greta Garbo, ``The Ball of Fire" and "The Major and the Minor" where Ginger Rogers masqueraded as a 12-year old girl. Wilder's early dark days provided him with enough serious themes for some of his movies, which also included dark comedies. "The Lost Weekend" which won for Wilder the Best Film and Best Director awards was the most harrowing movie ever made on alcoholism. ``Sunset Boulevard" was a stunning melodrama which took a corrosive look at the stormy relationship between an aging Hollywood star (Gloria Swanson) and a young screen writer (William Holden) who becomes her kept man. The 1960 hit, ``The Apartment" was a sensitive black comedy dealing with the dreams of a New York call girl.

The Kirk Douglas starrer, ``Ace in the Hole" was regarded as one of the darkest movies to come out of Hollywood. But the average Hollywood filmgoer would associate Wilder with the special kind of zany comedies enhanced by sparkling dialogue.

He spoofed the mafia in ``Some Like it Hot", the media in ``The Front Page" and professional hitmen in ``Buddy Buddy."

Wilder was an actors' director who could make the star attempt any kind of role. He made toughie Humphrey Bogart play a softie in ``Sabrina." Tony Curtis was just a good-looking playboy kind of actor. But under Wilder he dabbled in brilliant comedy in "Some Like it Hot". So did Marilyn Monroe in the same film.

While describing Marilyn as having ``breasts like granite and a mind like Swiss cheese," Wilder had to confess, ``Better Marilyn late than most of the others on time." He was referring to the proverbial late arrival of Monroe on the sets! I think Wilder extracted the best out of the unusual team, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau who starred in around six or seven of Wilder comedy classics. I guess Wilder remained a lover of slapstick comedy, which gave the screenplay writer a lot more scope. The undercurrent of rivalry between the stars was kept in check by the director and both more or less equally shared the punch lines.

Kirk Douglas enjoyed working with Wilder who, according to him, was a ``brilliant director, a brilliant writer and a great raconteur." Douglas did only one movie with Wilder, ``Ace in the Hole." He turned down the offer to play the lead in ``Stalag 17" which went to William Holden and fetched him the Best Actor Oscar.

Confessed Kirk Douglas, ``Initially I thought the script was weak but I did not realise what Billy would do with it. Bill Holden rightly won an Oscar. I was just dumb!" What was Wilder's philosophy in film-making? In typical Wilder style, he explained his Ten Commandments in film-making, ``The first nine are Thou shalt not bore. The tenth is Thou shalt have the right of final cut." Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder — they are all gone. The comic muse can only sit and sob.

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