Happy Belated Birthday, Billy Wilder

A tribute to the master with THE APARTMENT and IRMA LA DOUCE

Billy Wilder’s birthday should always be a cause for celebration among true cinephiles. After all, few other filmmakers could have provided the world of cinema with film after film, moment after moment, which so wonderfully defined the power and beauty of the medium in the unique way he did. So many iconic scenes in so many iconic films made up to comprise the career of Billy Wilder and his one-of-a-kind gift of visual storytelling. Marilyn Monroe’s dress blowing up on the streets of New York, Humphrey Bogart romancing Audrey Hepburn, Brabara Stanwyck toying with Fred McMurray; each offering Wilder made enraptured from the opening scene and told a tale which combined real life and the illusion of the movies, containing far more weight than the typical studio fare. In honor of the director’s recent birthday, I thought I’d celebrate by taking a look at two of Wilder’s most cherished titles, The Apartment and Irma La Douce; a pair of movies which, better than perhaps most, showed why Wilder was Wilder.

In 1960’s The Apartment, an average single New York company man named C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) continuously hopes for a promotion by letting the married executives of his firm use his apartment for their various extramarital affairs, including the top boss himself (Fred McMurray). When he begins to fall for the company’s lovely elevator operator, Fran Kublitz (Shirley MacLaine), he begins to rethink his entire outlook. Meanwhile, In 1963’s Irma La Douce, Maclaine plays the title character; a French prostitute working the streets of a seedy Paris neighborhood until she meets honest cop Nestor Patou (Lemmon). As Irma lets Nestor into her world, the two quickly begin to develop feelings for each other, despite the latter’s dislike about his beloved’s “profession.”

As is the case with most films of the day, the heart of a Billy Wilder title was always the people at the center of it all. Few filmmakers took the time to craft such well-drawn portraits of men and women who had experienced enough aspects of life to make them veterans of the emotional rollercoaster it oftentimes inflicted. Both the male and female characters within The Apartment and Irma La Douce contain enough shades of emotional baggage to make them interesting with just the right amount of depth to come off as real. The Apartment’s C.C. and Irma La Douce’s Nestor are both men who have heavily compromised in life. They’ve set out to conquer their respective societies armed with nothing but determination and honesty, respectively. When they find they’re no match for the powers of the corrupt reality, they give into it while trying to cling to the belief that they haven’t. It’s only when the love they have for the women in their lives overtakes them, that they are ultimately inspired to fight back.

It’s a slightly similar case to that of the women in this pair of Wilder efforts. Fran and Irma have seen more and lived more than their male counterparts and thus have already settled into lives neither wants by the time the male characters come around. While Fran is largely invisible to everyone (which might just be her preference), Irma is never short of attention from her potential customers. The commonality between both women is a sense of having given life a true shot, ushing whatever tools available to her, with little success. The result is an emotional wall which has been built up and where only a somewhat jaded beauty can exist. One of the most fascinating things about Wilder’s work was just how taken he was by such oftentimes unglamorous figures and the eagerness within him to explore the true humanity within them; both these movies are proof positive of this.

Wilder was nothing if not a brilliant wordsmith and the scripts for all of his films are testaments to this notion. Few could spotlight the heart of the various kinds of human emotion and emphasize their power in the most soulful of ways. The moment when C.C. points out that the mirror in Fran’s compact is broken, causing her to remark: “I like it that way. Makes me look the way I feel,” is so rich in the kind of poetry and characterization that cannot help but sparkle. It’s that same sentiment which Wilder is able to maintain throughout. When C.C. bears his feelings to Fran by proclaiming: “Ya know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe; I mean, shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were,” the mix of movie magic and true vulnerability is positively undeniable.

The filmmaker was a writer who never lost the ability to move his audience and stay true to his characters, regardless of whatever the setting they were in or social experience they possessed. Wilder carried similar philosophies to every film, but adjusted them to the specific character he assigned them to. “Who wants to be a stray dog,” Irma asks Nestor at one point in reference to her pimp. “You got to belong to someone, even if he kicks you once in a while.” At the same time, the writer director also gives his supporting characters pearls of wisdom, allowing them to shine in the process, such as Lou Jacobi’s French barkeep Moustache, who tells a disenchanted Nestor: “Life is total war my friend… nobody has a right to be a conscientious objector.” No matter the movie, character, or situation, any script Wilder ever conjured up contained a charm and a poignancy that was matched by no other.

Almost as impressive as the dialogue was the world Wilder surrounded his character with, particularly in these two films. Only a director such as he could take the coldness of corporate America and the seediness of a brothel and turn them into places where love blooms. The director doesn’t care that the worlds his characters are in doesn’t feel romantic because he knows the figures he’s created are fully capable of generating their own magic in the cities and realities which have done them wrong. The way Wilder constructs the image of his cities is likewise something which any film buff cannot help but notice. The realism of early 60s New York and the formalism of Paris provide interesting backdrops for the films’ lost souls to wander through. Although different, both contain societies which have no use for the central characters, who regardless, cling to each other in an effort to not get swallowed up by the cities they find themselves in.

The sparks and magic Wilder so effortlessly made appear on the screen were so effective, it was almost easy to forget how scandalous some of the plot elements within his films must have come across in their day. The conservative 50s were still on their way to becoming a memory when The Apartment’s tale of cheating husbands and the women eager to hop into bed with them came to the screen. C.C. himself certainly would have been seen as someone slightly less than heroic had he not been played by Lemmon. This is a man whose hopes of climbing the corporate ladder are so strong, he’s willing to turn his apartment into the equivalent of a back seat. It’s not as risque as Irma La Douce’s blatant and flippant illustration of prositution however, with hookers and pimps acting as a colorful Greek chorus of sorts. Even by today’s standards, such aspects would give some audiences a small amount of pause. But Wilder remained unafraid as he wove tales of beauty, romance and fragile men and women finding themselves though the less than picturesque sides of the modern world.

Risque elements aside, The Apartment and Irma La Douce were both critical and commercial hits. Wilder took home trophies for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay for The Apartment , while MacLaine scored noms as Best Actress for both films. Today, both are considered to be quintessential Billy Wilder titles that are cherished by nearly all of the director’s countless fans. The reason for their continued appeal has squarely to do with Wilder and his grasp on life as well as the kinds of complex people who experience it. Later films of the director’s continue these themes. 1966’s The Fortune Cookie and 1972’s Avanti! may lack the sort of present-day acclaim as the aforementioned films, yet still contain intricately layered characters wrestling the never ending mysteries of life in the most bewitching of ways. Whether The Apartment, Irma La Douce, Sunset Boulevard, or Witness for the Prosecution, his blending of classic Hollywood entertainment and a groundedness rooted in the real world is why Wilder will forever be considered one of the greats.

The Apartment is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Arrow Video and Irma La Douce is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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