Life and Art
Not while the fever of the blood is strong,
The heart throbs loud, the eyes are veiled, no less
With passion than with tears, the Muse shall bless
The poet-sould to help and soothe with song.
Not then she bids his trembling lips express
The aching gladness, the voluptuous pain.
Life is his poem then; flesh, sense, and brain
One full-stringed lyre attuned to happiness.
But when the dream is done, the pulses fail,
The day’s illusion, with the day’s sun set,
He, lonely in the twilight, sees the pale
Divine Consoler, featured like Regret,
Enter and clasp his hand and kiss his brow. ( Emma Lazarus )
Billy Wilder was a pretty double-edged kind of guy. double-edged; steamroller and tat-tat-tat pacing leaving a trail of irony-drenched plotting that anticipated the cinema of the then-future. But the Viennese wiseguy Wilder also had another side, and that was his love for the Ernst Lubitsch era — the fin-de-siecle world of the Victorians and continental Europe with its graceful courtliness and good-natured manners, the importance of appearance, the sexual restraint, and strong emphases on honor and dignity. Its also a world tinged with the sad regret of an era about to end and replaced with the coarsely authentic, mechanized, rational-economistic 20th century.
The path of least resistance was to pick up on Wilder’s misanthropic persona, which was really a superficial cynicism. William Holden once cracked that Wilder had “a mind full of razor blades.” And Francophobes everywhere still treasure his assessment of France as “a country where you can’t tear the toilet paper but the currency crumbles in your hands.”
Wilder’s signature narrative centers on a disguise or a con. Practically all of Wilder’s movies have at least a sequence, if not the whole film’s premise involving a heretofore-decent person engaging in disguise, role-deception of some sort, or passing for somebody he isn’t in service of some scam. Of course, events always produce snowballing consequences that the scam artists don’t quite figure on—and that’s usually where the comedy and/or pathos come. Much in the modern sense of the Coen brothers with “Fargo” or “A Serious Man”
Yet were obvious autobiographical touches repeated in his movies too often to be coincidence. For example, about half his directorial credits featured either Americans in a European setting or at least a sequence involving Germans or the use of the German language in an Anglo-American setting. Therefore, it’s hard to take seriously his protestations against seeing Wilder’s films autobiographically and so coming to the conclusion, with Andrew Sarris, that this obsession of Wilder—a Jew who lost most of family in the Holocaust—reflects “the director’s own feelings of perpetual insecurity.”
“Then his lips ope to sing–as mine do now.”Themes of impersonation and deception, especially emotional deception, pervade Wilder’s work. People disguise themselves as others, or feign passions they do not feel, to gain some ulterior end. Frequently, though—all too frequently, perhaps—the counterfeit turns genuine, masquerade love conveniently developing into the real thing. For all his much-flaunted cynicism, Wilder often seems to lose the courage of his own disenchantment, resorting to unconvincing changes of heart to bring about a slick last-reel resolution. Some critics have seen this as blatant opportunism. “Billy Wilder,” Andrew Sarris remarked, “is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism.” Others have detected a sentimental undertow, one which surfaces in the unexpectedly mellow, almost benign late films like Avanti! and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. But although, by comparison with a true moral subversive like Buñuel, Wilder can seem shallow and even facile, the best of his work retains a wit and astringent bite that sets it refreshingly off from the pieties of the Hollywood mainstream. When it comes to black comedy, he ranks at least the equal of his mentor, Lubitsch, whose audacity in wringing laughs out of concentration camps ( To Be or Not to Be ) is matched by Wilder’s in pivoting Some Like It Hot around the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” ( Philip Kemp )
…Credibility in farce depends very much on the manner of what the audience wants to happen, without really being aware they want it. Wilder played with the a similar process that Edward Bernays, another Austrian emigre, and nephew of Freud, had embodied within a complex structure of desire, wants and repression; excep
lder deployed a non-toxic component into a language and cinematic narrative that was transparent and authentic where the subconscious was credibly established with a plausible objective reality, based on references to life which Wilder then used to slide into a world of the unlikely, based in references to a pre-established piece of the narrative.
Early in ”Some Like it Hot” when we see Joe wheedle the car out of the booking agent’s secretary, we just about believe it could happen; the con and the masking of identity is such a powerful thread in American iconography such as in Herman Melville’s ”the Confidence Man” ,that Wilder makes use of in infinite variations. Later when Joe and Jerry decide to masquerade, the picture cuts to them wigged and in female dress. When did this destitute pair get the costumes so quickly? By now, we ourselves supply the wheedling that Joe did of some girl, and we do so both because of our experience of him and because we want the pair to be on that train with that band.
Farce, like melodrama, needs monochrome characters who will react predictably in given situations. ” Some Like It Hot” has a well blended spectrum of characters: the classic pair of youths, one aggressive and scheming, the other meek and wistful; the tough lady band leader with the chromium smile; the near sighted manager; the urbane, murdering gangster Spats. With the exception of Joe, none of gthem alters throughout the film, and almost none of them has, or is meant to have, any depth or deeper comprehension. The exception is Sugar Kane, born Sugar Kovalchik, from Sandusky, Ohio. Marilyn Monroe.
The story of the making of the film is thickly laced with trouble, both Wilder’s and the unstable, unreliable and slow-learning Monroe. This friction is all the more astonishing because of the stormy of-screen story. The character as written and the performance that Wilder got from Monroe take the part beyond the stereotyped sex doll of conventional farce into a prescient pathetic comic portrait. The script was finished with her in mind, though she was not the original choice for the role. Sugar is not just a cardboard blonde, she is a girl who has sexual power but no instinct for using it. She is the one, not the man, who gets “the fuzzy end of the lollipop” in amorous encounters.
Monroe, as Sugar Kane, is the one who gets left by the saxophone players who are her special weakness. It was diabolically insightful of Wilder and collaborator I.A. L Diamond to build this role of the warm hearted loser for Monroe. It was good when the film first appeared; in the light of what happened to her finally, it becomes more touching, and her last moment happiness in this picture is all the more exhilarating.
Monroe couldn’t really act. Any serious observation can perceive that she just barely scrapes through some of her scenes without forgetting what she has been told to do. But, she was a great screen personality. Wilder understood that, and how to “place ” her personality on the screen. It is often heard that there is no such thing as film acting because directors and editors control everything and can manufacture performances. This is probably false, but it can happen that way. A gifted director like Wilder can use the medium to extract and construct a performance from a personality and he does it here, superlatively through glimpses of a doomed romanticism clinging to fragmenting metaphors for the culture’s infatuation with the lucky break.
Monroe fits into the Wilder world of the masquerade. Excessive feminization from the transvestite musicians and Monroe as a means of transition into privileged areas. With Monroe its the ”Blonde Paradox” ; the potent sign in Western visual culture whose range of meanings are often contradictory. Blondness being both desired and derided and Monroe is forever linked with the foundations of the blonde myth and as Wilder knew, the word blond emerged as a noun as opposed to an adjective in the 1930′s and 40′s via Hollywood where blonde came to represent a new aggregate of meanings. Wilder used the newly formed and quickly enduring stereotype and constructed her role to show an ironic engagement with society that was both conforming yet deeply subversive.
“Being blonde fulfills the condition of the myth and perpetuates the notion which originated in a dominant white culture. That fairness is superior to darkness and in the people who profit economically by supplying the means for fulfilling this dream. The identification of blond with purity, superiority, or happiness becomes not merely a cultural preference but a powerful fetish that subjugates and devalues those who are not blond. ” ( Holliday T. Day )
Ultimately, a Wilder understood it, no blonde has ever influenced the significance of blondness more than Monroe. Monroe promoted and helped codify the standardized images of a desired femininity that sustains the normative behavior connected with blondes; sexual receptivity, vulnerability and lack of intelligence, as part of means of disempowerment after the war to remove women from the work force. In a culture dominated by visibility, Wilder constructed Monroe as a more modern archetypal blonde, but built this approach from the existing stereotype.
Other elements are also used especially well. Collaborators since 1957, Wilder and Diamond represented the marriage of sharp talk and deep structure for which Wilder had searched for, a duality that was built through interesting juxtapositions connected through Wilder’s ear for the speech patterns and cadences of the American language:
” Somewhat unusually, Some Like It Hot simultaneously sustains almost two separate pictures. Connected only by Curtis and Lemmon, on one side bitter Chicago is populated by cold-hearted villains and tough city folk. Times are hard and no one is likely to give you a break, effectively putting a damper on people’s dreams. In contrast, Miami is full of holiday-makers and rich families taking their vacation. The cheer is infectious and love breaks out all over, like a rather dynamic rash. In these surroundings, Joe E. Brown is terrific as Osgood E. Fielding, the aged tycoon who falls for Daphne. A veteran of numerous marriages, nothing phases him in his pursuit of a lady. In a stroke of genius, Wilder sets the two strands off at different times, then brings them together without ever making the film feel artificial. It’s in these details that a great director leaves behind the merely ordinary.
The remaining area in which Some Like It Hot stands apart from the competition is that Curtis and Lemmon remain believable throughout. Instead of acting camp, they play their roles straight and with conviction. Picking up on the quirks of being female, the outcome is far more amusing than might be expected. The costumes of Orry-Kelly help a great deal, as does Wilder’s decision to shoot in black and white, but the credit must lie with Curtis and Lemmon. Such professionalism contrasts with Monroe, legendary for her epic tardiness and inability to recall lines. Faced with such inconsistency, the performance that Wilder extracts is amazing; Monroe is funny, sings three memorable songs and adds her special sparkle; a buoy of innocence against a gravitational pull towards cinema noir resulting in a tenuous but coherent consistency.
“Some Like It Hot” also displays the use of intra-cinematic references. When Joe poses as a millionaire, he employs a Cary Grant accent. When Spats arrives for the gangster convention, a young hood is idly flipping a coin in a doorway, and Spats asks ”Where’d you pick up that stupid trick?” That coin trick was used in “Scarface” , twenty-seven years earlier, by George raft who plays Spats. At the gangster banquet, Spats picks up a grapefruit angrily as if to shove it in a henchman’s face , something that James Cagney did to mae Clarke in ”The Public Enemy” in 1931.
The subtlest reference, contained within the precincts of this film, is a scene, reminiscent of Restoration comedy, in which Joe, as the fake millionaire, pretends to be frigid and Sugar, anxious to hook him, kisses him and crawls all over him, trying to awaken his responses. The extra dimension of amusement comes from the fact that Sugar is not just a voluptuous girl, she is the girl who at that moment was probably the most desired female on earth, and for a long time she cannot light any fire, apparently, in Joe. The particular grace of these references is that they are inessential but enriching.
Ultimately, there can be no attempt to resolve the inconsistencies of a Billy Wilder, only an explanation of their elegance is possible; the subtle dialectic between the sweet and the sour and an ability to make the unpleasant beautiful. A search for the governing principle in Wilder’s originality is difficult and complicated given the intensity and power of his aesthetic : the blousy, sarcastic American epigram, born in the face of earnestness, delivered from the side of the mouth. The same kind of aura and body language that Arthur Koestler remarked about new immigrants to America.
Wilder’s sort of Americanness gains its strength and its character through an opposition to the phony; a personal dislike of all that is superficial and carnival in contemporary American life. Sunset Boulevard (1950) was a horror story really: Norma Desmond being not only a grotesque victim of her own vanity and hunger for adoration, but a distortion of Hollywood itself, and Wilder’s own vocation, which shows how stars and studios and the audience too can be bent out of shape on a wrack of mass delusion. But this is not only a postwar thing. He seems always to have cared about the horrible things that happen to human beings when they get too much of what they want. Double Indemnity (1944) is nasty in all the right places: you know everything you want to know about the two money-grubbing murderers as soon as you see the glimmer of Barbara Stanwyck’s ankle bracelet coming down the stairs. Fred MacMurray’s face is a dazzling picture of American easygoingness and avarice. You can almost smell the cheap perfume mingling with dirty thoughts and floating in the room between the two characters.
Wilder ran away from the Nazis, and his racy liberalism was an honest reaction to what he saw. The psychological proximity of the death camps was never far; like in bluesman Robert Johnson’s ”Hellhound On My Tail.
”While in London in 1945, Ed Sikov tells us, at the behest of the Office of War Information, to oversee the reconstruction of the German film industry and purge it of Nazism, Wilder sat down with dozens of reels of film footage recorded in and around the extermination camps. “There was an entire field, a whole landscape of corpses,” he later said. “And next to one of the corpses sat a dying man. He is the one who still moves in this totality of death and he glances apathetically into the camera. Hundreds of bodies, and the look of this dying man. Shattering.” It is something Wilder has come back to all his life. “A particularly horrifying image for [him],” notes Sikov, “because he knew that his mother’s and grandmother’s bodies might well have been in those acres of…corpses. Every new frame of raw footage he saw thus held the poten-tial of revealing his mother’s fate.” Wilder’s mother and grandmother died at Auschwitz. “Why didn’t I take my parents with me?” he has continued to ask into his old age.
It would be pointless to imagine that watching the Holocaust footage, and cutting it together for an information film, had failed to deepen Wilder’s pessimism; it seemed to leave him with a strange feeling about the truth, especially about the truths conveyed by moving pictures. Later, in Ace in the Hole and Sunset Boulevard, to name just two, he showed himself, as a moviemaker, to be more interested in cruelty and the terrors of American entertainment and human manipulation than any director of his generation. Yet that will serve as only a partial guide to the Wilder mentality: he also, we must remember, had Marilyn Monroe’s skirt flying over her head in The Seven Year Itch, offering a fresh-aired notion of postwar sex being healthy and good, clean-limbed and smiling, the big white skirt aflutter with optimism.” ( Cameron Crowe )
Oft have I brooded on defeat and pain,
The pathos of the stupid, stumbling throng.
These I ignore to-day and only long
To pour my soul forth in one trumpet strain,
One clear, grief-shattering, triumphant song,
For all the victories of man’s high endeavor,
Palm-bearing, laureled deeds that live forever,
The splendor clothing him whose will is strong.
Hast thou beheld the deep, glad eyes of one
Who has persisted and achieved? Rejoice!
On naught diviner shines the all-seeing sun.
Salute him with free heart and choral voice,
‘Midst flippant, feeble crowds of spectres wan,
The bold, significant, successful man. ( Emma Lazarus )