There he is, Billy Wilder at the top of his game in the mid-1950s, confidently leading a beaming, barefoot Audrey Hepburn in a playful box step. Film directing is fun! That’s what this picture says — a delicious lie on the surface (Wilder was as prone to frustration as any exacting filmmaker), but at a gut level, true. Even given its wealth of malice and day-to-day menu of petite brutalities, admittance to Hollywood’s dream factory was the sweetest luck ever to befall Wilder in his long life, and he knew it. He reveled in it.

Earlier in his life, Wilder had literally survived by being light on his feet. He’d started out as a cub reporter in Vienna, Austria, where he was born in 1906, but to supplement his income he would hire himself out as a dancing partner for unescorted ladies at the city’s two leading hotels. It was this deportment that he was showing off years later, when he took Audrey Hepburn in his arms to show Gary Cooper how to move with her in Love in the Afternoon. And it’s also true that in one production still after
another or in the most casual news photo, Wilder moves with an expressive, full-bodied force. One can easily believe his films have such
pronounced rhythms and abiding vitality because he himself was so physically animated.

Yet there was something deeper, and harder, at work. Wilder, who was Jewish, had escaped Europe shortly after Hitler came to power, then went back in 1945 with the U.S. Army. His nominal mission was to organize the grisly footage captured from the Nazi death camps, and from this edit a series of documentaries that would make the German people aware of what had been going on under their noses. His more personal task was to learn the precise fate of his mother, who’d been rounded up years before and, presumably, sent to her death with the rest of his relatives. There was no trace, no record anywhere, of what had become of her. As recounted in Ed Sikov’s excellent biography of Wilder, this quest and its agonies were something he kept to himself. His co-workers had no clue. (When one of them noticed that Wilder was keeping a Bible near his bed, another cracked, “Ha! He’s getting gags out of it!”)

Humor was indeed his sword and shield. In Stalag 17, he slays the Nazis not simply by ridiculing them, but by unlocking that habitual arrogance he knew so well, by means of which they made themselves ridiculous. He made a similar hash of the Soviets in his hilariously manic — and until recently underrated — One Two Three, in which James Cagney struts and talks nonstop as the executive in charge of Coca-Cola for West Berlin. It was only later, from the late ’60s to the early ’80s, that the romantic in Wilder decisively lost ground to the cynic, that his films (Fedora, Buddy Buddy) began to reveal an open wound in his imagination from which his comedic sense could no longer quite recuperate. Work ceased to come his way.

Yet younger filmmakers reached out to him, and he to them — most recently Cameron Crowe, who produced a terrific book of their conversations, and Curtis Hanson, whose L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys demonstrate, with ruthless humor and romantic irreverence, that the world is still very much as Wilder found it. After one young filmmaker I know crossed Wilder’s path a few years back and managed to get his home phone number, Wilder always graciously took his calls, even from what he would frankly describe as his deathbed.

Since his death last week at age 95, people have spoken of an era having closed — and certainly he buried several great eras in his own span — but what one can hope is that his perpetual readiness to connect with the world in the present moment, whether or not he could get out of bed, is the truest mark of Billy Wilder’s gift, his most abiding legacy. He lived long enough, and was generous enough, that one might argue that his era hasn’t ended at all — that in the history of movies to come, a continuity of honesty, of biting good humor, of a light-stepping grace, are made all the more possible because he was here, and made those qualities so life-affirmingly attractive.

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