by Michael Tran

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So the Oscars are coming up, and yes, even if you are not a film buff and are much more interested in contemporary writing, your ears should be perking up because, as we all know, you will probably hear the word “Oscars” more than once in a crowded room for the next few months.

I have to say, I love movies. Not the adrenaline-inducing action flicks that make me want to carry a gun, or the cheesy romantic comedies that stirs things up with the girlfriend on a Saturday night. I’m talking about films, the kinds of movies that make you think and wonder, art on a screen.

So when I perused the Oscar list last week, I thought about the category “Best Picture.” This award is the pinnacle of movie greatness, the much sought after “Pulitzer” of the film medium. And I thought to myself: how do the “Best Pictures” of today compare to those long ago?

We’ve all heard of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” But how many of us can honestly name more than two directors from the period? How can we blurt out Hemingway and Hawthorne, Warhol and Pollack, but not do the same for film? Four months ago, I could only name one: Alfred Hitchcock. Easy one, right? His films are brilliant, but it wasn’t called Hollywood’s “Hitchcock Age” for a reason. So who else was there?

Recently on Jeopardy (yes you watch it too), the final Jeopardy category was called Directors/Writers. The answer was: “His headstone, using a line from one of his scripts, says, ‘I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect.’” I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me. But the question seemed pretty clear to the three contestants, who all correctly responded with: “Who is Billy Wilder?”

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Who is Billy Wilder? He has his name on the theater at the Hammer Museum where many of us go to watch films and listen to our favorite authors read, and yet I’m willing to bet that most of us cannot name more than one of his films.

Well here’s a very, very brief synopsis that can do no justice to the man, but will at least give you an idea of who the Hollywood giant was. You know, for edification’s sake.

Born on June 22, 1906, Billy Wilder was an Austrian director, screenwriter, and producer. During his time in Europe, he was involved mostly in journalism. When Hitler came to power, he moved to America, with nothing in his pockets and speaking hardly any English. In America, he teamed up with screenwriter and novelist Charles Brackett for 12 years, during which Wilder created some of his greatest masterpieces: Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and The Lost Weekend. After parting with Brackett, he continued directing, writing, and producing another series of spectacular films, including The Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot, Sabrina, and The Apartment. After a career amounting to over 50 films and six Oscars, he died on March 27, 2002.

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I was able to scratch the surface of his filmography during winter break, when I viewed Sabrina and The Apartment. Most directors have a distinctive style – Hitchcock’s suspense through dramatic musical themes, Scorsese’s stark portrayal of violence and morality – so I watched carefully to find his.

Sabrina was what I suppose you would call a romantic comedy film, starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. The Apartment was a different kind of story about love, starring Jack Lemmon. Besides the brilliant performances of its lead actors, there was something about Wilder’s films that had me thinking. The fact that he was a screenwriter and a director forced me to think about his crafting of words and how they artfully shaped his depiction of the characters’ actions and speech. Wilder does something extremely impressive: he makes you laugh. And it’s not slapstick, farcical humor. Wilder somehow blends the humor into the fabric of the plot movement, so that even moments of deep gravity are linked inextricably with a hilarity that renders the term “comic relief” inadequate.

Sabrina stars Audrey Hepburn as the title character, a young girl who falls into unrequited love and moves to Paris to erase her misery. When she returns, she is different, an undeniably matured and independent woman. She re-enters into the lives of the Larrabee brothers (Humphrey Bogart and William Holden), and a convoluted battle of hearts ensues against the backdrop of a satirical yet starkly real view of the corporate world and its trials and allegiances. The depth of the plot, and the multiple dimensions of every single character had me. But in addition to that, Wilder’s ability to move me effortlessly through his frames by a rhythmic tightening and loosening of the plot tension was nothing short of beautiful. The movie certainly reveals Wilder’s penchant for breathtaking films.

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Wilder’s versatility and agility at story-making is perhaps best seen in The Apartment. This film has made its way onto my list of top movies of all time, and that isn’t easy when today’s films of color and sound and superior effects sometimes make movie-watching more real than reality. But what The Apartment does so well is present a truly believable story about the trials of a sucker, played by Jack Lemmon, whom we learn to love by the end of the film. Lemmon is a corporate rat, clocking in hour after hour in order to climb the corporate ladder, until word spreads about his bachelor pad. Soon Lemmon finds himself promoted from position to position as his bosses all take turns borrowing his apartment for their own “business-related” purposes. Lemmon finds himself choosing between love and his never-ending ascent up to the top of the corporate building (literally from floor to floor). The film is downright hilarious, and yet it carries such authenticity through the character’s inability to stand up for himself or find his way through the maze of the corporate world and life in general. The humor carried throughout the plot erupts in even the most melancholy of moments, but becomes the basis of the film’s brilliance. Never has any film been able to flit through with such intelligence and comedy, while carrying the viewer to such depths of sadness and empathy. The dialogue is sharp and witty, but I’ll go no further about the film.

One must watch the film to realize why it was given the titles of “Best Picture” and “Best Director” and to understand its vast superiority to many of our “Best Pictures” today. So often today do we see films written and crafted through a monoptic lens of intent and theme, in which the director so blatantly weaves a full life around a character study, an idea, or a subject, that life and its beauty and sadness all seem contrived. Being a writer, I find inspiration in works like those of Billy Wilder, where the film is a life in itself and does not depend on heavy action moments to shape the plot, but rather flows with such rhythmic intent and confidence that one cannot help but be drawn to its aesthetic acuity, and the poignancy of each image. Wilder’s films do not wallow too heavily in feelings, but neither do they act lazily, as they frequently pause to flush out a moment of passion. They do a good deal of work churning out cunning character dialogues and the important, very, very real plotlines that support the entire work.

But I haven’t even begun to discover the full range of this man’s talents. There are still a good 30+ films to his name. I write this with the exhortation that you may go forth and soak up the artistic beauty of these great films and use them as inspiration for your own creativity. The works of such movie giants as Wilder may help return you to a mindset where amazing art does not only outdo its contemporaries, but also makes its mark beyond the lines of time. Billy Wilder’s films certainly do at least this much.

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