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Alex Theatre hosts event dedicated to writer-director Billy Wilder

February 09, 2013|By Steve Appleford, steve.appleford@latimes.com
  • Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond and William Holden as Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard."
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond and William Holden as… (Courtesy of the…)

Billy Wilder was a lover of words, and a writer above all else. He said many times in interviews that his move into the director's chair was simply to protect his scripts. Wilder cared deeply about the language, rhythm and timing he spent months crafting with his Hollywood writing partners. Actress Marian Collier remembers watching him on the set of 1959's “Some Like It Hot” as he silently mouthed every syllable of dialogue with the actors.

“Good writing, good acting, good directing,” Collier says now, more than 50 years later. “The main thing was, it was a great script. The director, Billy Wilder, was the whole thing. I don't think anybody else could have done it.”

Wilder was a unique figure in the history of American film, and two of his greatest works are the subject of a mini-film festival Feb. 16 with screenings of “Some Like It Hot” and “Sunset Blvd.” at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. He won six Academy Awards for directing, writing and producing during his career, and multiple other honors for an astonishing run of film classics, including the noir thriller “Double Indemnity” in 1944 and “Lost Weekend,” which won the Golden Palm at the very first Cannes Film Festival in 1946.

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His stories and characters could be deeply cynical about human behavior, but Wilder relished in the humor of all that darkness. There was less darkness in “Some Like It Hot,” though even the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre could be a setup for laughs. It was the same with William Holden's body floating face-down in a pool during the opening moments of 1950's “Sunset Blvd.,” as the actor's narration begins weaving a bizarre knot of comedy and tragedy in a fading Hollywood mansion.

Wilder was utterly American as a filmmaker, despite the heavy Austrian accent he spoke with onset. He fled Europe during the '30s, leaving for Paris immediately after the Reichstag fire. A year later he was in the United States, a writer who spoke no English. But he carried a wealth of tragedy and experience with him. He'd lost his mother and grandmother to Auschwitz, and understood that darkness was a part of human existence, just as wordplay and slapstick could help make it bearable.

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