June 22, 1906-March 27, 2002

By Mark Harris
Updated December 23, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
Billy Wilder: Gjon Mili/TimePix

EW’s Mark Harris remembers Billy Wilder

In 1994, the director Fernando Trueba won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and said: ”I would like to believe in God so that I could thank him, but I just believe in Billy Wilder. So thank you, Billy Wilder.” The 88-year-old Wilder phoned him the next day. ”It’s God,” he announced. An exaggeration? Perhaps — slightly. Even if Billy Wilder had never directed anything other than Gloria Swanson descending the stairs for a final close-up in ”Sunset Boulevard,” or Fred MacMurray larcenously eyeballing Barbara Stanwyck’s ankle in ”Double Indemnity,” or Marilyn Monroe cozying up to Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in ”Some Like It Hot,” his reputation would be secure. But consider the fact that Wilder wrote and directed all three of these movies — plus made Garbo laugh in ”Ninotchka” and Audrey Hepburn glow in ”Sabrina,” and wrote and directed ”The Apartment” and ”Witness for the Prosecution,” and was the first who saw fit to team up Lemmon and Walter Matthau — and the word ”reputation” becomes hopelessly inconsequential.

With the passing of the Vienna-born Wilder, who wrote his first screenplay in 1929 and his last in 1981, and collected a record 21 Academy Award nominations in between, Hollywood bade farewell to the last writer-director of its first golden age, and arguably its greatest. Some critics carped at what they saw as a chilly misanthropy in his movies; most knew better, and his influence on contemporary auteurs who want to infuse their work with bite, warmth, and crackling dialogue remains incalculable (there’s a reason Cameron Crowe wanted Wilder to play a small role in ”Jerry Maguire”). In ”Some Like It Hot,” he came up with what many consider the greatest last line in film history: ”Nobody’s perfect.” Well, almost nobody.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Mark Harris is an assistant managing editor at EW