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Exuberant Vulgarity. On his own, Billy wrote, produced and directed a savage social satire (Ace in the Hole) that flopped hard, then came back handily with Stalag 17, Sabrina, Seven Year Itch, Love in the Afternoon, Witness for the Prosecution. All these films were made from scripts that Billy himself had writtenthough always in collaboration. "Most of Billy's collaborators," says a friend, "are just $50,000 secretaries." They sit at a typewriter while Billy strides feverishly up and down, slashing the air with a swagger stick, frothing at the mouth with dialogue and situation. On the set, Wilder is relaxed, ribald but in deadly earnest about his work. He is so sure of what he wants that he wastes an amazingly small amount of film footage. Says Billy: "All that's left on the cutting-room floor when I'm through are cigarette butts, chewing-gum wrappers and tears. A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard."
Other Hollywood directors answer that description. What makes Billy Wilder stand out? Two things, says Writer Brackett: "His exuberant vulgarity and his magnificent awareness of the audience. When it comes to guessing audience reaction, Billy is almost never wrong."
Dangerous Ideals. That awareness of audience and story somehow enables him to carry off situations that seem outrageous. Few moviemakers nowadays would dare stake a whole picture, as he did in Some Like It Hot, on the comedy to be derived from two muscular men dressing up as girls. Few producers would have permitted themselves, as Billy did in Sunset Boulevard, to start a movie with a corpse floating in a swimming pool and then have the corpse himself tell the story. He seems almost to be playing a game with himself to see how close he can come to the edge of questionable taste or implausibility without ever falling over the brink.
What keeps him sure-footed may well be an obsession with the craft of storytelling. One of his favorite games is called "openers" and consists of inventing bizarre movie situations. Quite a few of them reach the screen. One of his most famous openers, eventually used in Bluebeard's Eighth Wife: a man (Gary Cooper) and a girl (Claudette Colbert) meet at a d'epartment store counter because she tries to buy only the pants of a pair of pajamas and he only the top. One of Wilder's current and so far unused openers : the Russians kidnap a famous American actress, who might be Marilyn Monroe, in West Berlin; they take her away to brainwash her, but she beats them because she has no brain to wash. Another: a high-ranking Communist defects to the West, leaving his wife and three children behind in Russia. When they are liquidated, he goes back: he was not a defector at all, but merely wanted to get rid of his family.
Many of Wilder's fans think that he is capable of being far more than an entertainer, that he could turn into a Brecht of the cinema. But if Billy did that, he might find himself playing the lead role in a terrifying "opener": big director wins fame and fortune by making solidly entertaining movies, suddenly gets ideals and loses everything on one big flop, winds up living in the ladies' room in the Chateau Marmont.