Gilbey on Film: In praise of Billy Wilder

Ten years of after the director's death, it's worth watching <em>The Apartment</em> again.

Billy Wilder died 10 years ago this week. His films, though, have the gift of eternal life. The Apartment, along with Some Like It Hot, is probably the most cherished of these (okay, I'll be completely uncontroversial and say the best). It will be back in UK cinemas in June. This is the second or third re-release of the film that I can remember in the last 15 years. My instinct in these circumstances is to complain about the same old titles being wheeled out again, and to protest that the resources should be splashed instead on digging out the ones that are overlooked or forgotten (such as Wilder's own fascinating and incomplete The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which was re-released 10 years ago).

But it's hard to stay gruff for long when faced with The Apartment. Instead I find myself thinking how wonderful it will be to see it again on a large screen. The last time I watched it was on TV a year or two ago. It was three or four in the morning, I was ill, unable to sleep, knocking back the Lemsip. But finding The Apartment on TV was the best pick-me-up of all. It's snappy and jolly but with the unmistakably Wilderesque strains of regret, melancholy and scepticism running through its romance.

The stench of the immoral or the venal in Wilder's work is so potent as to be made tolerable only by the crispness of the storytelling -- if Double Indemnity and Ace in the Hole were not such wildly compelling entertainments, they would plunge us forever into an inescapable pessimism. Wilder's unshowy brilliance, his meticulous x-rays of human fallibility, make great art out of the pitiful. (How he would have hated that: "I don't make cinema," he said. "I make movies. I make movies for amusement.")

Fresh off Some Like It Hot, Wilder, his co-writer, I A L Diamond, and their star, Jack Lemmon, waltzed straight into The Apartment. "While I was working with Mr. Lemmon for the first time on Some Like It Hot," Wilder said in a delightful interview with The Paris Review,

I thought to myself, "This guy's got a little bit of genius. I would love to make another picture with him, but I don't have a story." So I looked in my little black book and I came across a note about David Lean's movie Brief Encounter, that story about a married woman who lives in the country, comes to London, and meets a man. They have an affair in his friend's apartment. What I had written was, "What about the friend who has to crawl back into that warm bed?"

CC "Bud" Baxter (Lemmon) is the poor sap in question. He's rising fast at work, one promotion after another, but the secret of his success is that he loans out his apartment to the company executives for their trysts, one 45-minute slot at a time. It's a sleazy little set-up, and Wilder keeps the movie galloping along so briskly that we can overlook the unpleasantness at first. But then reality starts to creep in as Baxter realises that the woman he longs to bring home in his arms -- chirpy elevator assistant Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) -- has already been to his apartment, in the company of his boss (Fred MacMurray). The question of how Baxter finds out allows Wilder and Diamond to demonstrate their knack for succinct storytelling: one broken compact mirror is all it takes to make his heart break.

In fact, they are unbeatable at turning out these "moments" -- witness also Baxter's classic straining-spaghetti-through-a-tennis-racket scene, born out of Diamond's realisation that "Women love seeing a man trying to cook in the kitchen."

Such stand-out scenes never impede the film's precise, fluid rhythm. Wilder shot the picture in 50 days flat, and edited it in under a week. "We had three feet of unused film," he said proudly in Cameron Crowe's excellent book Interviews with Billy Wilder. (Read Andrew O'Hagan's lively review of it here. Wilder, you see, had been Crowe's first choice to play Tom Cruise's mentor in Jerry Maguire, a role the late director sadly declined.)

Fifty-seven days! That only enriches the film's miracles. This is lean, funny film-making, expertly paced and played, ending in a romantic flourish to swoon over. It won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Wilder said: "It was ideal for Lemmon, the combination of sweet and sour. I liked it when someone called that picture a dirty fairy tale..." It was, he reckoned, "the picture [of mine] that has the fewest faults."

Billy Wilder. Photograph: Getty Images

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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