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 hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.