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CRITIC AT LARGE

Afi To Honor Billy Wilder

October 26, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute is transparently and unapologetically a fund-raising device for the organization. Big name, conspicuous friends, big TV special, big revenue.

But it's fund-raising in a very admirable cause. For its work in film preservation as well as for the lengthening list of significant young film makers it has trained, the AFI in its second decade has become an important force.

By now, honored by its recipients not less than it has honored them, the Life Achievement Award has itself become perhaps second only to the Oscar in prestige. It seems marvelously appropriate and fitting that the next winner of the award, announced late Thursday by the AFI's board of trustees, is Billy Wilder. (The award will be presented March 6 at a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton and will be telecast later on NBC.)

John Ford was the first person honored, and the list--Cagney, Welles, Wyler, Davis, Fonda, Hitchcock, Stewart, Astaire, Capra, Huston, Gish, Kelly--is about as starry and exhilarating as any film lover could wish.

At that, you sigh as you mentally construct a waiting list of future winners (Grant, Hepburn, Stanwyck just for openers). And, because the award has become so meaningful but is not given posthumously, you sigh again for the star talents who left the scene before they could receive it as they might well have (e.g., Wayne, King Vidor).

But what a deserving winner in Billy Wilder. There have been few more original and idiosyncratic talents in the history of film than Wilder, the Vienna-born writer-director-producer whose brain, William Holden once noted admiringly, seems to be composed of rusty razor blades.

Like Dorothy Parker, Wilder has come to be credited with great lines he may or may not have said, nor is it always clear where life left off and legend begins on his early days in Hollywood.

(Did he really sleep, impoverished, in a powder room at the Chateau Marmont? Was it Wilder rather than Robert Benchley who remarked that he would have to get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini? History is tactfully uncertain in these matters.)

What is certain is that his list of films (as co-author and then as writer-director) reflect a consistent vision, sharp, cynical, funny, unabashed and extremely well crafted in the grand tradition.

"Sunset Boulevard," which he co-wrote with his longtime collaborator Charles Brackett, and D. M. Marshman, is still the most inventive of the Hollywood films, extravagant but oddly affecting.

There are lines and images from "The Lost Weekend" that stay in mind 40 years later: Ray Milland, haggard with thirst, trying to find a pawnshop open on a Jewish holiday so he can hock his typewriter, the patronizing contempt of a male nurse in the ward at Bellevue.

To have done "Love in the Afternoon," "Witness for the Prosecution," "Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment,' and "One Two Three" in successive years between 1957 and 1961 is a winning streak that no film maker I can think of has surpassed.

It may have been penalized by being black and white in an industry then avid for color, but "The Fortune Cookie," one of the splendid Lemmon-Matthau-Wilder collaborations, remains in memory as a keen-edged and amusing little essay on greed, as "The Apartment" is a sermon on contemporary mores, including the corporate, placed in the form of a romantic comedy.

If one feels a tinge of regret, it is because of a hunch that the money men may in later years have lost some of the courage of Wilder's dark convictions. Yet even the less satisfying texts have a sheen of professionalism and the hallmarks of a master; and the triumphs, which are the ones that count, are classics that have helped show what the movies at their best can achieve.

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