It’s not easy being a legend in their autumn. Billy Wilder was easily one of the best film directors of all time, a storyteller without peer who managed to balance comedy and drama perfectly in all-time classics like Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Stalag 17 and many more.
But by the time the 1970s rolled around, Billy Wilder had been making pictures for nearly 50 years. He wasn’t “hip” anymore. He made several films before his final movie, Buddy Buddy in 1981, but few of them are remembered well today. He died at 95 in 2002, but his peak was decades before.
Wilder’s final four films aren’t quite up there with the classics that made his name, but there’s something interesting in all of them.
1972’s Avanti! is the underrated gem of Wilder’s later period, with a terrific Jack Lemmon performance. A harried businessmen learns his father has died in Italy, and has to retrieve his body. He learns his father had been having an affair when he meets the daughter (Juliet Mills) of his late mistress. The best of Wilder’s late work tackles ageing and death head-on, and Avanti! is a solid example of that “successful men having a mid-life spiritual crisis” genre that’s been done to death over the years. The charming, free-spirited Mills is a nice foil to Lemmon’s bitter cynicism. It’s not a perfect movie – it’s way too long at nearly 2 1/2 hours, and there’s a bit of a crime plot thread that doesn’t work, but there’s something resonant in Lemmon trying to make peace with his father’s memory and his bittersweet midlife tryst. Wilder’s ‘70s films up the swearing and nudity content, with mixed success (Buddy Buddy, below, just seems foulmouthed), but Avanti! is a mature, witty work.
The Front Page (1974) is a team-up of Walter Matthau and Lemmon, in one of many remakes of the screwball ‘30s comedy about feuding journalists. The material’s good, but you can’t really top the perfection of Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (another adaptation), and there’s something about watching a screwball comedy remade in the ‘70s that feels forced and inauthentic. While Matthau and Lemmon are always worth watching, a miscast Carol Burnett throws the whole thing off kilter and The Front Page is a trifle for Wilder that never feels essential or particularly bold.
Fedora (1978), on the other hand, is Wilder’s last grand creative statement, and even if it’s an imperfect film, it’s not quite like anything else he did. A spiritual sequel to Sunset Boulevard, it also stars the great William Holden seeking the truth about a revered reclusive Hollywood actress, the great diva Fedora. Placed in a sun-basked European setting, much like Avanti!, it’s got an autumnal, valedictory feel. Holden was only in his late 50s at the time of filming, but seems at least 10 years older (he’d sadly die at just 63 a few years later after a fall). There’s a mystery wrapped at the heart of Fedora, which is a bit far-fetched but still proves to be a fascinating rumination on the cost of fame, ageing, and celebrity, and the cost people are willing to pay. It’s unfortunate that Fedora isn’t quite as good as it could’ve been. Some of the acting is rather suspect (the lead two actresses were dubbed, which was a bad call), and Holden, who’s always captivating, basically vanishes for much of the second half. But Fedora is a movie by a man who still had something to say, and it wouldn’t have been a half-bad last work by Wilder. As it is, it’s a rough gem.
1981’s Buddy Buddy, unfortunately, is a bit of a stinker to go out on. Wilder was 75 when it came out, and it’s clearly the product of an old man running on empty. The traditional Wilder cynicism is there but shoehorned in an overwrought “wacky” comedy – it’s the story of a hitman (Walter Matthau) whose work keeps getting interrupted by a suicidal loser (Jack Lemmon, in full “Gil” from The Simpsons mode). There’s a few funny morbid moments – Lemmon pauses in the act of hanging himself in a bathroom to use the toilet to take a leak, for example. But the plot is all over the place, incorporating Lemmon’s battle to win back his wife (a deeply unpleasant character played by Paula Prentiss), some groan-worthy hippie satire, and topping the list in sheer weirdness, a sex clinic run by a bizarre Klaus Kinski (!) who seems to have wandered in from a different movie altogether. Lemmon’s too broad in his role and the suicide jokes seem a bit icky in 2019, but Matthau is admittedly pretty great as a cynical hitman. It’s a shame he’s not in a better movie. You’d barely recognise Wilder’s distinctive touch in it.
The great unrealised ambition of Wilder in his later years was to direct Schindler’s List. Of course, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was a great film as well, but as a Jewish man who lost much of his family in the Holocaust, including his mother, Wilder’s take could’ve been remarkable.
Then again, Billy Wilder’s entire career was a pretty remarkable thing. There’s been few storytellers who showed us more about human nature in Hollywood’s history.