When Billy Wilder Danced ‘On the Edge’ With Marilyn

Billy Wilder directed Marilyn in two of her greatest comedies, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. While their personal relationship was often combative, on screen they brought out the best in each other. As Joseph McBride’s new critical study, Billy Wilder: Dancing On the Edge is published, The Independent‘s Geoffrey McNab asks whether past accusations of sexism are truly deserved. (MacNab has also written articles about The Misfits and All About Eve.)

“He made some brilliant romantic comedies but his sophistication and frankness about sex, money and relationships led detractors to condemn him as an inveterate cynic. In particular, he was accused of treating the female characters in his films in a very mean-spirited and sometimes openly exploitative fashion.

The director’s voyeuristic ‘flying skirt’ shot of Marilyn Monroe standing on the subway grating as the breeze blows up her white dress over her waist in The Seven Year Itch (1955) became one of the most famous images of the 20th century. It remains a controversial sequence. Earlier this summer, when Seward Johnson’s 2011 sculpture, ‘Forever Marilyn‘, which commemorated the moment, was installed in Palm Springs, the complaints were immediate. ‘Some Like It Not!’ and ‘It’s not nostalgia, it’s misogyny’ read the placards carried by protesters.

Wilder, who made two movies with Monroe, famously found her exasperating in the extreme. She was never punctual. She never knew her lines. He once quipped that she had ‘breasts like granite and a brain like Swiss cheese’. These sound like adolescent male jibes at the expense of a vulnerable female collaborator whose reputation he should surely have been trying to protect … However, any Wilder lover will counter that only the most myopic and foolish critics could accuse him of disliking women or presenting female characters in a negative light.

‘He does not sentimentalise women like a lot of old Hollywood films did,’ McBride says. ‘Wilder treats women and men both as realistic mixtures of flaws and virtues. I think that bothered some people because they weren’t used to seeing women treated realistically in movies.'”

“The author argues that Some Like it Hot (1959), his second feature with Monroe, is a feminist film. The two jazz musicians, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, learn to ‘walk in women’s shoes’, something very few male characters in other Hollywood pictures of the time even attempted. After witnessing the St Valentine’s Day Massacre and going on the run, they dress in drag and join an all-female band. Monroe, meanwhile, gives one of her most grounded, funny and touching performances as ‘Sugar’, the ukulele player and singer. For once, she seems like a real character, not the exaggerated male wish-fulfilment fantasy figure she so often played.

If you read the old interviews with Wilder a little more carefully, venturing beyond his sarcastic and flippant asides about Monroe’s terrible timekeeping, you’ll find that he recognised her genius. He felt it was ‘well worth the agony of working with her’. As he told biographer Charlotte Chandler, ‘If I wanted someone to be on time, to know the lines perfectly, I’ve got an old aunt in Vienna who’s going to be there at five in the morning and never miss a word. But who wants to see her?’

Moreover, Wilder was arguably the only male director Monroe ever worked with who had personal experience of being treated as a sex object. In his recently translated collection of his journalism, Billy Wilder on Assignment, which also includes the newspaper article ‘Waiter, A Dancer Please!’ about his two months as a dancer for hire, he is nervous, sweaty and uncomfortable in his guise as a gigolo … Years later, when Wilder was making films like Irma La DouceKiss MeStupid and The Apartment, it was clear that his experiences on the dance floor had given him a strong understanding of what his female protagonists were enduring from their clients.

Wilder was never judgemental. Female characters other filmmakers would have dismissed as seedy and corrupt low-lifes were treated with affection and humour in his films. He would always be far more sympathetic to those on the margins of society – the working girls and shady nightclub singers – than to the priggish establishment figures … Wilder’s old screenwriting collaborator, IAL Diamond, used to refer to Wilder’s ‘disappointed romanticism’. What some critics saw as his cynicism was really just honesty and insight about human behaviour … He’d lived through the tumult of the Weimar era and he had fled the Nazis. His worldliness was reflected in how he later portrayed women on screen. You don’t watch Wilder films expecting Anne of Green Gables or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. His films have a far darker hue than that but his realistic gaze should never be mistaken for crude chauvinism.”