Wilder on Wilder — filmmaker Matthew Wilder joins the fray with an impassioned, possibly insane defense of Billy Wilder’s despised last picture show, BUDDY BUDDY — a film maudit to end them all. He makes a good case…
As a kid who became aware of cinema in the late seventies, then moved into adolescence in the eighties, I had an experience of the Old Masters of Classical Cinema that I suspect is shared by many Gen-X people now shading –or careening—into middle age. We got the “late style” first; then the heyday second; then the juvenilia last of all. Which is to say, many an X kid’s first pungent taste of Alfred Hitchcock was FRENZY (coupled, of course, with its well-behaved cousin PSYCHO on the late show). Then came VERTIGO and THE WRONG MAN and NOTORIOUS; and much later—as one ticked off filmographies in a more academic fashion—came UNDER CAPRICORN and YOUNG AND INNOCENT.
For X cinephiles, sometimes catching these dementia-praecox classics first run, sometimes on an also-ran VHS tape (still a novelty in our puberty), we encountered the Grandmasters in Benjamin Button fashion. How exciting to see George Cukor mature from LOVE AMONG THE RUINS and THE BLUE BIRD into THE WOMEN and HOLIDAY! Imagine that that guy who made SEVEN WOMEN would go on to do THE SEARCHERS! And who would think that the hot mess who squirted out SKIDOO would go on to craft such elegant films noirs!
I may have a different emotional take on this than other once-green youths who got the dregs before the red red wine. Perhaps because of a chemical combination of critical hosannas for these architects of the Golden Age + the late, fubsy works themselves, I have always had a special affection for these shambling late films—so much so that I feel that affection steers me out of the realm of any form of objectivity altogether. Could one really, with a straight face, and wanting to appear of sound mind and body, say that one passionately loves Rossellini’s MESSIAH more than OPEN CITY? But I do, I absolutely do. The reasons are, I think, so personal and anecdotal, I would have to reverse-engineer a whole boring memoir to explain them. But let’s sum it up like this: even in forgetful ruins, dusted in dandruff you had to brush off their shoulders, the Grandmasters brought the touch of another, better world into the era of Atari consoles and Flashdance sweatshirts. Profoundly out of step with a high-tech Reaganite America, their work felt—and feels—like artifacts of a long-lost alien civilization.
There is late work, in the seventies and eighties, of these old masters, that feels elegiac, exquisite—the last sigh of a show horse that once flaunted its glory at noontime. Bunuel’s THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, Huston’s THE DEAD, Visconti’s CONVERSATION PIECE and THE INNOCENT, Preminger’s THE HUMAN FACTOR. Then there are those works where the antiquated sensibility of the maker clangs against the surface of the modern world in ways that are partly noble and stirring, partly uncomfortable-making.
And then there is BUDDY BUDDY.
To my knowledge, there has been no real defense mounted in a serious way—hell, in an unserious way!—of Wilder’s final 1981 feature. It is generally viewed as either giggle-worthy or grim, a signal that Grandpa needs to get with reality and hand over the car keys at last. The only kind word I have ever heard on BUDDY BUDDY came from longtime blue-chip auteurist and Wilder detractor Dave Kehr, who stood next to the police tape and wryly grinned, like a cop out of James Ellroy: “Well—it’s funnier than most of his recent movies.” BUDDY BUDDY was part of a pile-up of Christmas 1981 movies that signaled the end, no, really, the real end, of the seventies: oddities like the film adaptation of Dennis Potter’s PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, the seventy-one-minute Andy Kaufman sci-fi quirkfest HEARTBEEPS, the bizarrely morose Alan Pakula/Gordon Willis banking-apocalypse thriller ROLLOVER, a macabre film version of WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? with Richard Dreyfuss and John Cassavetes, and above all, Warren Beatty’s bank-breaking salute to left-wing deludedness REDS, all hit the multiplex like pumpkins flung off a highway overpass. None received as little love as BUDDY BUDDY.
A final reckoning for the Lemmon/Matthau/Wilder trinity, BUDDY BUDDY collides suicidal schnook Lemmon with hardcase button man Matthau, who is screwing in his silencer about to clip his target when a despairing Lemmon literally lands on his head. (If your skull is pinging with memories of Jerry Lewis’ failed hanging attempt at the beginning of CRACKING UP a k a SMORGASBORD, you’ve come to the right place: these pictures are incestuous cousins.) Of course, beta Lemmon moves from literally falling atop Matthau to falling all over him with an effulgence of puppylike good spirits; Matthau wants nothing more than to finish his deadly job. And if you guessed that stammering schlemiel Lemmon has to help pokerface bulldog Matthau close the deal, you may have seen one or two American adaptations of French farces!
BUDDY BUDDY would make a brilliant double bill with another 1981 comedy that played to crickets, John Schlesinger’s HONKY TONK FREEWAY. Both films are built on the quicksand of borrowed glory: HONKY TONK is a kind of spritzing lapel flower based on Altman’s NASHVILLE (but broader), and BUDDY harks back to many happier days for the three craggy comedians. But in its way, BUDDY BUDDY is unique. Shot in widescreen in brilliant Bel Air sunshine, with an insinuating Lalo Schiffrin score proffering sinister mock elegance, BUDDY BUDDY comes on strong with the confidence of a movie made by a thirty-year-old. In that, it resembles a more financially successful ’81 comedy by a chap of a certain age—Mel Brooks’ HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART ONE. The difference is that Mel embraced humor addressing the body parts of the middle regions. Billy’s humor is more behavioral and, how you say…cultural? Only whose culture is it, anyway?
It is hard to describe to a reader in our twitfeed era the sensation of seeing a picture in 1981 in which Lemmon and Matthau’s path is obstructed by a couple of dirty hippies in a hospital who birth a baby, and, after the kid is born, burst into song: “Happy birthday…Little Elvis!” (The looks across the theatre on “Little Elvis” spanned the generations.) For topical gags, there is a quackpot sex doctor whose typically Californian mumbo-jumbo seduces Lemmon’s wife, the statuesque, goosey Paula Prentiss. He tells a hotel conference of premature ejaculators to think about the names of the Seven Dwarfs, and he is played, with cocaine-hangover shades and a salon tan by a perfectly cast (and in-on-the-joke) Klaus Kinski. (A flyover attempt at doing some Youtube research on the subject yields the notion that Kinski, while a pain in Billy’s ass and vice versa, did not make any attempts on his life during shooting.)
Lemmon’s Victor Clooney—who is not victorious and does not resemble Clooney—is a TV censor who brags to Matthau’s Trebucco that he pinched a would-be clever writer who hatched a Spanish character named Senor Cojones. To launch Wilder’s kind of dated gibes at far-out sex therapy and wheat-germ-era California culture, you have to be quite a Senor Cojones yourself: the gags here inevitably play to “Springtime for Hitler” stares, as when faux milkman Trebucco blows away one of his victims, and Wilder cuts to the façade of Matthau’s milk truck: “Drink Milk. Live Longer.” BUDDY BUDDY brought a storied career to an ignominious close—so much so that Quentin Tarantino now cites it as the reason directors shouldn’t go on working into their old age. Billy got no more shots after that. Later, when Cameron Crowe met Wilder at an awards function, he asked with typical cheer, “So, what’s next for you, Billy?” “What’s next for me? Death!” was the candid, and accurate, response.
It’s not hard to see why BUDDY BUDDY was greeted with grimaces, but the picture is not so bad it’s good, it’s so weird it’s beautiful. Wilder has the poise, conjures the assurance, knows the rhythm of a joke. It’s just that the material he’s serving on a silver platter only tastes like food on a distant planet. His similarly derided—and genuinely great—1964 comedy KISS ME STUPID also felt detached, the product of a bubble, but its premise was a visitor from the sex-forward, decadent big city bumbling into Dogpatch, with comic, then tragic results. The movie looks all the better now because it describes the changing sexual styles of its moment without being “of” its moment. BUDDY BUDDY, on the other hand, is purely otherworldly. Don Rickles used to make jokes about Japanese snipers still hiding in the palm trees in Pasadena. The Billy Wilder of BUDDY BUDDY may as well be one of those snipers—the difference being, Billy climbed up a palm tree at the Beverly Hills Hotel some time in the fifties.
In an era when comedies are group-conceived spitball sessions where a bunch of comics throw out their best shots, and an anonymous committee cobbles together the zingers, you have to admire the brazenness, the naked risk, the cojones of this era of auteur comedies. For instance: every female person I have ever showed Blake Edwards’ 1981 S.O.B. to finds it grim and repellent beyond belief, but you have to hand it to him—it is a perfect rendering of Edwards’ acrid worldview, and it is as full an expression as any of his form of comedy. Spielberg’s 1941 is nothing if not the auteur theory writ large; and other mavericky efforts of the period, from Albert Brooks’ masterly MODERN ROMANCE to Hal Ashby’s dastardly HAMSTER OF HAPPINESS, have the personal signature we now associate with indie drama. None of them is quite so rich and strange as BUDDY BUDDY, though, where the grace of Wilder’s highly formal style—every set-up, every location is more beautiful than anything you’d see in a studio comedy now— and the perfection of the performers clash with gag-writing on the level of the smart-ass remarks at a Dean Martin roast of Doc Severinsen.
Is that such a bad thing, finally? Isn’t the pleasure of late style really “belatedness”—that aspect of the poet’s gift Harold Bloom describes as if it were some form of late-blossoming genetic defect that turns out, in fact, to be a treasure? And can’t we enjoy—or appreciate—aw, at the very least, love—the embarrassing grandpa, the Inappropriate Blurter, the alluder to that which no one remembers (or should), as much as the Serene Old Master, the unhurried one-take voice of wisdom, the repository of a long-dead classicism that shames us all? The mausoleum coldness of late style in movies can be bracing. But the spills, stains and overhang of BUDDY BUDDY prefigure 2013’s now highly commercial forms of “awkward comedy”—not to mention the truly awkward comedy that is the way we live now.