AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Billy Wilder (1986) Poster

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a sour Lemmon
F Gwynplaine MacIntyre24 February 2005
Each year since 1973, the American Film Institute have given their Lifetime Achievement Award to a prominent film star or director. The choice of whom to honour has been motivated by various factors ... such as whose name will sell the most tickets. The guest of honour must be alive, and must be willing to attend in person and give an acceptance speech. The first four annual awards were given to male recipients: in 1977, the AFI decided it was time to honour a woman, but their committee's first choice (Katherine Hepburn) refused to accept the award in person, so they gave it to Bette Davis (who apparently didn't mind being second choice for an award based on gender). Cary Grant had a standing offer to receive the AFI award, but he was never willing to make an acceptance speech and so he was never chosen.

The 1986 award went to Billy Wilder. I take a back seat to no-one in my admiration for this director/screenwriter, yet I find him a faintly surprising choice for AFI's Lifetime Achievement Award. Wilder directed some very popular films (and co-wrote a few that he didn't direct), but he's not a household name in the way that a couple of other directors are.

As is typical of the AFI tributes, there are some clips from the recipient's movies, as well as testimonials from people who worked with him. Among the speakers here is Fred MacMurray, who spent most of his career playing genial nice-guy roles that required no great acting talent, but who on two occasions -- 'Double Indemnity' and 'The Apartment', both directed by Wilder -- played nasty characters, in roles which gave MacMurray a chance to display genuine dramatic ability. Wilder is the only director who ever stretched MacMurray's talents ... yet, regrettably, MacMurray says nothing of particular interest here.

A truly bizarre testimonial is offered by Jack Lemmon. Although the dynamically talented Lemmon would surely have achieved stardom anyway, he became a star in Wilder's 'Some Like It Hot', and most of Lemmon's best roles were in Wilder films. In his long career, Wilder worked with more than his share of temperamental and unreliable performers (notably Marilyn Monroe) ... but Lemmon proved to be reliable and even-tempered, prompting Wilder to comment: 'Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon'. So, you might expect Lemmon to return the compliment here by offering a billet-doux to Billy Wilder. Instead, oddly, Lemmon rattles off a list of actors whose careers were ended or ruined after working for Wilder. I suppose that Lemmon was trying to be funny here, but his speech hits all the wrong notes and leaves a sour taste. One of his comments is especially odd. Lemmon asserts that 'the actor who starred in "One, Two, Three"' never made another film ... yet Lemmon never names the actor. In fact, it's James Cagney ... who didn't actually end his career with Wilder's comedy 'One, Two, Three' but who *did* wait 20 years before starring in another film ('Ragtime'). Cagney had died shortly before the AFI tribute to Wilder, which may be why Lemmon decided not to mention Cagney's name in this ill-thought comedy schtick. Still, Lemmon's speech hits a lot of wrong notes, and it's a strange choice.

The AFI tributes have always featured an uneasy mixture of old-time Hollywood names who are unknown to modern TV viewers alongside big names of current Hollywood who will pull in the viewers but who have nothing to do with the guest being honored. That policy is even more awkward than usual in this Wilder tribute, in the form of Whoopi Goldberg and Jessica Lange: two actresses who are very well-known just now, but who have absolutely nothing to do with Wilder. Annoyingly, both of these women get up and coo about how much they admire Wilder's work, and how eager they are to work with him. I find this phony effusion extremely annoying and pretentious. When this tribute was made in 1986, Wilder was able to work but couldn't get financing for any new projects because he was considered a has-been. Goldberg and Lange, on the other hand, were extremely bankable. If either of these dames had sincerely been interested in working with Wilder, all they had to do was make one phone call and get Wilder's next project greenlighted. It's painfully obvious that these two women are just interested in getting some face time at an AFI tribute, with no interest in actually honouring Wilder.

Because of my great fondness for Wilder's films, and my huge admiration for the man himself, it pains me to say that this is one of AFI's less stirring tributes, and I'll rate it only 4 out of 10.
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