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Sexual Exploration and Enlightenment in the Films of Billy Wilder

Sexual narrative has been the cornerstone of Billy Wilder’s Hollywood career. Since his emergence as a screenwriter in 1939 with Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka Wilder has explored not only the relationship between the sexes but also the relationship between an individual’s sexual identity and themselves. Wilder’s examination of sexuality was complicated by the era’s enforcement of the studio Production Code which labeled the exposure of any form of sexuality or alleged sexual perversion as a lowering of moral standards. The director generated some of his most profound films during the height of the Production Code era. Using subtle nuances, dramatic irony, and his mastery of the English language Wilder was able to convey the sexuality, emotion, and degradation that were condemned by Hollywood censors. With such preeminent films as Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Seven Year Itch (1955), and Some Like It Hot (1959) Wilder’s career spanned forty years of change within American cinema from implicit passion and restrained dialogue to nudity and graphic language. Illicit sexuality and lust form the basic plot elements of Wilder’s 1944 film noir Double Indemnity. Through a chance encounter insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) meets and becomes enamored with a client’s wife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbra Stanwyck). From their first encounter where Walter looks up at Phyllis seeing her wrapped in a bath-towel (standing back in the shadows as he introduces himself) an immediate sexual tension occurs between the two. They swap sexual double entendres, aggressively flirting with each other in the most obvious but implicit ways to prove a sense of sexual equality or codependent strength. Their proceeding homicidal actions

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underscore their lust and passion for each other. Their planning for the insurance fraud amounts to a form of foreplay and the actual murder committed is the climax of their passionate affair. As Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is strangled by Walter a look of ecstasy crosses Phyllis’ face; the buildup to the murder itself is the sinful act that is exploited through the narrative instead of any explicit sexual content. Their first meeting at Walter’s apartment highlights the lover’s first rendezvous, but where the Production Code disables the couple’s blatant sexual encounter, the sexuality is instead transposed through the plotting and execution of the murder. The extent of their on-screen sexuality is limited to an embrace, cut to dissolve out, and dissolve to Phyllis fixing her makeup and Walter smoking a cigarette. The early limitations of implicit sexuality confined Billy Wilder’s interest in exploring the overtly sexualized nature of his characters, but through other means allowed him to translate their actions through an indirect fashion. “What was essentially a murder story with strong sexual overtones become[s] a sexual story with strong murderous overtones.” (Gallagher 237) The sexual nature of the characters invokes their murderous tendencies; here the repression of overt sexuality is displayed in the discourse of their murderous actions. The question of sexuality linked to homicidal tendencies within a more conservative industry environment again falls back on the side-stepping of the Production Code during Hollywood’s studio era. The illicit couple (Walter and Phyllis) are not only displayed as contemptible through legal or morally corrupt aspect that they have killed for money or personal gain, but are also in violation of a socially taboo sexual relationship. The end results of their moral breach is less focused on whether or not they legally committed the crime of murder, but whether they are unfit within a socially

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conservative apparatus. In Brian Gallagher’s article “’I Love You Too’: Sexual Warfare & Homoeroticism in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity” he states: The heterosexual relationship is directly fatal for both parties—and when we consider that Walter and Phyllis effectively murder each other shortly after they have murdered her husband, it is obvious that the film implies heterosexual relations resemble a state of constant sexual warfare in which the parties seek not merely to aggress on each other, but to annihilate each other.” (240) Here law enforcement is never brought into the picture; judgment is only rendered through those characters close to the belligerent parties. In the end Walter and the Mrs. Dietrichson hold themselves accountable within their own warped sense of accountability. Phyllis inevitably shoots Walter because she has no sexual (or financial) need for him anymore. Walter kills Phyllis once her true intentions are revealed, along with the revelation that she is involved with another man. The corruptive nature of their sexual relationship is what undermines the “rotten” nature of their actions. In the film noir genre the illegal acts (in this case murder) is not the reprehensible element of the morally corrupt, it’s their motivations that determine the quality of their character. For both parties their sexual coordination compliments their morally corrupt, primordial nature. The gender coupling of the two sexes define their role as battling forces, neither with an upper hand that eventually leads to self-destruction. The issue of gender roles between a male and female protagonist presents itself as a centerpiece of Sunset Boulevard (1950). Typical of many other Wilder films (Love in the Afternoon [1957], Sabrina [1954], The Apartment [1960]), Sunset Boulevard examines gender relations and “focuses on clarifying a sense of self by establishing boundaries between themselves and love objects. While males have problems with

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intimacy, females are troubled by identity.” (Wood 75) Co-written with long-time collaborator Charles Brackett Sunset Boulevard tells the story of Joseph Gillis (William Holden) a struggling screenwriter who, while being pursued by repo-men, stumbles into the estate of the reclusive and aging silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Despite her removed status from both society and the film industry she retains a dominating command over her own private world. Her obsequious butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) is revealed as not only her former director, but also her ex-husband. Gillis states at their first meeting “You’re Norma Desmond… You used to be big,” where she responds “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Her delusions of grandeur and narcissism allow her to dictate the role of ruler within her own kingdom, one that has been held since her days as a lead actress garnering praise from every corner of Hollywood. Norma holds an unusual power over her former lover and for monetary purposes maintains a similar control over Gillis. Gillis soon goes from resident writer to Norma’s young lover. Gillis, against his better judgment and desires, submits to her will and becomes another servant in her matriarchy; bound by the financial incentive “[t]he association segues into an affair, he as a not-too-resisting captive and she as a woman as decadent as her life, trying to seize a last whiff of romance.” (Brogdon) She hosts elaborate parties set for only her and Gillis where she remains the focal point of attention, the same as when she was still a star. Norma’s grip on reality slips further away as Gillis brings her hopes of a comeback to life. In the male dominated industry of Hollywood Norma has become dependent on her sex appeal (and in-turn the studio’s willingness to cast her popularity). After reaching middle-age and finding her youth growing distant she continually makes

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attempts to return to her former glory. She is delusional over the attitude that Paramount Pictures and her former director Cecil B. DeMille are still in demand for her return to stardom. She still receives “fan mail” from admirers; only later does Gillis find out that these are all written by Max as a means of keeping her spirit alive. Norma feeds off the faux longing of her fans believing that she still has appeal, that she is still desired. Needing Gillis to rework a horrible script she has written, she’s dependent not only on him in a professional capacity but in a sexual one also. She needs to see a desire for her from the one who is willing to help her (save her) from the regressive world in which she lives; her world has become a world of denial. Gillis’ need of support from Norma falsely underscores her interpretation of his intentions. As Gillis subjects himself more to Norma, he further feeds into her ideas of desire. His motivations are completely superficial, coupled with her ostensible celebrity both become co-dependent: Gillis for financial means through sexual/gender comfort, Norma for the attention of a male viewing audience. Eventually the male/female subservient roles break down both within the story and also within the characters. Gillis describes Norma’s mansion as a “peculiar prison” and as he finds himself sneaking out of the house to meet with another love interest his status as a kept man becomes precarious. Once Norma discovers Gillis’ exploits her jealousy and controlling nature does not allow for it, “the point in Sunset Boulevard is the she has aged not in the flesh but in the mind; she has become fixed at the moment of her greatness, and lives in the past.” (Ebert Sunset Boulevard) Her narcissism cannot withstand the idea of losing out to an “average” younger woman. Norma’s sexual conquest of Gillis becomes endangered and the world she has built around his presence

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begins to crumble with it. As Gillis ends their relationship, Norma slips further into her madness; “No one leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star,” she states. Her narcissistic madness takes over for her failed sexual conquest and she kills Gillis as he leaves her. She then embodies the guilt of the sexualized woman; one who depends on vanity and narcissism to define her power. In his 1955 film The Seven Year Itch Wilder, having adapted the screenplay from George Axelrod’s Broadway play of the same name, explores both the social and psychological elements of contemporary urban men and monogamy. The comedy exploits the fanciful imagination of an ordinary office worker who encounters the temptations of being alone in New York City without the social restraints of wife and child to hold back his sexual urges. The film opens with a faux documentary style introduction explaining the traditions of Manhattan Indians who would send their families up river during the sweltering summer months. The men, who have stayed behind, would then proceed to consort with the young available women on the island now that they were “free” for the summer. As the film transitions from ancient to modern civilization the narration explains that life in Manhattan hasn’t changed, that the men send their families north for the summer while they stay behind in the hot city to attend to business. Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) only fancies himself as a philanderer and adventurous man. He insulates his insipid life with his imagination as he sits alone in his office and townhome. As all the men around him delve into the delight of being temporarily single, he facetiously pretends to restrain himself from running amuck. Playfully informing an imagined image of his wife, he tells of his sexual conquests and

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irresistibility toward other women. As his fantasies start to border on the absurd, he encounters The Girl from upstairs (Marilyn Monroe) who innocently enough challenges his rather chaste summer existence. Sherman balances between remaining faithful and succumbing to his primal desires. Around him he encounters several men lapsing to sexual pleasures. His boss proposes the two men “cut loose and have a real hootenanny” to see if they get lucky. Mr. Kruhulik, the janitor, has plans to get acquainted with a maid down the street, after he drops his wife and four kids off at the train station. Even in the context of 1950s America he describes his third-floor neighbors as “Those two guys on the top floor, interior decorators or something”; an open allusion to homosexuality in mainstream media. As Sherman decides to bury himself in work to avoid shenanigans he finds that the book he’s reviewing, Of Man and the Unconscious by Dr. Brubaker, a Freudian-style analysis on sexual repression and its consequences. The openness of American Broadway presented a springboard for the liberal, European Wilder to explore sexuality and openly examine the American cultural attitude toward its taboo. The Seven Year Itch barely covers its approach of implicit sexuality and shedding of cultural mores, surprising for a film made by a major Hollywood studio still under the authority of the Production Code. By the mid-late 1950s the Production Code’s control had weakened with Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson Supreme Court decision to rule in favor of the film industry’s First Amendment rights. An advantage to many filmmakers, this ruling spurred an opening in artistic freedom. Wilder, taking full advantage of the situation, decided to utilize these freedoms increasingly, even releasing one of his most popular pictures without MPAA approval.

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Some Like It Hot (1959) openly explores gender roles and sexual identity more than any other Wilder film. The story of two unemployed musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) follows their exploits hiding from mobsters in Prohibition era Chicago to joining an all-female band to reprieve themselves from danger. Once they fabricate the identities of Josephine and Daphne both men find themselves in increasingly awkward situations. Joe attempts to woo the band’s lead female singer Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) while moonlighting as the saxophonist and Jerry is unwarrantedly pursued by a sex crazed millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), “[w]hat follows is in part an experiment in how far gender can be constructed—whether clothes make the man.” (Lieberfeld 5). The complications of their constantly shifting identities are not only compounded by the facades each man portrays, but by the representation of their sexual identities and gender roles. Both controversial and popular at the time of its release, Some Like It Hot approaches sexual subject positions from multiple directions. Most notable and overt is the idea of a transgender identity. Although both men see themselves as cross-dressing for the sake of survival, Jerry becomes lost in the acting portrayal of “being” a woman. When Joe returns from a night out with Sugar he finds Jerry (dressed as Daphne) celebrating; when he asks what has happened Jerry/Daphne replies he is engaged. Joe: “Congratulations. Who’s the lucky girl?” Jerry: “I am.” “The Curtis character is able to complete his roundtrip through gender, but Lemmon gets stuck halfway, so that Curtis connects with Monroe in the upstairs love story while Lemmon is downstairs in the screwball department with Joe E. Brown.” (Ebert Some Like It Hot) The complications and taboos of a culturally conservative 1950s America that this scene (among many

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others in the film) attempts to exploit are the same as those throughout Billy Wilder’s extensive career. In an interview Wilder once reflected on his career in Hollywood and his approach to the issue of sexuality under the Production Code: “I always played an honest game with the censors. Sex is in my pictures, but it is dramatic, or it is funny. Well, for instance the scene between Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis on the Boat. That is just one laugh after another. That, the censors forgave me, because it was funny. I once saw a picture in the very beginning, and—here’s how they went around censorship—the guy is saying, “You son of a bitch.” It’s not allowed, but it was allowed as “If you had a mother, she’d bark.” When you kind of put a little something funny in it, you know. They just let it go.” (Crowe 156) Billy Wilder’s circumvention of the stringent Production Code marks a triumph for filmmakers who were forced to expand their artistic talents in order to convey the visceral meanings layered underneath a seemingly moralistic shell. By internalizing the sexual content of his narratives, Wilder successfully created a greater depth and understanding of his character’s sexual identities. Stripping away the explicit framework of the narrative rendered something more than just a technical challenge; it granted the filmmaker’s ability to explore a forbidden landscape within the accordance of censorship.

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Works Cited Brogdon, William. "Sunset Boulevard." Rev. of Film. Variety 18 Apr. 1950. Variety.com. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. Crowe, Cameron. Conversations With Wilder. Knopf: New York, 1999. Print. Ebert, Roger. "Some Like It Hot." Rev. of Film. Chicago Sun-Times [Chicago] 9 Jan. 2000. Suntimes.com. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. Ebert, Roger. "Sunset Boulevard." Rev. of Film. Chicago Sun-Times [Chicago] 27 June. 1999. Suntimes.com. Web. 9 Nov. 2010. Gallagher, Brian. '"I Love You Too': Sexual Warfare and Homoeroticism in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity." Literature Film Quarterly, 1987; 15.4: 237-246. Lieberfeld, Daniel, and Judith Sanders. “Keeping the Characters Straight: Comedy and Identity in Some Like It Hot.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 1998; 26.3: 128-135. Wood, Gerald C. "Gender, Caretaking and the Three Sabrinas." Literature Film Quarterly, 2000; 28 (1): 72-77.

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Filmography

The Apartment (1960) dir. Billy Wilder, USA. Double Indemnity (1944) dir. Billy Wilder, USA. Love in the Afternoon (1957) dir. Billy Wilder, USA. Ninotchka (1939) dir. Ernst Lubisch, USA. Sabrina (1954) dir. Billy Wilder, USA. The Seven Year Itch (1955) dir. Billy Wilder, USA. Some Like It Hot (1959) dir. Billy Wilder, USA. Stalag 17 (1953) dir. Billy Wilder, USA. Sunset Boulevard (1950) dir. Billy Wilder, USA.

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The closing shot of Some Like It Hot (1959), as Jerry/Daphne (Jack Lemmon) explains that he is really a man and cannot marry Osgood (Joe E. Brown), Osgood’s simple but sexually ambiguous reply is: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”