"Don't give me logic, give me emotion," Billy Wilder always told his collaborator, I. A. L. Diamond ("Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment").
Thursday night at the Beverly Hilton the Hollywood community en masse gave Wilder what he asked for--and then some. Somewhere in the middle of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award to the writer-director-producer-wit, the Hollywood clock stood still. Whoopi Goldberg was telling the room Billy Wilder stories, then within minutes Billy Wilder was himself on stage thanking his mentor Ernst Lubitsch. Going from Lubitsch to Wilder to Whoopi Goldberg is more than a half-century time span, and nothing so simple as a time warp. As the AFI's George Stevens Jr. said, "The excellent becomes permanent." Not that the unpretentious Wilder would go for the line. "Thou Shalt Not Bore" is, after all, his creed.
As the six-time Oscar-winner himself put it, in a speech so brief it was perfect: "We film makers have the hardware but not all of the software, and we are not expendable. . . . One day I was walking on the Goldwyn lot, and I heard my name mentioned. I looked up and Sam Goldwyn was standing there. 'You look depressed, Billy,' he said. I said, 'Well, my last picture went down the tubes,' and Goldwyn said, 'Listen, Billy, you gotta take the bitter with the sour.' Tonight there is no bitter and there is no sour."
What there was, at the starry event in the Hilton ballroom, was a mix of power and magic. Johnny and Joanna Carson making their first public appearance separately . Gregory Peck and James Stewart and Gene Kelly. Fox Chairman Barry Diller and CBS Broadcast Group chief Gene Jankowski and NBC chairman Grant Tinker. (On April 26, NBC airs a one-hour version of the tribute.) Fred Zinnemann and Steven Spielberg. Ginger Rogers and Carol Burnett and Sally Field. The Kennedy Center's Roger Stevens and the brat pack's Molly Ringwald, and every past and present AFI board chairman, including incoming chairman Bonita Granville Wrather. When Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard are relegated to the second tier, you know the International Ballroom is beyond packed.
As Oscar nominee Don Ameche ("Cocoon") expressed it, "Hollywood is a strange place. Forty-eight years ago I was in a picture Billy Wilder wrote called 'Midnight,' and yet I'm not sure we've ever met until tonight." Imagine Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, looking like white-haired brothers, doing a takeoff of "I Enjoy Being a Girl," and you get an idea of the fun.
And history. Staying power got a new definition when Audrey Hepburn took the stage, receiving the first of the evening's half a dozen standing ovations. "I've been given a lot of good advice about what not to say about Billy Wilder in terms of praise and sentimentality," said Hepburn simply, "because it might make Billy leave the room."
Hepburn, looking timeless, slipped in a few adjectives like "tender" and "witty," then exited, after taking Wilder's advice: "Say 'Once he was there and now he's here,' and then show some film."
Or, as Walter Matthau put it, quoting Wilder: " 'Of course there are subtleties. Just be sure you make them obvious.' Billy also said there was no such thing as comedy," said Matthau, who became a movie star in Wilder's "Fortune Cookie."
"It took me a long time to see that Billy doesn't just see the comedies or tragedies of life--he sees it all. He sees the best in the worst of us, and the worst in the best. And we owe him for it."
The best of Wilder--in clips that began with "Ninotchka" (1939) and ended with "The Apartment" (1960)--got unspooled with the kind of random finesse that held the audience. Garbo in love in Paris, "Ninotchka." Hepburn in love in Paris, "Love in the Afternoon." Gloria Swanson in love with herself, "Sunset Boulevard."
Romance aside, there were the examples of what Charles Brackett, Wilder's other major collaborator, called "the best dialogue in town." Like Jan Sterling telling Kirk Douglas, in Wilder's most cynical movie, "Ace in the Hole": "I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons." Or Fred MacMurray getting his comeuppance from Shirley MacLaine in "The Apartment": "I guess that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise. I'd spell it out for you, only I can't spell."
Wilder could spell and understand--and take his lumps. "You're as good as the best thing you've ever done," he once told Lemmon, during one of their seven collaborations. Lemmon (who flew in from pre-Broadway rehearsals for "Long Day's Journey Into Night") listened. But harder to swallow was outgoing AFI chairman Richard Brandt's admonishment to a young scholarship winner. Said Brandt, hopefully, "Go be a Billy Wilder."
What a futile hope. There aren't any more Billy Wilders.