Monday, September 06, 2010

Close to Perfection

The list of writers able to express themselves in a language not their mother tongue is short. One thinks of Vladimir Nabokov, mastering English after publishing a number of well-regarded novels in Russian, and Joseph Conrad, of course. But what about Billy Wilder, who came to the United States in the 1930s, knowing hardly a word of English, and became one of America's great stylists of vernacular prose?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of what is perhaps Wilder's most elegantly formed study of American failings, foibles and dreams, couched as the story of a man ascending the corporate ladder sideways. "The Apartment," which won the Academy Award for best picture of 1960 (the second of Wilder's films to win that award), is a clash of moods, the bittersweetness of its tone bumping up against the remarkable verve of Wilder's dialogue. The mixture should make for an unmitigated disaster; instead, it resulted in a masterpiece. "Nobody's perfect," as the memorable closing line of his "Some Like It Hot" has it, but when it comes to punchy, forceful writing, has anyone ever come closer to perfection than Wilder?

Shown above is Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in "The Apartment".

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