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the otto files

where the classics never go out of style

Facebook just reminded me that today would have been Billy Wilder’s birthday. Billy Wilder was a wonderful screenwriter who turned into one of the greatest and most important film director’s in all of history.

Back in the 1980s when I was still in my teens and twenties, I desperately wanted to be seen as more mature and sophisticated than my years. I watched films by Fellini and Wilder, read books by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and listened to music by Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. My patronage of all the names listed would indeed have made me a highly respected sophisticate had I been living in the 1930s or 1940s. The truth is, I never really cared what people thought of my tastes. I instinctively knew from a very young age what constituted quality and talent and significance. I liked what I liked not because I thought it would make me more popular but because I thought it spoke to me in a meaningful way. Had I just wanted to be accepted more by my peers, I would have only been watching movies by Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, reading books by Stephen King and John Grisham and, God forbid, listening to music by Michael Jackson or Madonna.

I watched Billy Wilder movies because I loved his old world romanticism and his new world cynicism. He was bitingly critical and outrageously funny. He was an enthusiastic storyteller and a substantial intellect. And, he was, first and foremost, a writer. When I started writing professionally nearly 20 years ago, I thought I’d accidentally stumbled into it. However, in recent years, I’ve had to admit that I was enamored with the idea of being a writer for many years before I actually had the guts to try to sell anything I wrote. I have found journals in recent years from the early 1980s in which I openly record my aspirations for a writing career. Somehow, I’d subconsciously convinced myself that the idea of writing was a new idea I came up with in my thirties but that wasn’t true.

And then there’s this video. I recall so clearly watching this event on television when it was originally broadcast in 1986. I would have been 22 years old. I was still more than a decade away from selling anything I’d written. However, I’ve always remembered Wilder’s acceptance speech. I’ve always remembered his questions, “what are they going to do on all those screens? Who’s going to write it?” Wilder inspired me that night as much as he ever did through any of his films. Something about what he said, or how he framed it or, maybe, just because it was coming from him, gave me a small sense of hope. It’s not an emotion I’m usually drowning in, hope. But Wilder made me believe somewhere inside of myself that maybe, someday, I could be one of those people writing the stories. Well, I’m certainly not rich or famous but people have been paying me to write for almost 20 years now and that’s something at least.

I will forever be grateful to the great Billy Wilder. Not just for the long list of movie classics for which he is responsible but for helping me discover a sense of confidence in myself and my ability and desire to write.






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