Ten Great Lessons From Billy Wilder Menschenkenner

Billy Wilder was probably the best writer-director Hollywood has ever known.

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Sunset Boulevard

Double Indemnity

He was, as one says in his native German, a Menschenkenner.

Literally, a people-knower, someone who understands human nature.

I’m a practicing psychiatrist and I learned more about people from Billy Wilder than any mentor, teacher or colleague.

Lessons Learned From Billy Wilder

Here are my ten best Billy Wilder Menschenkenner lessons:

1) If You're Going To Tell People The Truth, Be Funny Or They’ll Kill You

People hate to hear any truth they don’t want to hear.

If they can’t deny or ignore it they would gladly kill the messenger.

A gentle colleague was rushed to the ER, face clawed by the painted nails of a patient he confronted about drug addiction.

So how does a psychiatrist deliver necessary but unwelcome truths?

With a dose of good humor, lower case.

To a newlywed resisting painful dentistry:

“If your lovely wife wants to kiss that face, you owe her a full set of teeth.”

2) I’d Worship The Ground You Walk On If You Lived In A Better Neighborhood

Ever attuned to matters of the heart, mainspring of his best movies, Wilder unmasks the truth of every erotic obsession:

The object is always higher status, whether in wealth, youth, beauty or accomplishment, than the obsessed.

Celebrity stalkers are low status, delusionally convinced a superstar would, could or does love them.

Stalkers unknowingly seek to pole-vault their way to high status through obsessive love.

Billy Wilder, ever subtle, always weaves social status into his romantic comedies.

“How To Marry A Millionaire” is often a Wilder subtext, never a Wilder text.

“Let the audience add up two and two and they will love you forever.”---Billy Wilder, attributed to Ernst Lubitsch

I try always to let therapy patients add up two and two themselves.

3) "Bad News Sells Best, 'Cause Good News Is No News"-- Kirk Douglas as Charles Tatum in “Ace In The Hole (1951)

Before he was a writer-director, before he was a screenwriter, Billy Wilder was a newspaper reporter.

A quick study, Billy learned that bad news sells papers.

Who else would open “Sunset Boulevard” with a voiceover by the bullet-riddled floating corpse of a failed screenwriter?

Stephen Pinker, Harvard professor of psychology, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” argues that the media myth of an ever-worsening world is a direct product of the news industry’s dollar-driven preference for bad news.

Because, present pandemic aside, by every measurable parameter—longevity, health, wealth, safety and literacy---the world is getting better all the time.

And my depressed patients who shut out the news media “report feeling better in just a few short days!”

As drug advertising used to assure.

4) “One’s Too Many And A Hundred’s Not Enough”--- Howard Da Silva as Nat the Bartender in The Lost Weekend (1945)

Billy Wilder never made the same picture twice.

He always tried something different and he always pushed the envelope.

Alcoholism and its corruptive effect on life, health, character, career, love and family was taboo on the big screen before Billy Wilder made “The Lost Weekend.”

“The Lost Weekend” is tough, real and searing.

And one of the best public health messages you will ever receive.

5) No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Oh, how many times patients complain they are shocked by ingratitude and worse they receive in return for their generosity.

And they are “shocked, shocked” if I respond with this unforgettable Billy Wilder quotation.

Generosity can inspire anger, guilty, contempt, greed, envy, any of a host of human sins.

“After all I did for…”

You needn’t be shocked next time.

Billy Wilder warned you.

6) It [Freud’s Couch] Was A Very Tiny Thing: All His Theories Were Based On The Analysis Of Very Short People

As a young reporter in Vienna Billy Wilder sought an interview with the founder of psychoanalysis.

Freud threw him out.

Perhaps he sensed the danger that was Billy Wilder.

Wilder’s comic observation contains more than a grain of truth.

Common sense and some studies suggest that smaller people more easily slip into anxiety, depression and paranoia in a world of larger people.

On the other hand my tallest patients complain that, like pregnant women, strangers feel free to admire or even touch them.

But studies have shown that smaller people, even if they have less social status, often live longer than big people.

Just as little dogs live longer than big ones.

Legendary scientist J. B. S. Haldane’s essay, “On Being the Right Size,” is singularly enlightening on this topic, and you can gain Haldane’s insights here: https://web.archive.org/web/20110822151104/http://irl.cs.ucla.edu/papers/right-size.html

Haldane reassures us that giant movie monsters of the 1930’s and 1950’s—King Kong and Company---are nothing to fear.

In reality they would collapse of their own weight.

7) Hindsight Is Always 20/20

On my first day of physiology class at medical school our professor announced:

“We can explain anything. But what can we predict?”

The accuracy of hindsight can falsely inflate our confidence in the bold predictions of professional prognosticators.

As Warren Buffett likes to point out: in life the rear view mirror is usually clearer than the windshield.

And, as his partner, Charlie Munger, plainly states, all prognosticators have one thing in common:

None of them know.

8) An Audience Is Never Wrong. An Individual Member May Be An Imbecile. But 1000 Imbeciles In The Dark…That Is Critical Genius

Wilder perceived the “Wisdom of Crowds” early on.

Check out the 2005 New York Times Business Bestseller by James Surowiecki: The Wisdom of Crowds

Wilder was way ahead of his time.

9) On Directing Marilyn Monroe:

I’ve Got An Old Aunt In Vienna. She’s Going To Be There At Five In The Morning And Never Miss A Word. But Who Wants To See Her?

In two of Wilder’s greatest hits, “The Seven-Year Itch” and “Some Like It Hot,” he directed—or sought to direct---the greatest star of the screen, Marilyn Monroe.

Manic-depressive, polyaddicted, abused, borderline personality disordered before the diagnosis was known, preternaturally beautiful, maddeningly erotic and adored by the camera, Wilder suffered Marilyn’s delays, confusion, moodswings, somaticizing and mercurial refusal to cooperate, ultimately to achieve the most compelling performances cinema has ever delivered.

He always swore he would never do it again.

Then missed her sorely when she was gone.

Had she starred in his failed “Kiss Me, Stupid” it would have been a smash.

10) There Have Been More Books On Marilyn Monroe Than On World War II. And There’s A Great Similarity

Wilder perceives what few can until cued:

The madness of war and the madness of Monroe compel both reader and viewer.

It is no accident that all-out war drives our most famous movies---Star Wars, Casablanca and Gone With The Wind---no less than a manic, gifted blonde beauty in the brilliance of flaming youth became and is still the most famous movie star of all.

With a little help from Billy Wilder.