Director: Billy Wilder
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Will I be excommunicated from film blogging if I admit that I really don’t like Billy Wilder’s films very much? Yes, even Some Like It Hot. There’s this je ne sais quoi about him—oh, who am I kidding. I don’t like how he treats women. He doesn’t seem to like us very much. He doesn’t usually present us with dignity. His best films tend to be about male courage, male bonding. Hell, he even has Joe E. Brown preferring a fake woman—even when Jack Lemmon reveals his deception—to a real one. “Nobody’s perfect.” That’s right, Billy, including you.
The worst film I’ve seen in some time is Avanti!, so thoroughly reprehensible that I hardly know where to begin. So let’s just quickly dispatch with the plot and then start chewing on Wilder’s fat, little head. Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon) races from a round of golf, via his company’s private jet, to an airport, and hops a plane to Italy. His father, the very powerful and well-connected head of the family huglomerate, has been killed in a car crash on Ischia, a spa island near Naples.
On his train trip to his final destination, he briefly and unpleasantly encounters Englishwoman Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills) and insults her dowdy appearance, and she very believably takes pains to point out to him her overstuffed figure. They find out they are staying at the same hotel, and are on the same mission; Pamela’s mother was in the car, too, and as it happens, shared the suite with Armbruster Sr. that Jr. now occupies for the past 10 years. Some nonsense about paperwork, various attempts at blackmail, recreating 24 hours in the life of the deceased couple including dinner, dancing and a nude swim in the morning, a crime of passion, the inevitable clinch between the children of the elderly lovebirds and the promise to continue on in their parents’ illustrious tradition. Isn’t it just so moving? Doesn’t it just bring a tear to your eye? Or maybe that was just a spitball.
Seriously, folks, this is the worst kind of misogynistic, stereotypical crap I’ve ever seen in my life! First, Wendell is the quintessential ugly American tycoon, spouting orders, trying to hurry everyone up, hush everyone up, and offend everyone (up?). He’s unbelievably rude to Pamela, commenting openly on her “fat ass” and other insults. Of course, he’s not entirely wrong. I’m not sure they could have found a more revolting travel outfit for her if they had ripped the sackcloth off of Buñuel’s beggars in Viridiana. When she “blossoms” at the dinner she is supposed to be sharing with Wendell, (bringing her own apple to adhere strictly to her diet, what a laugh riot!)—he in one of his father’s suits, she in one of her mother’s dresses—they put her in a long, flowing example of the best faux-hippie attire the Sears catalog had to offer. Her finest wardrobe moment was in her altogether, basking on a rock in the Bay of Nipples, I mean Naples, where it is more than obvious that she is not only not fat, but actually has one of the best figures a woman could want. To be fair, Wilder makes sure Lemmon has his nude scenes, too, though all we get are some skinny ass cheeks. To keep the male audience interested, Wilder throws in a gratuitous topless scene of Anna, a moustachioed, Afro-haired Sicilian maid (Giselda Castrini) who’s having it on with Bruno (Gianfranco Barra), the hotel valet who landed at Ischia after being deported from America.
The solicitious, duplicitous concierge Carlo Carlucci (Clive Revill) bobs and weaves to ensure that Senor Armbruster gets anything he bellows for and remains in the dark about his father’s long-term infidelity, pulling out pictures of the family back in the U. S. of A. to put on the nightstand and spiriting the late Mrs. Piggott’s luggage to Pamela’s room—the latter falsehood exploded fairly early by the unfortunate Miss Piggott. Carlucci and staff wax poetic about the graciousness of the deceased couple; Carlucci even offers them both graves in his family plot to obviate the need for all the permits Pamela and Wendell need to get the bodies home, available land, of course, being no problem on a tiny island.
When Wendell refuses to pay the Trotta family $3,500 for damages to their vineyard from the crash, the bodies vanish from the morgue. Wendell is spirited away by a one-eyed man to a nighttime bocce ball tournament and introduced to the Missing Link team, aka, the Trotta family (no women—it seems they sprung from sea sponges). Wendell is further blackmailed by Bruno with nude photos of his father and mistress and with those of him and Pamela in exchange for a visa back to his beloved America to get away from the pregnant, marriage-minded Anna. Of course, the Sicilian spitfire plugs him in Pamela’s room, forcing Carlo to move her into Wendell’s room to avoid police questioning—it is, of course, the only solution in a large hotel, and the police would never check the guest register to see who was staying in the room.
There’s a lot more nonsense, including a phone call from Wendell’s wife asking when the body will arrive for the state funeral she has planned. Pamela answers and spoils Wendell’s lie that she’s an interpreter. When Wendell gets in hot water with the missus, Pamela grabs the phone and tells her not to worry: “I’m short, I’m fat, and I’m not very attractive.” That works for Mrs. Armbruster, who knows how superficial her husband’s taste in women is—after all, he married her. Bruno gets shipped home instead of Wendell’s father. Wendell considers that a good thing—Bruno is finally getting what he wanted: a trip back to America. And the happy new adulterers will find their way back to Ischia every July 15–August 15 for their “health.”
Billy Wilder has dealt with adultery before, most notably in The Apartment, again with Jack Lemmon. In both these films, the heroine has very low self-esteem, and Lemmon is a blustery, overbearing oaf. However, in The Apartment, there is much more humanity and much sharper satire on the American way of doing business. Here, we get nothing but types that, to be fair, are universally insulting and utterly unfunny. The Italians are crooked, shakedown artists who hold adultery in the highest regard. The one Sicilian is ugly and trigger-happy. And poor Pamela is willing to settle for the same life as her supposedly honorable mother had (never letting Armbruster Sr. set her up in London as a kept woman because she “was in love”). Mum kept her manicuring job at the Savoy Hotel, and good ole Pamela will be no trouble to Wendell either. “I’m not all women’s lib,” she says, “I don’t mind being considered a sex object.” In 1972, this sentiment is laughable and aggressively anti-feminist. It is certainly no triumph that a perfectly attractive woman who earns her own living is ridiculed for her imaginary weight problem and pushed into a “happy ending” of long-term adultery, and 11 months of pining away.
The rating for this film on IMDb is 7, which is pretty good. I hope that rating is only for the beautiful scenery. I would hate to think that modern users of IMDb really think this is a good movie. I applaud the three under-18 women who gave it a 1. Right on, sisters! l