BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. -- Life has been largely an argument for Billy Wilder and fortunately, he seems to be winning. Of course you never know what tomorrow may bring. But tonight will bring to Billy Wilder one of this year's Kennedy Center Honors.

"They're not going to have a recount?" he asks prankishly from behind thick glasses. His office, on the second floor of an old building just off Rodeo Drive in the Beverly Hills shopping district, is already cluttered with awards, among them six Oscars for writing and directing, plus the honorary Irving Thalberg award. Only costume designer Edith Head and producer Walt Disney, he proudly notes, got more.

Yet the Austrian-born Wilder, his thick accent still transportingly intact, can always find the bitter hiding in the sweet.

"The pictures that are closest to me got nothing," he grumps. "Or maybe, one. I was very fond of pictures like, let's say, 'Double Indemnity,' 'Ace in the Hole' -- you know, like the mother who's got many children. If there's one that is slightly smaller and has a club foot, that's the one you love the most because it doesn't get as much attention.

"If a picture were a failure, I would have more affection for it."

Of course, many have been successes, several are classics, and each has its own particular temperament: "Some Like It Hot," farcical and riotous; "The Lost Weekend," bleak and grim; "The Apartment," tender and funny; "Sabrina," wry and wistful; "Witness for the Prosecution," dark and fascinating; "The Spirit of St. Louis," stirring and reverent; "One, Two, Three," caustic and frantic; "Stalag 17," gritty and gripping; "The Fortune Cookie," savage and scathing.

So many different kinds of pictures! Surely Wilder has been the most eclectic of all the big-time, golden-age directors, hard even for the great man himself to pin down and categorize, as he has discovered since beginning work on an autobiography. "It's going to be difficult to find a theme in my book," he says. "I was trying it all my life, and I never found it yet. But I've got maybe a few more months to go."

There is a consistent strain in all his films, no matter how many genres they represent, and that is Wilder's mordant romanticism, which has sometimes gotten him mistaken for a cynic. It's a view of the world shaped by his Germanic background, his early association with illustrious director Ernst Lubitsch, and his half a century wrangling and struggling -- with actors and executives and censors -- in Hollywood.

If he hadn't gone to Hollywood as a bright young man in the '30s, then "I would have been dead, like my entire family," he says matter-of-factly, seated at a cluttered desk in a small yet oddly cavernous one-room office. "My mother, my stepfather, my grandmother -- it was Auschwitz time. The truth also is that I would have wanted to come to Hollywood anyway, even if Germany had been a democracy, but that kind of speeded it up, you know? Any musician would like to wind up playing with the New York Philharmonic, right?"

Peering through the thick lenses, his eyes somehow both a little mournful and a little mischievous, Wilder looks plump, gnomish, Hobbity -- frankly adorable. Yet he's long been known as one of Tinsel Town's true tough customers, a man who feared nobody and loved letting them know it.

There was the time, for instance, that "Mr. Louis B. Mayer," as Wilder still sarcastically refers to him, ventured out of his MGM kingdom for a private screening of Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," then being whispered about for the way some said it trashed the film business.

"Louis B. Mayer made a big speech outside the theater" after the screening, Wilder says. "He said, 'That son of a bitch Wilder! We allowed him in our country and here he is now biting the hand that fed him.' And, 'The son of a bitch! We're going to throw him out on his ass!' And I overheard that -- it was outside the projection room at Paramount, and he was surrounded by his kitchen cabinet -- and when he was all through fuming, I poked my head into that huddle there and I said, 'Mr. Louis B. Mayer? I am Billy Wilder, and why don't you go and {expletive} yourself?'

"Now, those people, they almost fainted. That somebody had the daring! I could never work at MGM again, they said. Well I didn't give a damn whether I worked there or not. I could work at other studios."

With most actors, Wilder had outwardly cordial relationships. But his disagreements with two became, like much about him, legendary. Humphrey Bogart didn't like the fact that he was a last-minute replacement for the male lead in "Sabrina" after Cary Grant backed out (as he had, years earlier, on Lubitsch and Wilder's "Ninotchka," Wilder says -- replaced by Melvyn Douglas). So Bogie decided there was a conspiracy against him on the set and, as the story goes, fought Wilder nearly every step of the way.

It was said Bogart behaved much like the character he had most recently played: the paranoid Capt. Queeg of "The Caine Mutiny."

"I did have a couple of contretemps with Mr. Humphrey Bogart," Wilder says, with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I get along with actors very very well, though naturally there was a time of, you know, anxiety and impatience and unhappiness, when I worked with Marilyn."

Marilyn. Monroe. Before she and Wilder made "Some Like It Hot," they scratched their ways through "The Seven Year Itch" together.

"When I lived through one and then the other, I said, 'Never again.' Well, I wish she were alive and I wish to God I could have some kind of property where she would fit in and I would make another one with her. It's like you hate the dentist when he drills, but when you see him on the street the next day, you're very friendly. You love him, because the pain is gone."

Monroe's most irritating habit, reportedly, was being incredibly late on the set. Even if she showed up at the studio on time, she might remain locked in her dressing room for hours. It drove Wilder wild; years later, he told biographer and friend Maurice Zolotow, "On the other hand, I have an Aunt Ida in Vienna who is always on time, but I wouldn't put her in a movie."

The anguish, Wilder concedes, was worth it for the way Monroe lit up the screen.

"She always acted everything like, 'Why do people stare at me? What is there about me? Just a pair of breasts that are not that rare.' Of course, they were rare, I must say. One day I took a look. She came down the stairs in a nightgown on 'Seven Year Itch' to see the man -- I forget his name, oh, Tom Ewell -- and I took her aside and I said, 'Marilyn, in a scene like this, you would not have a nightgown on with a brassiere underneath.'

"She says, 'What brassiere?' And took my hand and put it on her breasts. She had no brassiere. That was kind of one of those rare occurences in physics defying the law of gravity. They were the two Rocks of Gibraltar."

With some of his stars, especially Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, Wilder has remained close friends. He still communicates with the elusive, reclusive Marlene Dietrich, who starred in his "Witness for the Prosecution," but says it is very hard to get her out of the apartment in Paris in which she hides from the world.

"I have not seen her in person for maybe 10, 12 years. I've been in touch with her on the phone, and when I'm in Germany she calls me on the phone and the dialogue goes as such: 'Marlene, isn't that a shame, now that we are in the last act of our lives, when I come to Paris, I know that you don't want to see anybody, but why can't the two of us have lunch? Any place you say. I bring some lunch and we have it in your apartment.'

"She says, 'That's a good idea. Call me the moment you arrive.' So I call. 'Oh my God! I completely forgot!' she will say. 'I have an eye doctor appointment in Neuilly and that's going to take some time, and I'm not quite sure ...' I say, 'I'll stay as long as you like if you want to see me. I won't pester you. Call me tomorrow.' And she never calls back. She has completely isolated herself."

He knew Dietrich way back in the Berlin of the early '30s. And he remembers running into her in Paris in 1945, just after the war ended. "We were both in uniform. She was in uniform made I guess by Chanel; she really looked terrific." He asked her "as a matter of curiosity" if she'd ever had sex with Gen. Eisenhower.

"She looked at me and said, 'How could I? He was never on the front!' "

Telling stories like these for perhaps the hundredth time, Billy Wilder still delights in them, and that makes them all the better. He sits in his desk chair sometimes swiveling toward the big window that looks down on Brighton Way, continuing to talk with an oblivious persistence that suggests one could get up and leave the room, then return with a cup of coffee, and not be missed.

His face, even in three-quarter profile, is full of character and audaciousness. When he won the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1986 -- the silver star is tarnishing badly on one of his bookshelves -- Audrey Hepburn called Wilder "a wonderful, witty, tender, brilliant, unique genius." None of these adjectives, nor all of them together, seem excessive.

Now the Hollywood he helped invent has changed, radically, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of room in it for him, except as a revered icon. "I am big," Norma Desmond says in one of "Sunset Boulevard's" most quoted lines, "it's the pictures that got small." The studio system under which Wilder flourished -- 18 glorious if argumentative years at Paramount -- is gone, replaced by a tyranny of bookkeepers, agents and conglomerates.

"The one sad thing about making pictures today is, it was more fun then than it is now," Wilder says. "I read that some screenwriter just got $3 million for his script. Three million dollars! Ninety percent of my pictures cost less than 2 million all together! 'Some Like It Hot' cost about $2 million. That would now be 35 or 40 million dollars because Monroe will get $12 million and Tony Curtis will get $9 million, and it's gigantic."

He is asked how he would react if someone announced plans to colorize, say, "Some Like It Hot." He says, "I would be mildly angry. But not as frenetic, not as bellicose, as the rest of the Directors Guild." What bothers him more is the way his films are cut for television -- "They start on Page 27!" -- so much so that, he says, he won't even look at them on TV anymore.

"If there are butchers that could not make the examination to become butchers in supermarkets, they put them in that job," he scowls.

Wilder takes pains to point out he has many friends who are not in the picture business. And many other interests, chief among them art collecting. One year ago, his 12th-floor apartment in a Westwood high-rise suffered smoke and water damage during a fire, but fortunately for Wilder, a month earlier he had sent roughly 70 percent of his collection to New York for auction.

He and his wife, Audrey, are still living in another apartment across the street, waiting to move back in when work on their own place is completed. In the meantime, Wilder shows up at the office in Beverly Hills nearly every day, "if for no other reason, just to escape the sound of the vacuum cleaners at home."

While Wilder's greatest films are among Hollywood's greatest, it's been years since the last really good one. He says he is "afraid" to work in television, though his friend, the late William S. Paley, tried to lure him into a project at CBS. Will there be other projects, other films? Maybe so, maybe not. But there are certain to be other arguments.

Billy Wilder, 84, is asked if he would like to live to be 100.

"In a kind of peaceful world, not stricken with any painful disease, and being shot full by a newly invented hormone that makes me feel young -- and by that I mean potency -- no, I wouldn't mind at all," he says, turning to gaze out the window again. "But in this world, if you live that long, it becomes a little bit repetitious -- dashed hopes, idiotic projections of a united world, you know? And it happened too often and nothing came of it."

For all the awards that fill his office, he says the Kennedy Center Honor will mean something special. "I'm very proud of it because, you know, we refugees who have been accepted here, we feel much stronger about allegiance, about patriotism. It's no joke to us. You're talking to a man who lived through two world wars and many things in between and many things after.

"Now, I enjoy every minute. I am fully aware of my age and its bad side, but I always appreciate the good sides: sitting back reading, catching up on things."

The phone rings. It rings fairly often. A previous call was conducted entirely in German, but to this caller, Wilder speaks English. There seems to be good news. He is smiling. He is laughing. He is rocking back and forth in the chair.

"Oh boy," he says excitedly into the telephone. "Open the champagne!" When Mr. Billy Wilder says that, you can almost hear the cork pop.