Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder

Wilder, Billy, 1906-2002, American film director, producer, and writer, b. Sucha, Galicia (now Poland) as Samuel Wilder. He wrote for films in Berlin, fled the Nazis, and arrived in Hollywood in 1934. After writing various screenplays, he directed his first film in 1942, and soon developed a reputation as a witty and harshly sardonic critic of American mores. At first he mixed dramas and comedies, later concentrating on satire, and his 25 films represent many styles, approaches, and themes. His The Lost Weekend (1945), an unsparing study of alcoholism, won Academy Awards for direction, production, and screenplay; Sunset Boulevard (1950), an acidic look at Hollywood, won another for best screenplay; and The Apartment (1960), a morally ambiguous modern tale, again won him three Oscars. Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) is one of the finest comic films ever made. His other films include Double Indemnity (1944), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Fedora (1979), and Buddy Buddy (1981).

See C. Crowe, Conversations with Wilder (1999); biographies by M. Zolotow (1977), E. Sikov (1998), K. Lally (1999), and C. Chandler (2002); studies by A. Madsen (1969) and T. Wood (1970).

Billy Wilder (June 22, 1906March 27, 2002) was an Austrian-born, Jewish-American journalist, 6 time Academy Award-winning film director, screenwriter, and producer, whose career spanned more than 50 years and 60 films. He is regarded as one of the most brilliant and versatile filmmakers of Hollywood's golden age. Many of Wilder's films achieved both critical and public acclaim.

Life and career


Born Samuel Wilder in Sucha Beskidzka, Austria-Hungary (now Poland) to Max Wilder and Eugenia Dittler, Wilder was nicknamed Billie by his mother (he changed that to "Billy" after arriving in America). Soon the family moved to Vienna, where Wilder attended school. After dropping out of the University of Vienna, Wilder became a journalist. To advance his career Wilder decided to move to Berlin, Germany.


While in Berlin, before achieving success as a writer, Wilder allegedly worked as a taxi dancer. After writing crime and sports stories as a stringer for local newspapers, he was eventually offered a regular job at a Berlin tabloid. Developing an interest in film, he began working as a screenwriter. He collaborated with several other tyros (with Fred Zinnemann and Robert Siodmak, on the 1929 feature, People on Sunday). After the rise of Adolf Hitler, Wilder, who was Jewish, left for Paris and then the United States. His mother, grandmother and stepfather died at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Hollywood career

After arriving in Hollywood in 1933, Wilder continued his career as a screenwriter. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1934. Wilder's first significant success was Ninotchka, a collaboration with fellow German immigrant Ernst Lubitsch. Released in 1939, this screwball comedy starred Greta Garbo (generally known as a tragic heroine in film melodramas), and was popularly and critically acclaimed. With the byline, "Garbo Laughs!", it also took Garbo's career in a new direction. The film also marked Wilder's first Academy Award nomination, which he shared with co-writer Charles Brackett. For twelve years Wilder co-wrote many of his films with Brackett, from 1938 through 1950. He followed Ninotchka with a series of box office hits in 1942, including his Hold Back the Dawn and Ball of Fire, as well as his directorial feature debut, The Major and the Minor.

Wilder established his directorial reputation after helming Double Indemnity (1944), an early film noir he co-wrote with mystery novelist Raymond Chandler, with whom he did not get along. Double Indemnity not only set conventions for the noir genre (such as "venetian blind" lighting and voice-over narration), but was also a landmark in the battle against Hollywood censorship. The original James M. Cain novel Double Indemnity featured two love triangles and a murder plotted for insurance money. The book was highly popular with the reading public, but had been considered unfilmable under the Hays Code, because adultery was central to its plot. Double Indemnity is credited by some as the first true film noir, combining the stylistic elements of Citizen Kane with the narrative elements of Maltese Falcon.

Two years later, Wilder earned the Best Director and Best Screenplay Academy Awards for the adaptation of a Charles R. Jackson story The Lost Weekend. This was the first major American film to make a serious examination of alcoholism. Another dark and cynical film Wilder co-wrote and directed was the critically acclaimed Sunset Boulevard in 1950, which paired rising star William Holden with Gloria Swanson. Swanson played Norma Desmond, a reclusive silent film star who dreams of a comeback; Holden is an aspiring screenwriter and becomes a kept man.

In 1951, Wilder followed up Sunset Boulevard with the remarkably cynical Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival), a tale of media exploitation of a mining accident. It was a critical and commercial failure, but its reputation has grown over the years. In the fifties, Wilder also directed two vibrant adaptations of Broadway plays, the POW drama Stalag 17 (1953), which resulted in a Best Actor Oscar for William Holden, and the Agatha Christie mystery Witness for the Prosecution (1957).

In 1959 Wilder introduced crossdressing to American film audiences with Some Like It Hot. In this comedy Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play musicians on the run from a Chicago gang, who disguise themselves as women and become romantically involved with Marilyn Monroe and Joe E. Brown.

From the mid-1950s on, Wilder made mostly comedies. Among the classics Wilder produced in this period are the farces The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959), satires such as The Apartment (1960), and the romantic comedy Sabrina (1954). Wilder's humor is cynical and sometimes sardonic. In Love in the Afternoon (1957), a young and innocent Audrey Hepburn who doesn't want to be young or innocent wins playboy Gary Cooper by pretending to be a married woman in search of extramarital amusement. Even Wilder's warmest comedy, The Apartment, features an attempted suicide on Christmas Eve.

In 1959, Wilder teamed with writer-producer I.A.L. Diamond, a collaboration that remained until the end of both men's careers. After winning three Academy Awards for 1960's The Apartment (for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay), Wilder's career slowed. His Cold War farce One, Two, Three (1961) featured a rousing comic performance by James Cagney, but was followed by the lesser films Irma la Douce and Kiss Me, Stupid. Wilder garnered his last Oscar nomination for his screenplay The Fortune Cookie in 1966. His 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was intended as a major roadshow release, but was heavily cut by the studio and has never been fully restored. Later films such as Fedora and Buddy, Buddy failed to impress critics or the public.

Directorial style

Wilder's directorial choices reflected his belief in the primacy of writing. He avoided the exuberant cinematography of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles because, in Wilder's opinion, shots that called attention to themselves would distract the audience from the story. Wilder's pictures have tight plotting and memorable dialogue. Wilder filmed in black and white whenever studios would let him. Despite his conservative directorial style, his subject matter often pushed the boundaries of mainstream entertainment.

Wilder was skilled at working with actors, coaxing silent era legends Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim out of retirement for roles in Sunset Boulevard. For Stalag 17, Wilder squeezed an Oscar-winning performance out of a reluctant William Holden (Holden wanted to make his character more likeable; Wilder refused). Wilder sometimes cast against type for major parts such as Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and The Apartment. Many today know MacMurray as a wholesome family man from the television series My Three Sons, but he played a womanizing schemer in Wilder's films. Humphrey Bogart shed his tough guy image to give one of his warmest performances in Sabrina. James Cagney, not usually known for comedy, was memorable in a high-octane comic role for Wilder's One, Two, Three.

Wilder mentored Jack Lemmon and was the first director to pair him with Walter Matthau, in The Fortune Cookie (1966). Wilder had great respect for Lemmon, calling him the hardest working actor he had ever met. Remarkably, the film was shot in black and white, as were the vast majority of Wilder's films throughout his career.

Wilder's films often lacked any discernible political tone or sympathies, which was not unintentional. He was less interested in current political fashions than in human nature and the issues that confronted ordinary people. He was not affected by the Hollywood blacklist, and had little sympathy for those who were. Of the blacklisted 'Hollywood Ten' Wilder famously quipped, "Of the ten, two had talent, and the rest were just unfriendly".

Later life

In 1988, Wilder was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Wilder died in 2002 of pneumonia at the age of 95 after battling health problems, including cancer, in Los Angeles, California and was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, Los Angeles, California next to Jack Lemmon.

Wilder died the same day as two other comedy legends: Milton Berle and Dudley Moore.


Wilder holds a significant place in the history of Hollywood censorship for expanding the range of acceptable subject matter. He is responsible for two of the film noir era's most definitive films in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. Along with Woody Allen, he leads the list of films on the American Film Institute's list of 100 funniest American films with 5 films written and holds the honor of holding the top spot with Some Like it Hot. Also on the list are The Apartment and The Seven Year Itch which he directed, and Ball of Fire and Ninotchka which he co-wrote. The AFI has ranked four of Wilder's films among their top 100 American films of the 20th century: Sunset Boulevard (no. 12), Some Like It Hot (no. 14), Double Indemnity (no. 38) and The Apartment (no. 93).



  • Wilder reveled in poking fun at those who took politics too seriously. In Ball of Fire, his burlesque queen 'Sugarpuss' points at her sore throat and complains "Pink? It's as red as the Daily Worker and twice as sore." Later, she gives the overbearing and unsmiling housemaid the name "Franco."

  • Wilder is sometimes confused with director William Wyler; the confusion is understandable, as both were German-speaking Jews with similar backgrounds and names. However, their output as directors was quite different, with Wyler preferring to direct epics and heavy dramas and Wilder noted for his comedies and film noir type dramas.
  • Wilder's 12 Academy Award nominations for screenwriting were a record until 1997 when Woody Allen received a 13th nomination for Deconstructing Harry.
  • Wilder is one of only four people who have won three Academy Awards for producing, directing and writing the same film (The Apartment).
  • Wilder once said: "My English is a mixture between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Archbishop Desmond Tutu."
  • Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba said in his acceptance speech for the 1993 Best Non-English Speaking Film Oscar: "I would like to believe in God in order to thank him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder... so, thank you Mr. Wilder." According to Trueba, Wilder called him the day after and told him: "Fernando, it's God."
  • When Director Sam Mendes won the best director Academy Award for American Beauty (film), while accpting the oscar he said he would just like to have some of Wilder's talent.
  • Wilder died the same day as Milton Berle and Dudley Moore. The next day, French top-ranking newspaper Le Monde titled its first-page obituary "Billy Wilder is dead. Nobody is perfect." This was a reference to the famous closing line of his film Some Like it Hot.
  • Wilder was the Editors Supervisor in the 1945 US Army Signal Corps documentary/propaganda film Death Mills.

Academy Awards

Year Award Work
1946 Best Screenplay The Lost Weekend
1946 Best Director The Lost Weekend
1951 Best Original Screenplay Sunset Boulevard
1961 Best Original Screenplay The Apartment
1961 Best Director The Apartment
1961 Best Picture The Apartment
1988 Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award Lifetime Achievement
1940 Best Screenplay Ninotchka
1942 Best Screenplay Hold Back the Dawn
1942 Best Original Story Ball of Fire
1945 Best Screenplay Double Indemnity
1945 Best Director Double Indemnity
1949 Best Screenplay A Foreign Affair
1951 Best Director Sunset Boulevard
1952 Best Story and Screenplay Ace in the Hole
1954 Best Director Stalag 17
1955 Best Screenplay Sabrina
1955 Best Director Sabrina
1958 Best Director Witness for the Prosecution
1960 Best Screenplay Some Like It Hot
1960 Best Director Some Like It Hot
1967 Best Original Screenplay The Fortune Cookie



See also


  • Armstrong, Richard, Billy Wilder, American Film Realist (McFarland & Company, Inc.: 2000)
  • Dan Auiler, "Some Like it Hot" (Taschen, 2001)
  • Chandler, Charlotte, Nobody's Perfect. Billy Wilder. A Personal Biography (New York: Schuster & Schuster, 2002)
  • Crowe, Cameron, Conversations with Wilder (New York: Knopf, 2001)
  • Guilbert, Georges-Claude, Literary Readings of Billy Wilder (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007)
  • Hermsdorf, Daniel, Billy Wilder. Filme - Motive - Kontroverses (Bochum: Paragon-Verlag, 2006)
  • Hopp, Glenn, Billy Wilder (Pocket Essentials: 2001)
  • Hopp, Glenn / Duncan, Paul, Billy Wilder (Köln / New York: Taschen, 2003)
  • Horton, Robert, Billy Wilder Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2001)
  • Jacobs, Jérôme, Billy Wilder (Paris: Rivages Cinéma, 2006)
  • Lally, Kevin, Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder (Henry Holt & Co: 1st ed edition, May 1996)
  • Sikov, Ed, On Sunset Boulevard. The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (New York: Hyperion, 1999)
  • Neil Sinyard & Adrian Turner, "Journey Down Sunset Boulevard" (BCW, Isle of Wight, UK, 1979)
  • Wood, Tom, The Bright Side of Billy Wilder, Primarily (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1969)
  • Zolotow, Maurice, Billy Wilder in Hollywood (Pompton Plains: Limelight Editions, 2004)
  • Hellmuth Karasek, Billy Wilder, eine Nahaufnahme (Heyne, 2002)

External links

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