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, 1906 – March 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.
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.
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".
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 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).
|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|
|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|
|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|