Billy Wilder

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Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder.jpg
Samuel Wilder

(1906-06-22)June 22, 1906
DiedMarch 27, 2002(2002-03-27) (aged 95)
  • Director
  • producer
  • screenwriter
Years active1929–1981
Judith Coppicus
(m. 1936;div. 1946)

(m. 1949)
Relatives W. Lee Wilder (brother)

Billy Wilder ( /ˈwldər/ ; German: [ˈvɪldɐ] ; born Samuel Wilder; June 22, 1906 – March 27, 2002) was an Austrian-American film director, producer and screenwriter. His career in Hollywood spanned five decades, and he is regarded as one of the most brilliant and versatile filmmakers for Classical Hollywood cinema.


He became a screenwriter while living in Berlin. After the rise of the Nazi Party, he moved to Paris, due to rampant antisemitism and discrimination against the Jewish people. He moved to Hollywood in 1933, and had a major hit when he wrote the screenplay with Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch for the Academy Award nominated film Ninotchka (1939). Wilder established his directorial reputation with an adaptation of James M. Cain's Double Indemnity (1944), a film noir. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with crime novelist Raymond Chandler. Wilder earned the Best Director and Best Screenplay Academy Awards for the adaptation of a Charles R. Jackson story, The Lost Weekend (1945).

In the 1950s, Wilder directed a string of critically acclaimed films, including the Hollywood drama film Sunset Boulevard (1950), the noir film Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), and Sabrina (1954). Wilder directed three films in 1957, including The Spirit of St. Louis , Love in the Afternoon and Witness for the Prosecution . Wilder collaborated with Marilyn Monroe on a few films, including The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959). [1]

In the 1960s, Wilder directed the romance film The Apartment (1960), which received a critical and commercial success. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, with Wilder becoming the first person to win Academy Awards as producer, director and screenwriter. Toward the end of his career, Wilder directed a few comedy films, starring Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Other films including One, Two, Three (1961), Irma la Douce (1963), The Fortune Cookie (1966), Avanti! (1972), The Front Page (1974) and Buddy Buddy (1981). Over his film career, Wilder directed fourteen actors in Oscar-nominated performances.

Wilder has received various honours over his distinguished career including the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1986, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1988, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1990, and the National Medal of Arts in 1993. He also received the British Academy Film Award Fellowship Award, the Directors Guild of America's Lifetime Achievement Award, the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement, and the Producers Guild of America's Lifetime Achievement Award. [2] Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment are included in the AFI's greatest American films of all time. [3] As of 2019, 10 of his films are preserved in the United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". [4]

Early life

Samuel Wilder (Yiddish : שמואל וִילדֶרShmuel Vildr [5] ) was born on June 22, 1906 [6] to a family of Polish Jews in Sucha Beskidzka, [7] a small town which, at that time, belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents were Eugenia (née Dittler) and Max Wilder. He was nicknamed "Billie" by his mother (he changed this to "Billy" after arriving in America). His brother, W. Lee Wilder, was also a filmmaker. His parents had a successful and well-known cake shop in Sucha's train station and unsuccessfully tried to persuade their son to join the family business. After the family moved to Vienna, Wilder became a journalist, instead of attending the University of Vienna. In 1926, jazz band leader Paul Whiteman was on tour in Vienna when he met and was interviewed by Wilder, a fan of Whiteman's band. [8] Whiteman liked young Wilder enough that he took him with the band to Berlin, where Wilder was able to make more connections in the entertainment field. Before achieving success as a writer, he worked as a taxi dancer in Berlin. [9] [10]


Early work

Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka Douglas-Ninotchka.jpg
Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka

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. From 1929 to 1933 he produced twelve German films. He collaborated with several other novices (with Fred Zinnemann and Robert Siodmak) on the 1929 film People on Sunday . He wrote the screenplay for the 1931 film adaptation of a novel by Erich Kästner, Emil and the Detectives , also screenplays for the comedy The Man in Search of His Murderer (1931), the operetta Her Grace Commands (1931) and the comedy A Blonde Dream (1932), all of them produced in the Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam near Berlin. [11] In 1932 Wilder collaborated with the writer and journalist Felix Salten on the screenplay for "Scampolo". [12] After Adolf Hitler's rise to power, Wilder went to Paris, where he made his directorial debut film Mauvaise Graine (1934). He relocated to Hollywood prior to its release.[ citation needed ] Wilder's mother, grandmother and stepfather were all victims of the Holocaust. For decades it was assumed that it happened at Auschwitz Concentration Camp, but while researching Polish and Israeli archives, his Austrian biographer Andreas Hutter discovered in 2011 that they were murdered in different locations: his mother, Eugenia "Gitla" Siedlisker, in 1943 at Plaszow; his stepfather, Bernard "Berl" Siedlisker, in 1942 at Belzec; and his grandmother, Balbina Baldinger, died in 1943 in the ghetto in Nowy Targ. [13]

After arriving in Hollywood in 1933, Wilder continued working as a screenwriter. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1939, having spent time in Mexico waiting for the government after his six-month card had expired in 1934, an episode reflected in his 1941 Hold Back the Dawn . [14] Wilder's first significant success was Ninotchka in 1939, a collaboration with fellow German immigrant Ernst Lubitsch. This romantic 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 marked Wilder's first Academy Award nomination, which he shared with co-writer Charles Brackett (although their collaboration on Bluebeard's Eighth Wife and Midnight had been well received). Wilder co-wrote many of his films with Brackett from 1938 to 1950. He followed Ninotchka with a series of box office hits in 1942, including Hold Back the Dawn, Ball of Fire , and his directorial debut film The Major and the Minor .


Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity Double-Indemnity-LIFE-1944-2.jpg
Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity

His third film as director, the murder mystery Double Indemnity (1945) starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson was a major hit. A film noir , nominated for Best Director and Screenplay, it was co-written by Raymond Chandler, though they did not get along. The film is not only set conventions for the noir genre (such as "venetian blind" lighting and voice-over narration), but a landmark in the battle against Hollywood censorship. Based on James M. Cain's novel, it featured two love triangles and a murder plotted for insurance money. While the book was popular with the reading public, it had been considered unfilmable under the Hays Code, because adultery was central to the plot. The film is credited by some as the first true film noir, combining the stylistic elements of Citizen Kane with the narrative elements of The Maltese Falcon .

In 1945, the Psychological Warfare Department of the United States Department of War produced an American propaganda documentary film directed by Wilder. The film known as Death Mills , or Die Todesmühlen, was intended for German audiences to educate them about the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. For the German version, Die Todesmühlen, Hanuš Burger is credited as the writer and director, while Wilder supervised the editing. Wilder is credited with the English-language version.

Two years later, Wilder the adaptation of a Charles R. Jackson story, The Lost Weekend . The film was the first major American film to make a serious examination of alcoholism, another difficult theme under the Production Code. The film starred Ray Milland as the central character Don Birnam who struggles with alcoholism against the protestations of his girlfriend played by Jane Wyman. The film earned critical acclaim when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and competed in the main competition where it received the Festival's top prize, the prestigious Palme d'Or. and four Academy Awards including for Best Picture. Wilder himself earned the Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay and Milland won Best Actor. The film remains one of only three films to have won both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d' Or alongside Delbert Mann's Marty (1955), and Bong Joon-ho's Parasite (2019).


Gloria Swanson with Wilder onset of Sunset Boulevard Gloria Swanson & Billy Wilder - ca. 1950.JPG
Gloria Swanson with Wilder onset of Sunset Boulevard

In 1950, Wilder co-wrote and directed the cynical dark noir comedy film Sunset Boulevard . It follows a reclusive silent film actress (Gloria Swanson), who dreams of a comeback with delusions of her greatness from a bygone era. She accompanies an aspiring screenwriter (William Holden), who becomes her gigolo partner. This critically acclaimed film marked the final film Wilder collaborated with Charles Brackett. The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, together Wilder and Brackett won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

In 1951, Wilder directed Ace in the Hole (a.k.a. The Big Carnival) starring Kirk Douglas in a tale of media exploitation of a caving accident. The idea had been pitched over the phone to Wilder's secretary by Victor Desny. Desny sued Wilder for breach of an implied contract in the California copyright case Wilder v Desny, ultimately receiving a settlement of $14,350. [15] [16] Although a critical and commercial failure at the time, its reputation has grown over the years. Wilder directed two adaptations of Broadway plays, including Stalag 17 and Agatha Christie's mystery Witness for the Prosecution . He was interested in doing a film with one of the classic slapstick comedy acts of the Hollywood Golden Age. He first considered, and rejected, a project to star Laurel and Hardy. He held discussions with Groucho Marx concerning a new Marx Brothers comedy, tentatively titled "A Day at the U.N." The project was abandoned after Chico Marx died in 1961. [17]

In 1954, he released the romantic comedy Sabrina starring Audrey Hepburn (their first collaboration), Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden. The film revolves around a young chauffeur's daughter who has a crush on a playboy, until she develops a relationship with the older more serious brother. Hepburn won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. Wilder received a Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay nomination along with Golden Globe Award and Writers Guild of America Awards for his screenplay. Wilder reunited with Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon (1957). In the film, a young and innocent (Hepburn) does not wish to be young or innocent with playboy Gary Cooper, and pretends to be a married woman in search of extramarital amusement. The film was Wilder's first collaboration with writer and producer, I. A. L. Diamond.

Curtis, Lemmon and Monroe in Some Like it Hot Some like it hot film poster.jpg
Curtis, Lemmon and Monroe in Some Like it Hot

Wilder later directed the comedy films, [1] including his first collaboration with Marilyn Monroe in the comedy The Seven Year Itch (1955). The film revolves around a faithful husband (Tom Ewell) with an overactive imagination as he is tempted by a beautiful neighbour played by Monroe. It contains one of the most iconic images of the 20th century – Monroe standing on a subway grate as her white dress is blown upwards by a passing train.

In 1959, Wilder reunited with Monroe in the United Artists released Prohibition-era farce Some Like It Hot . The film was released without however, a Production Code seal of approval, withheld due to the film's unabashed sexual comedy, including a central cross-dressing theme. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play musicians who disguise themselves as women to escape pursuit by a Chicago gang. Curtis's character courts a singer played by Monroe, while Lemmon is wooed by Joe E. Brown  setting up the film's final joke in which Lemmon reveals that his character is a man and Brown blandly replies "Well, nobody's perfect". A box office success, the film was lightly regarded during its original release. But its critical reputation grew prodigiously; in 2000, the American Film Institute selected it as the best American comedy ever made. [18] In 2012, the British Film Institute decennial Sight and Sound poll of the world's film critics rated it as the 43rd best movie ever made, and the second-highest-ranking comedy. [19]


Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment The apartment trailer 1.JPG
Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment

In 1960, Wilder directed the comedy romance film The Apartment . It follows an insurance clerk (Lemmon), who allows his coworkers to use his apartment to conduct extra-marital affairs until he meets an elevator woman (Shirley MacLaine). The film was a critical success with The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, who called the film "gleeful, tender, and even sentimental" and Wilder's direction "ingenious". [20] and received ten Academy Awards nominations receiving five awards including three for Wilder, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

Wilder directed the Cold War political farce film One, Two, Three (1961), which starred James Cagney where the film won critical praised with Variety writing, "Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three is a fast-paced, high-pitched, hard-hitting, lighthearted farce crammed with topical gags and spiced with satirical overtones. Story is so furiously quick-witted that some of its wit gets snarled and smothered in overlap." [21]

It was followed by films including the romantic comedy Irma la Douce (1963) reuniting Lemmon and MacLaine. The film was the fifth highest grossing film of the year. Wilder received a Writers Guild of America Award nomination for his screenplay. Wilder directed the sex comedy film Kiss Me, Stupid , which starred Dean Martin and Kim Novak. The film was criticized by critics for its vulgarity, with Bosley Crowther blaming the film for giving American movies the reputation of "deliberate and degenerate corruptors of public taste and morals". [22] A. H. Weiler of the New York Times called the film "pitifully unfunny". In 1966, Wilder gained his final Academy Award nomination for his screenplay, and a Writers Guild of America Award nomination for the film The Fortune Cookie . It was the first film Lemmon collaborated with Walter Matthau. The film entitled as Meet Whiplash Willie in the United Kingdom. He directed The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes , which was intended as a major roadshow release, but was heavily cut by the studio and was not restored.[ citation needed ]

Final films

In 1972, he directed the comedy film Avanti! , which follows a businessman (Lemmon) attempting to deliver the body of his father from Italy. Wilder received two Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Director, and Best Screenplay as well as a Writers Guild of America Award nomination. Wilder directed the black comedy film The Front Page based on broadway. The film was a significant financial success with low budget. His final films, Fedora and Buddy Buddy , failed to impress critics or the public, although Fedora has since been re-evaluated and is now considered favorably. [23] Wilder had hoped to make Schindler's List as his final film, saying "I wanted to do it as a kind of memorial to my mother and my grandmother and my stepfather," who had all died in the Holocaust. [24] [25]

Directorial style

Wilder's directorial choices reflected his belief in the primacy of writing. He avoided, especially in the second half of his career, 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 films have tight plotting and memorable dialogue. Despite his conservative directorial style, his subject matter often pushed the boundaries of mainstream entertainment. Once a subject was chosen, he would begin to visualize in terms of specific artists. His belief was that no matter how talented the actor, none were without limitations and the end result would be better if you bent the script to their personality rather than force a performance beyond their limitations. [26] 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 had wanted to make his character more likable; Wilder refused). Wilder sometimes cast against type for major parts such as Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and The Apartment . MacMurray had become Hollywood's highest-paid actor portraying a decent, thoughtful character in light comedies, melodramas, and musicals; Wilder cast him as a womanizing schemer. 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 coaxed a very effective performance out of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot . [ citation needed ]

In total, he directed fourteen different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity , Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend , William Holden in Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17 , Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim and Nancy Olson in Sunset Boulevard, Robert Strauss in Stalag 17, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina , Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution , Elsa Lanchester in Witness for the Prosecution, Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot and The Apartment , Jack Kruschen in The Apartment , Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment and Irma la Douce and Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie . Milland, Holden and Matthau won Oscars for their performances in Wilder's films. Wilder mentored Jack Lemmon, and was the first director to pair him with Matthau in The Fortune Cookie . Wilder had great respect for Lemmon, calling him the hardest working actor he had ever met. They worked on all seven films. [ citation needed ]

Wilder opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He co-created the “Committee for the First Amendment”, of 500 Hollywood personalities and stars to “support those professionals called upon to testify before the HUAC who had classified themselves as hostile with regard to the interrogations and the interrogators”. Some anti-Communists wanted those in the cinema industry to take oaths of allegiance. The Screen Directors Guild had a vote by show of hands. Only John Huston and Wilder opposed. Huston said, "I am sure it was one of the bravest things that Billy, as a naturalized German, had ever done. There were 150 to 200 directors at this meeting, and here Billy and I sat alone with our hands raised in protest against the loyalty oath." [27]

Wilder was not affected by the Hollywood blacklist. Of the blacklisted 'Hollywood Ten' Wilder said, "Of the ten, two had talent, and the rest were just unfriendly." [27] In general, Wilder disliked formula and genre films. [28]

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 just as sore." Later, she gives the overbearing and unsmiling housemaid the name "Franco".

Wilder is sometimes confused with director William Wyler. Both were German-speaking Jews with similar backgrounds and names. However, their output as directors was quite different: Wyler preferred to direct epics and heavy dramas, while Wilder was noted for his comedies and film noir type dramas.


Wilder in 1989 BW1989 crop.jpg
Wilder in 1989

Wilder was recognized with the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1986. In 1988, Wilder was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. In 1993, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Wilder became well known for owning one of the finest and most extensive art collections in Hollywood, mainly collecting modern art. As he described it in the mid-80s, "It's a sickness. I don't know how to stop myself. Call it bulimia if you want – or curiosity or passion. I have some Impressionists, some Picassos from every period, some mobiles by Calder. I also collect tiny Japanese trees, glass paperweights, and Chinese vases. Name an object and I collect it." [29] [30] Wilder's artistic ambitions led him to create a series of works of his own. By the early '90s, Wilder had amassed many plastic-artistic constructions, many of which were made in collaboration with artist Bruce Houston. In 1993, art dealer Louis Stern, a longtime friend, helped organize an exhibition of Wilder's work at his Beverly Hills gallery. The exhibition was titled Billy Wilder's Marché aux Puces and the Variations on the Theme of Queen Nefertete segment was an unqualified crowd pleaser. This series featured busts of the Egyptian queen wrapped à la Christo, or splattered à la Jackson Pollock, or sporting a Campbell's soup can in homage to Andy Warhol. [31]

Personal life and death

Wilder married Judith Coppicus on December 22, 1936. The couple had twins, Victoria and Vincent (born 1939), but Vincent died shortly after birth. They divorced in 1946. Wilder met Audrey Young while filming The Lost Weekend. They were married on June 30, 1949. [32] Wilder died of cancer and pneumonia on March 27, 2002. He was buried at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary. [33] The French newspaper, Le Monde , titled the front-page obituary and Wilder's quote. [34]


Wilder's gravestone Billy Wilders grave (978339409).jpg
Wilder's gravestone

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 and the Marx Brothers, he leads the list of films on the American Film Institute's list of 100 funniest American films with five films written as well as having the honor of holding the top spot on it 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 American Film Institute 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). For the tenth anniversary edition of their list, the AFI moved Sunset Boulevard to No. 16, Some Like it Hot to No. 22, Double Indemnity to No. 29 and The Apartment to No. 80. Wilder was ranked 6th in director's poll on Sight & Sound's 2002 list of The Greatest Directors of All Time. [35] In 1996, Entertainment Weekly ranked Wilder at No. 24 in its "50 Greatest Directors" list. [36] [37] Wilder was ranked at No. 19 on Empire magazine's "Top 40 Greatest Directors of All-Time" list in 2005. [36] In 2007, Total Film magazine ranked Wilder at No. 13 on its "100 Greatest Film Directors Ever" list. [38] Wilder was voted at No. 4 on the "Greatest Directors of 20th Century" poll conducted by Japanese film magazine kinema Junpo .

Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba said in his acceptance speech when Belle Époque won the 1993 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film: "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." French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius also thanked Billy Wilder in the 2012 Best Picture Oscar acceptance speech for The Artist by saying "I would like to thank the following three people, I would like to thank Billy Wilder, I would like to thank Billy Wilder, and I would like to thank Billy Wilder." Wilder's 12 Academy Award nominations for screenwriting were a record until 1997 when Woody Allen received a 13th nomination for Deconstructing Harry . In 2017 named Wilder the greatest screenwriter of all time. [39]


Awards and honors

Wilder received twenty one nominations at the Academy Awards, winning six. In total, he received thirteen nominations for his screenwriting, and eight for his direction. He won both the Academy Award for Best Director and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for both The Lost Weekend (1945), and The Apartment (1960). The former was awarded the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film at the Cannes Film Festival, and the latter also won him the BAFTA Award for Best Film. Wilder garnered eight Directors Guild of America Award nominations with the sole win for his work on The Apartment. He received seven nominations at the Golden Globe Awards, winning Best Director for The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard (1950). He won seven Writers Guild of America Awards including two Laurel Awards for Screenwriting Achievement. He garnered lifetime achievement awards including the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, the BAFTA Fellowship, the David O. Selznick Achievement Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures, and the Honorary Golden Bear from the Berlin International Film Festival.


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