Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder

Born in Sucha, Galicia, Austria, Wilder was raised in a Jewish family by his father, Max, a successful businessman and hotel proprietor who owned a popular cake shop in his hometown's train station, and his mother, Eugenie, a homemaker who later died at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust. Unable to be lured into the family business, Wilder instead chose the path of becoming a writer and dropped out of the University to work as a journalist at the tabloid Die Stunde, where he wrote interviews, as well as crime and sports stories. He moved to Berlin when he was 20 years old and continued working as a stringer for various local newspapers while allegedly moonlighting as a dancer. At this time, Wilder began moving toward screenwriting and co-wrote "Menschen am Sonntag" ("People on Sunday") (1929), which brought him into collaboration with future Hollywood players Robert and Curt Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann. That same year, he joined his collaborators at UFA, Germany's premiere film studio at the time, where Wilder enjoyed a number of successes, including Gerhard Lamprecht's "Emil und die Detektive" (1931) and "Der Mann, der Seinen Morder Sucht" (1931), which reunited him with Siodmak.In 1933, Wilder fled Germany after Adolf Hitler's rise to power and settled for a short time in Paris, where he directed his first film, "Mauvaise Graine" ("Bad Blood") (1934), a comedy about a carefree young man (Pierre Mingland) who falls out of favor with his wealthy father and becomes involved in a gang of car thieves, particularly with their decoy (Danielle Darrieux). Wilder left Paris for Hollywood before the film's release, where he continued working as a screenwriter, receiving his first American credit on "Adorable" (1933). After a rough start due to his lack of English, Wilder effectively launched his Hollywood career with "Once Exciting Adventure" (1934) and "Music in the Air" (1934), starring Gloria Swanson. He had his first taste of success when Paramount producer Arthur Hornblower matched him with veteran screenwriter Charles Brackett on Ernst Lubitsch's "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" (1938), inaugurating a storied partnership that would go on to produce 14 screenplays and earn the pair two shared Academy Awards. Running his innumerable ideas past Brackett - the more gentlemanly of the two who often bristled at his more profane partner - Wilder enjoyed an incredibly volatile relationship with his co-writer behind closed doors, but the two joined forces to terrorize Paramount's front office and make life miserable for actors and directors who took liberties with their scripts. In the end, however, their personal and cultural differences proved too insurmountable and the pair disbanded in 1950. Wilder and Brackett wrote a second screenplay for Lubitsch, "Ninotchka" (1939), which provided German-born star Greta Garbo with the wonderfully comic role of an icy Russian agent who melts for a playboy (Melvyn Douglas) who makes her famously laugh onscreen. The hit film earned the two writers their first Academy Award nomination. They went on to earn two more nominations for Howard Hawks' "Ball of Fire" (1941) and Mitchell Leisen's "Hold Back the Dawn" (1941) - the latter director Wilder deemed incompetent. Itching to try his hand at directing again, Wilder was given his chance with "The Major and the Minor" (1942), a sparkling farce about a young woman (Ginger Rogers) who pretends to be a 12-year-old to save train fare and finds herself under the wing of an Army major (Ray Milland) who protects her from the unwanted romantic intentions, only to find her falling in love with him. The picture proved to be a hit with audiences and critics, allowing Wilder to make his second picture, "Five Graves to Cairo" (1943), a war-time thriller starring Erich von Stroheim as German Field Marshal Rommel that proved to be another box office success and firmly established Wilder as a director to watch.Wilder went from promising new talent to irrefutable legend with his next picture, "Double Indemnity" (1944), often hailed as the greatest example of film noir ever made. Co-written with Raymond Chandler, the sharply focused study of human weakness in the face of lust and greed starred Fred MacMurray as a morally weak insurance salesman who is lured into an illicit affair with a calculating married woman (Barbara Stanwyck), only to find himself embroiled in a plot to killer her oil baron husband for the insurance money. Cynical and unsentimental, "Double Indemnity" featured superb performances from MacMurray, Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson - all of whom were playing uncharacteristic roles - and earned seven Academy Award nominations. Despite not winning any, the film came to define film noir and lived on as an all-time classic. Wilder followed with "The Lost Weekend" (1945), a stark drama about a hopeless alcoholic writer (Ray Milland) who sees his life spiral out of control on a weekend bender. This time Wilder went home with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay, the last he shared with Brackett.Immediately following the conclusion of World War II, Wilder returned to Germany as a civilian with the rank of colonel to serve in the Psychological Warfare Division of the U.S. Army and, while working under CBS president William Paley, wrote a 400-page manual to help reconstruct the German film industry. The bewildering moral climate of the late 1940s was brilliantly captured in his biting political satire "A Foreign Affair" (1948), starring Marlene Dietrich as a torch singer with a Nazi past and straight-arrow Jean Arthur investigating black marketeering in post-war Berlin. Apparently, the post-war public was not ready to face such irreverence with wounds still fresh, which left Wilder's cynical film largely forgotten. Following his one and only try at musical comedy with "The Emperor Waltz" (1948), starring Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine, Wilder directed arguably his best film, "Sunset Boulevard" (1950), a stunning film noir with deadpan humor about Joe Gillis, a struggling Hollywood writer (William Holden) hired by an aging silent screen star (Gloria Swanson) to writer her comeback picture, only to find himself a virtual prisoner in her gloomy 1920s mansion. Filmed in almost musty film noir black-and-white, "Sunset Boulevard" brilliantly featured Swanson's faded star Norma Desmond - allegedly named after scandal-laden stars Mabel Normand and William Desmond Taylor - as wallowing in isolation and delusion with endlessly quotable lines like "I am big! It's the pictures that got small!" and "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" as she descended the staircase the in the film's closing moment, accused of Gillis' murder. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, Wilder and Brackett won for Best Screenplay, though it would be their last collaboration together.Sans Brackett, Wilder was responsible for one of the darkest pictures ever to come from a commercial studio, "Ace in the Hole " (1951), starring Kirk Douglas as an embittered reporter who stumbles on the story of a man trapped in a cave-in and ruthlessly exploits the human interest angle by postponing a rescue for six days. As vast crowds and a carnival gather, the trapped man dies - a result of Wilder offering not one shred of human compassion or hope. The film was a flop, perhaps because its cynical tone was decades ahead of its time. He next directed the seminal World War II drama, "Stalag 17" (1953), which starred William Holden as an antisocial prisoner suspected of being an informer inside a Nazi camp. Wilder earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director, while Holden went on to win for Best Actor. The film itself was hailed by critics as one of the greatest World War II POW movies ever made. The director found himself nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay once again for the lighthearted romantic comedy, "Sabrina" (1954), which starred Audrey Hepburn as the daughter of a wealthy family's chauffeur who goes away to school in Paris and returns a blossomed young woman, which leads to the family's two sons (Holden and Humphrey Bogart) to vie for her amorous attention. Though a bit more superficial and certainly not cynical like his best work, "Sabrina" nonetheless possessed his typically witty dialogue and a fairy-tale sense of possibility.With "Sabrina," Wilder entered a creative period in which he left behind his downbeat cynicism in favor of more lighthearted comedies that delivered some of the best movies he had to offer. He collaborated for the first time with Marilyn Monroe on "The Seven Year Itch" (1955), which featured the buxom bombshell as a naïve model who attracts the attention of a book publisher (Tom Ewell) alone in Manhattan and fantasizing about his new neighbor after his family has been packed off for summer vacation. Both a big hit and positively received by critics, "Seven Year Itch" offered one of cinema's most iconic images, that of Monroe's white dress blowing up above her knees as she stood over a subway grate. Wilder followed up that success with "The Spirit of St Louis" (1957), a rather uneven biopic of Charles Lindbergh (James Stewart) that was a commercial failure, and the better received courtroom drama "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957), starring Tyron Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton.Wilder began his second great writing partnership with I.A.L. Diamond - a collaboration that lasted 12 films over the course of 24 years - on the elegant romantic comedy "Love in the Afternoon" (1957), an emphatic tribute to Ernst Lubitsch that showcased Gary Cooper as a wealthy businessman and Audrey Hepburn as a private eye's daughter whose snooping leads to her masquerading as a wealthy girl to attract his charms. The second project between Wilder and Diamond was the delightful, gender-bending comedy of errors, "Some Like It Hot" (1959), which starred Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as two bumbling musicians who accidentally witness the St. Valentine's Day mob murders and go on the lam disguised as women with an all-female band, with both ultimately falling for their sultry singer (Marilyn Monroe). A monster success at the box office, "Some Like It Hot" offered Monroe the best role of her career while earning six Academy Award nominations, including another nod for Wilder as Best Director. The film was a screwball masterpiece right to the end when Lemmon, taking off his wig and declaring himself a man to stop from marrying an amorous millionaire (Joe E. Brown), prompts the famous last line, "Well, nobody's perfect," thus capping a film widely considered one of the greatest comedies ever made.Although Wilder and Diamond would co-write all the director's subsequent work, they reached their pinnacle - both awards-wise and creatively - on "The Apartment" (1960), a quiet, sad, often bitter comedy about the perennial conflict between love and money that earned Wilder three Academy Awards for producing, directing and writing. Art director Alexander Trauner, a collaborator on five other Wilder efforts, contributed handsomely, picking up an Oscar for designing the dehumanizing interior of the vast insurance office with its geometric rows of desks and clicking business machines. Again on display was the moral frailty of the cheating boss (MacMurray) and the spineless insurance clerk (Lemmon) who lends out his apartment to his superiors for their extra-marital affairs, obtaining a promotion and the coveted key to the executive washroom. Love wins out in the end, however, when Lemmon gets his girl, the pixie-ish Shirley MacLaine, showing for the first time the depth of her talent as MacMurray's discarded mistress. MacMurray received so much negative mail as the perfect heel that he never again took a role where his character could be questioned.Wilder's hot streak continued with the machine-gun paced comedy "One, Two, Three" (1961), starring James Cagney as a West Berlin-based Coca-Cola executive, and "Irma La Douce" (1963), the overly-long, but still successful music-less film based on a French musical about an inept cop (Lemmon) who falls for a prostitute (MacLaine). "Kiss Me, Stupid" (1964), condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for allowing adultery to go unpunished, began his commercial slide and marked the end to a fruitful period the likes of which few, if any directors before or since have experienced. With the improbably positive ending of the otherwise savage satire "The Fortune Cookie" (1966), some critics had declared that Wilder's time had passed. Still, the film was notable for being the first onscreen pairing between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, the latter of whom suffered a heart attack during production, shutting down the film for weeks. After working as an uncredited writer on the James Bond spoof, "Casino Royale" (1967), he directed "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" (1970), a mystery that focused less on the plot of a murder and more on the sordid details of Holmes' personal foibles. Though well-received by critics, the film failed at the box office.Throughout the 1970s, Wilder struggled to write and direct another financial hit, though the films he directed in this waning period grew in stature over time. His amusing comedy "Avanti!" (1972), about a wealthy American businessman (Lemmon) traveling to Italy to claim his father's dead body, only to fall for his father's mistress (Juliet Mills), earned mild critical praise and several Golden Globe nominations. Working again with Lemmon and Matthau, Wilder directed "The Front Page" (1974), a remake of the 1931 Lewis Milestone comedy that earned mixed reviews and little fanfare. After reuniting with Holden in the old-fashioned drama, "Fedora" (1978), Wilder directed his final film, "Buddy, Buddy" (1981), an unfocused comedy with Lemmon and Matthau bumbling about as a failed suicide and a hitman, respectively, that failed at the box office and put an end to Wilder's career. The string of financial disappointments forced a reluctant Wilder into retirement, though he remained a vibrant link to classic Hollywood, always ready to oblige with a trademark quip, especially when accepting the many lifetime achievement awards that came his way, including the AFI Life Achievement Award and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. In fact, Wilder stayed visible - and alive - for the next two decades, living until he was 95, when he died on March 27, 2002 from pneumonia while battling a number of ailments, including cancer. A marvelous director of actors, he coaxed career performances out of Milland, Swanson, Holden, Curtis, Lemmon, Monroe and Rogers, and brought to the screen a sharp satirical eye for absurdity and cruelty. Whether they where dark and cynical or lighthearted and carefree, his movies were all marked by intelligence and affection, leaving no doubt that Wilder was a master storyteller with a great ear for a memorable line.By Shawn Dwyer