Wilder, Billy

views updated May 29 2018

Billy Wilder


Born June 22, 1906, in Sucha, Austria (now part of Poland); immigrated to France, 1933; immigrated to the United States, 1934, naturalized citizen, 1939; died of pneumonia March 27, 2002, in Beverly Hills, CA; son of Max (a businessman) and Eugenie (Dittler) Wilder; married Judith Coppicus Iribe, December 20, 1936 (divorced, 1947); married Audrey Young, June 30, 1949; children: (first marriage) Victoria. Education: Attended University of Vienna, 1924. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish.


Journalist, screenwriter, producer, and director of motion pictures. Die Stunde (newspaper), Vienna, Austria, reporter and feature writer, 1925-26; freelance writer and contributor of articles to German publications, including Berliner Zeitung am Mittag, Die Nachtausgabe, Tempo, and Börsenkurier, Berlin, Germany, 1927-29; UFA (motion picture company), Berlin, screenwriter, 1928-33; Paramount Pictures, Hollywood, CA, screenwriter and director, 1936-54; screenwriter, director, and producer of motion pictures, beginning 1954. Director of motion pictures, including (co-director) Mauvaise Graine, 1933; The Major and the Minor, 1942; Double Indemnity, 1944; The Lost Weekend, 1945; Sunset Boulevard, 1950; Ace in the Hole, 1951; Stalag 17, 1953; Some Like It Hot, 1959; The Apartment, 1960; Irma La Douce, 1963; Avanti!, 1972; Fedora, 1978; and Buddy Buddy, 1981. Military service: U.S. Army, 1945; head of film section, Psychological Warfare Division, stationed in American Zone, Germany; became colonel.

Awards, Honors

Academy Award nominations, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1939, for Ninotchka, 1941, for Hold Back the Dawn, 1944, for Double Indemnity, 1948, for A Foreign Affair, 1951, for Ace in the Hole, 1954, for Sabrina, 1959, for Some Like It Hot, and 1966, for The Fortune Cookie; Academy Award, 1945, for best screenplay and best director for The Lost Weekend, 1950, for best story and screenplay for Sunset Boulevard, and 1960, for best screenplay, best director, and producer of best picture for The Apartment; Palme d'Or, Cannes Film Festival, 1946, for The Lost Weekend; Writers Guild of America awards, 1957, for Love in the Afternoon, 1959, for Some Like It Hot, and 1960, for The Apartment; New York Film Critics award, 1960, for The Apartment; Irving Thalberg Award, Motion Picture Academy, and Life Achievement Award, American Film Institute, both 1988.



(With I. A. L. Diamond) Love in the Afternoon, Enterprise Printers & Stationers, 1957.

(With I. A. L. Diamond) Some Like It Hot, New American Library, 1959.

(With I. A. L. Diamond) Irma La Douce, Tower, 1963.

(With I. A. L. Diamond) The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie: Two Screenplays, Praeger, 1971.

(With Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch) Ninotchka, Viking, 1972.

(With I. A. L. Diamond) Stalag 17, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1999.

(With I. A. L. Diamond) Sunset Boulevard, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1999.

(With Raymond Chandler) Double Indemnity, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2000.

(With Charles Brackett) The Lost Weekend, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2000.


Der Teufelsreporter (title means "The Devil's Reporter"), Universal (Germany), 1929.

Menschen am Sonntag (title means "People on Sunday"), Filmstudio Germania, 1929.

(With Ludwig Hirschfeld and Kurt Siodmak) Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (title means "The Man Who Looked for His Murderer"; adapted from the play by Ernst Neubach), UFA, 1931.

(With Paul Franck and Robert Liebmann) Ihre Hoheit Befiehlt (title means "Her Highness's Command"), UFA, 1931.

(With Paul Franck) Der falsche Ehemann (title means "The Wrong Husband"), UFA, 1931.

Emil und die Detektive (title means "Emil and the Detectives"; adapted from the story by Erich Kastner), UFA, 1931.

Es war einmal ein Walzer (title means "Once There Was a Waltz"), Aafa-Film AG, 1932.

(With Walter Reisch) Ein blonder Traum (title means "A Fairer Dream"), UFA, 1932.

(With Max Kolpe) Das Blaue vom Himmel (title means "The Blue from the Sky"), Aafa-Film AG, 1932.

(With Max Kolpe) Madame wünscht keine Kinder (title means "Madame Wants No Children"; adapted from the novel by Clement Vautel), Lothar-Stark-Film, 1933.

(With Franz Schulz) Was Frauen traumen (title means "What Women Dream"; adapted from the novel by Emil Hosler), Superfilm-Hayman, 1933.

(With Alexander Esway and H. G. Lustig; also co-director) Mauvaise Graine (title means "The Bad Seed"), Compagnie Nouvelle Cinematographique, 1933.

(With Howard I. Young) Music in the Air (adapted from the play by Oscar Hammerstein II), Fox, 1934.

(With Franz Schulz) Lottery Lover (adapted from the story by Siegried M. Lorzig and Maurice Hanline), Fox, 1935.

(Co-author of screen story) Champagne Waltz, Paramount, 1936.

(With Charles Brackett) Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (adapted from the play by Alfred Savoir), Paramount, 1938.

(With Charles Brackett) Midnight, Paramount, 1939.

(With Charles Brackett) What a Life (adapted from the play by Clifford Goldsmith), Paramount, 1939.

(With Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch) Ninotchka, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939.

(Co-author of screen story) Rhythm on the River, Paramount, 1940.

(With Charles Brackett) Arise, My Love, Paramount, 1940.

(With Charles Brackett) Hold Back the Dawn (adapted from the novel by Ketti Frings), Paramount, 1941.

(Co-author of screen story) Ball of Fire, RKO, 1941.

(With Charles Brackett; and director) The Major and the Minor (adapted from the play by Edward Chiles Carpenter, Connie Comes Home, and the story "Sunny Goes Home" by Fannie Killbourne), Paramount, 1942.

(With Charles Brackett; and director) Five Graves to Cairo (adapted from the play by Lajos Biro, Hotel Imperial), Paramount, 1943.

(With Raymond Chandler; and director) Double Indemnity (adapted from the novel by James M. Cain), Paramount, 1944.

(With Charles Brackett; and director) The Lost Weekend (adapted from the novel by Charles R. Jackson), Paramount, 1945.

(With Charles Brackett; and director) The Emperor Waltz, Paramount, 1948.

(With Charles Brackett and Richard L. Breen; and director) A Foreign Affair, Paramount, 1948.

(With Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman, Jr.; and director) Sunset Boulevard, Paramount, 1950.

(With Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman; and director) Ace in the Hole (also released as The Big Carnival), Paramount, 1951.

(With Edwin Blum; and director) Stalag 17 (adapted from the play by Donald Bevin and Edmund Trzcinski), Paramount, 1953.

(With Samuel Taylor and Ernest Layman; and director) Sabrina (adapted from the play Sabrina Fair by Samuel Taylor), Paramount, 1954.

(With George Axelrod; and director) The Seven Year Itch (adapted from the play by Axelrod), Fox, 1955.

(With Wendell Mayes; and director) The Spirit of St. Louis (adapted from the book by Charles A. Lindbergh), Warner Bros., 1957.

(with I. A. L. Diamond; and director) Love in the Afternoon (adapted from the novel Ariane by Claude Anet), Allied Artists, 1957.

(With Harry Kurnitz; and director) Witness for the Prosecution (adapted from the play by Agatha Christie), United Artists, 1957.

(With I. A. L. Diamond; and director) Some Like It Hot (adapted from the film Fanfaren der Liebe by Robert Thoeren and M. Logan), United Artists, 1959.

(With I. A. L. Diamond; and director) The Apartment, United Artists, 1960.

(With I. A. L. Diamond; and director) One, Two, Three (adapted from the play by Ferenc Molnar), United Artists, 1961.

(With I. A. L. Diamond; and director) Irma La Douce (adapted from the musical by Alexandre Breffort), United Artists, 1963.

(With I. A. L. Diamond; and director) Kiss Me, Stupid (adapted from the play L'ora della fantasia by Anna Bonacci), Lopert, 1964.

(With I. A. L. Diamond; and director) The Fortune Cookie, United Artists, 1966.

(With I. A. L. Diamond, and director) The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), United Artists, 1970.

(With I. A. L. Diamond; and director) Avanti! (adapted from the play by Samuel Taylor), United Artists, 1972.

(With I. A. L. Diamond; and director) The Front Page (adapted from the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur), Universal, 1974.

(With I. A. L. Diamond; and director) Fedora (adapted from the novella by Thomas Tryon), United Artists, 1978.

(With I. A. L. Diamond; and director) Buddy Buddy, MGM/United Artists, 1981.


(With Cameron Crowe) Conversations with Wilder, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.

Contributor to Under Pressure, 1935.


"Although Billy Wilder won fame for directing films . . . ," noted James Moore in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "he was always a screenwriter. He never directed a film he did not write. . . . Although many of Wilder's visual-literary storytelling devicesm—mistaken identities, disguises, formal narrationm—are as old as storytelling itself and derive from his silent-film experience, his typical themes are highly personal. Over and over Wilder's characters and plots bespeak a love-hate relationship with American life and values, the duality of cynicism and sentimentality, the attraction and repulsion of moviemaking itself, and a growing preoccupation with his own body of work."

Wilder's place among the finest of American screenwriters and directors is secure. The American Film Institute lists four of Wilder's films among its top 100 films of all time: Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment. In Conversations with Wilder, fellow filmmaker Cameron Crowe summarized the older director's filmmaking career: "In his canon of work are fall-down-laughing comedies, stinging character studies, social satire, true suspense, aching romance, the best in life, the sad and the giddy, the ironic and harrowing all have equal weight in his work."

Wilder was born Samuel Wilder in Sucha, Austria, on June 22, 1906. His father, a businessman who operated a series of cafes and hotels, sometimes found himself in financial trouble. His mother, who had visited the United States, gave her son the nickname "Billy" in honor of America's Buffalo Bill. Wilder studied law at the University of Vienna to please his parents, but he soon dropped out and began a career as a newspaper journalist, where his specialty was interviewing interesting people in the news, especially sports figures. In 1926 he moved to Berlin, Germany, hoping to write scripts for that country's growing silent-film industry. By 1929, the first of his screenplays had been filmed. Wilder was on his way in his new career, and worked for Universal, Film-studio Germania, Aafa-Film AG, and finally UFA, Germany's largest film studio.

Leaves Europe for the United States

Wilder decided that it was time for him to leave Germany when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party assumed power in 1933; a left-leaning Jew, he was viewed with suspicion by the new regime. Knowing little English, and with almost no money, he headed for the United States, having won a small contract to write a screenplay for Columbia Pictures. In Hollywood, Wilder befriended German actor Peter Lorre, a fellow refugee who took his countryman under his wing. After finishing the screenplay for Columbia, Wilder endured two years of unemployment. "I kind of starved for a little bit," he once admitted. "I shared a room with Peter Lorre, and we lived on a can of soup a day." Then, in 1936, he landed a job at Paramount, and on the whim of a producer, he was teamed with Charles Brackett, a novelist and former drama critic for theNew Yorker. The two men would go on to become one of Hollywood's most famous screenwriting teams, penning fourteen consecutive hit films.

In 1939 Wilder and Brackett combined forces with Walter Reisch and director Ernst Lubitsch on the film Ninotchka. The film, now considered a classic, was envisioned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) as a comic vehicle for film star Greta Garbo. The basic plot revolves around a Soviet girl who travels to the decadent West on party business, only to discover that the West is much better than she has been led to believe. Ninotchka was a risky move in some ways, because some in the Hollywood elite were sympathetic to Soviet Russia in the late 1930s. Nonetheless, the Wilder/Brackett screenplay deals openly with the Moscow show trials in which innocent people were forced to confess to being "enemies of the state," the purges in which party faithful were forcibly removed from office and either executed or imprisoned, and the bloody Five-Year plans that pushed the Russian people to meet impossible production quotas. While the first part of the film is light romantic comedy, detailing Garbo's romance with a Parisian, the final section is relentless political satire. As Moore explained, "communist ideology is shown to be no match for love, let alone the good life." Wilder earned his first Academy Award nomination for Ninotchka.

His Academy Award success, along with a longtime dissatisfaction with how his screenplays were being filmed, pushed Wilder to take on the role of director himself. In an interview with Charles Higham, he later revealed: "I had made myself rather unpopular as a writer at Paramount because I would come on the set and they would chase me off it. I was always trying to put them right on misinterpretations." In 1942, Paramount agreed to let him direct The Major and the Minor, a comedy. Wilder knew the studio expected him to fail and thereafter behave himself. But he was careful, avoiding the "arty" route in favor of making a commercial film that made money for Paramount. From then on, Wilder always directed his own screenplays.

Film Noir Classic

During his fifty years in the film industry, Wilder was known for writing and directing several classic films in two distinct genres: comedy and film noir, the shadowy crime films filled with double crosses and twisted plots. His first film noir titlem—and one of the classics of the genrem—was the 1944 film Double Indemnity. Fred MacMurray plays a corrupt insurance salesman in love with a vicious, sex-driven Barbara Stanwyck. Together they murder Stanwyck's husband for a large insurance settlement, making it look like an accidental fall from a train. Only later do they learn that they cannot collect the money. MacMurray's friend and coworker, Edward G. Robinson, is suspicious of the so-called accident and will not let it go. The film ends with a climactic showdown between the two lovers: Stanwyck shoots MacMurray but does not have the heart to finish him off; when she lets the gun drop to the floor, MacMurray guns her down, returns to his office, and bleeds to death as he dictates the story into a machine. "Perhaps the purest, the least compromised and sensationalised of all Wilder's films, Double Indemnity retains an undiminished power," asserted Higham.

Moore found that Double Indemnity "is the first virtuoso use by Wilder of the extended flashback. . . . [T]he corrupted agent, tells virtually the whole story to his dictaphone; the voice-over narration to this flashback leads unerringly to the showdown scene with the ethical agent played by Robinson. Wilder remarked later that the device had been so effective that it rendered unnecessary the original filmed ending of MacMurray going to his execution. Double Indemity is also Wilder's first extensive story of friendship between men. In this film it is the relationship of straightforward father and wayward son that is interrupted and perverted by the worship of money and ambition, personified by a woman."

The making of Double Indemnity brought Wilder several unpleasant experiences. After a heated argument with Brackett, Wilder sought out mystery writer Raymond Chandler's assistance with the script. Their collaboration dragged on for six months in a plague of arguments, apologies, and tantrums. Despite the complications, however, Wilder earned Academy Award nominations for best screenplay and best director that year.

Wilder and Brackett's last screenplay collaboration was Sunset Boulevard. The story tells of an aging, once-popular star of silent movies, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), whose desperate dream of a come-back is lived out in a somber, run-down mansion on Sunset Boulevard. To sustain her delusions of undiminished youth and fame, she takes in down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), and fuels her delusion by reading the fan mail that, unbeknownst to her, is written by her own butler. When Gillis attempts to leave his benefactress, she shoots him in the back, and he falls dead in her swimming pool. The movie ends with a totally insane Desmond greeting a rush of newsreel cameramen, whom she mistakes for cinematographers.

Sunset Boulevard is replete with celebrated scenes. The movie opens with a riveting shot of Gillis's corpse floating face down in the pool, the camera looking up through the water at the distorted faces of policemen and photographers discovering the body. Other famous scenes include the "waxworks" card game, played by silent screen stars Anna Q. Nilsson, Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, and Gloria Swanson, and a garden funeral staged for Desmond's dead chimpanzee. "The film succeeds entirely through the application of a mannered, stylized technique so brilliantly manipulated that disbelief is totally suspended," Higham stated.

Wilder knew Sunset Boulevard would be controversial in Hollywood due to its scathing depiction of the film industry. Fearing that Paramount would kill the project if they knew about its real subject matter, he sent the studio executives weekly progress reports on a nonexistent film titled "A Can of Beans." Only when he was finished did he invite the Hollywood elite to a special screening of the film. Some film executives, including Louis B. Mayer, were furious at Wilder for his sarcastic and dark portrait of Hollywood, summarized in Desmond's classic line, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." However, among the moviegoing public, Sunset Boulevard was a huge success. The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, with Wilder taking Oscars for best writing, story and screenplay. Because the film also marked the end of the Wilder-Brackett writing team, in future films Wilder teamed up in 1956 with I. A. L. Diamond, with whom he collaborated until Diamond's death in 1988.

Directs a Masterpiece

While Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard are classics of film noir, Wilder also had great success with lighter fare, including the film many critics consider his masterpiece: Some Like It Hot. The plot concerns unemployed musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), who accidentally witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929, earning themselves the wrath of the local crime boss. To save their lives, the boys don female garb, change their names to Josephine and Daphne, and join an all-girl band bound for a Miami hotel. The desperate pair figure they can drop the female impersonating once they are safe in Florida. But along the way they meet fellow band member Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) who is hoping to marry a millionaire in Florida. Both boys are smitten with her. Having redisguised himself as a millionaire, Joe eventually wins Sugar's love, whereas Jerry finds himself engaged to Osgood, who thinks he is a woman. After accidentally witnessing another gang-land murder, Joe and Jerry make a second escape, this time in the company of Sugar and Osgood. As all four speed off in a motorboat, the movie ends with Osgood still planning marriage to Jerry.

Wilder created a darker kind of comedy in The Apartment, in which Jack Lemmon plays Bud Baxter, a corporate accountant whose apartment is conveniently close to his place of work. So close, in fact, that soon higher-ups in the company are borrowing the place for their after-work dalliances, leaving the guilty but ambitious Baxter out in the cold some nights. "Baxter is a symbol of Joe Public's complicity in corporate ethics," according to Richard Armstrong, writing on the Senses of Cinema Web site. "Harassed, understanding the way the game is played, he is nevertheless a pure-at-heart naif," Moore stated. "His female counterpart is Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the elevator operator who is carrying on a hopeless affair with the man who can get Bud promoted. All of Wilder's favorite devices work superlatively in The Apartment, including his ear for current slang and his laconic voice-over narration. There are the running gags, such as a neighbor's marveling at Bud Baxter's sexual endurance (he thinks that all the trysts in the upstairs apartment are actually Bud's). The Apartment was one of Wilder's greatest successes." He won three Oscars for writing, directing, and producing, the first time anyone had won those three major awards in one night.

Wilder was once asked by a writer for the New York Times what made a film successful. He replied: "The basic point is to bring them in and keep them awake." His own efforts to do just that were well rewarded. As Les Spindle remarked in Back Stage West, Wilder "stands among the great filmmakers of all time, boasting 21 Oscar nominations and six wins." "I was not a guy who was writing deep-dish revelations," Kyle Smith of People quoted Wilder as saying. "If people see a picture of mine and then sit down and talk about it for 15 minutes, that is a very fine reward, I think. That's good enough for me." Writing in Time, Richard Corliss admitted: "It's hard to think of another filmmaker whose pictures have given so much ripe, intelligent pleasure and are still as fresh as when he concocted them. And what about his rare failures? 'Well,' as Joe E. Brown says at the end of Some Like It Hot, when told that his fiancee is really a man, 'nobody's perfect.''

If you enjoy the works of Billy Wilder

If you enjoy the works of Billy Wilder, you may also want to check out the following:

Dial M for Murder, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1954.

A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan, 1957.

Touch of Evil, directed by Orson Welles, 1958.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Armstrong, Richard, Billy Wilder, American Film Realist, McFarland, 2000.

Chandler, Charlotte, Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, a Personal Biography, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.

Crowe, Cameron, Conversations with Wilder, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.

Dick, Bernard F., Billy Wilder, Da Capo Press (New York, NY), 1996.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 26: American Screenwriters, First Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.

Higham, Charles, and Joel Greenberg, Celluloid Muse, Regnery (Washington, DC), 1969.

Higham, Charles, The Art of the American Film, Anchor Press-Doubleday (New York, NY), 1973.

Hopp, Glenn, Billy Wilder, Pocket Essentials, 2001.

Horton, Robert, Billy Wilder: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2002.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.

Koszarski, Richard, Hollywood Directors, 1941-1976, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1977.

Lally, Kevin, Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.

Madsen, Axel, Billy Wilder, Indiana University Press, 1969.

Porfirio, Robert, Alain Silver, and James Ursini, editors, Film Noir Reader 3, Limelight Editions, 2001.

Sarris, Andrew, The American Cinema, Dutton (New York, NY), 1968.

Seidman, Steve, The Film Career of Billy Wilder, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1977.

Sikov, Ed, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1998.

Sinyard, N., and Adrian Turner, Journey down Sunset Boulevard: The Films of Billy Wilder, BCW Publishing, 1979.

Staggs, Sam, Close-up on "Sunset Boulevard": Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 2002.

Wood, Tom, The Bright Side of Billy Wilder, Primarily, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1970.

Zolotow, Maurice, Billy Wilder in Hollywood, Putnam (New York, NY), 1977.


Action, November-December, 1970, Vanessa Brown, "Billy Wilder: Broadcast to Kuala Lampur."

American Film, March, 1986, C. Columbus, interview with Wilder.

Architectural Digest, April, 1994, "Billy Wilder: Sunset Boulevard's Creator Talks of the Town."

"Bright Lights Film Journal, April, 2002, Richard Armstrong, "Billy Wilder and Lilo Pulver on the Set of One, Two, Three."

Cinema, October, 1969, Robert Mundy and Michael Wallington, interview with Wilder.

Esquire, April, 1972.

Fade In, Volume 2, number 1, 1996, Paul Diamond, interview with Wilder.

Film Comment, January-February, 1979, J. McBride and T. McCarthy, interview with Wilder; July-August, 1991, Andrew Sarris, "Why Billy Wilder Belongs in the Pantheon"; November-December, 1995, interview with Wilder; January-February, 1996, James Naremore, "Making and Remaking Double Indemnity."

Film Heritage, summer, 1973.

Film Quarterly, fall, 1959, Colin Young, "The Old Dependables"; summer, 1970; spring, 1971.

Films and Filming, February, 1957, "One Head Is Better than Two,"; January, 1960.

Films in Review, March-April, 1996, Stephen M. Silverman, "Billy Wilder and Stanley Donen."

Horizon, winter, 1973.

Life, December 11, 1944.

London Magazine, June, 1968.

Newark Star-Ledger, July 21, 1974.

New York, November 14, 1975.

New Yorker, June 21, 1993, David Freeman, "Sunset Boulevard Revisited: Annals of Hollywood."

New York Times, April 15, 1979; June 29, 1979.

New York Times Magazine, January 24, 1960.

Playboy, June, 1963.

Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television, fall, 1952; summer, 1953.

Real Paper (Boston, MA), July 31, 1974.

Saturday Evening Post, December 17, 1966.

Saturday Review, September 24, 1966.

Sight and Sound, winter, 1956, John Gillett, "Wilder in Paris"; spring, 1963; winter, 1967, Charles Higham, "Meet Whiplash Wilder"; autumn, 1974, Joseph McBride, "In the Picture: The Front Page"; June, 1995, Pat Kirkham, "Saul Bass and Billy Wilder: In Conversation."

Theatre Arts, July, 1962.

Time, June 27, 1960; January 5, 1970.

Variety, May 6, 2002, Geoffrey Berkshire, "Wilder Times Recalled," p. 88.

Vogue, March 1, 1965.


Senses of Cinema Web site,http://www.sensesofcinema.com/ (April, 2000), Sander Lee, "Scapegoating, the Holocaust, and McCarthyism in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17;" (May, 2002), Anna Dzenis, "Billy Wilder with One, Two, Three Stars: Pamela Tiffin, James Cagney and Horst Buchholz" and Richard Armstrong, "Billy Wilder."



Chicago Tribune, March 29, 2002, section 1, pp. 1, 20.

Entertainment Weekly, April 12, 2002, Ty Burr, obituary, p. 28.

Hollywood Reporter, April 2, 2002, p. 67.

Independent (London, England), March 30, 2002, p. 6.

Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2002, pp. A1, A20.

New York Times, March 29, 2002, pp. A1, A21.

People, April 15, 2002, Kyle Smith, obituary, p. 58.

Spectator, April 6, 2002, Mark Steyn, obituary, p. 42.

Time, April 8, 2002, p. 70.

Times (London, England), March 30, 2002.

U.S. News & World Report, April 8, 2002, p. 6.

Washington Post, March 29, 2002, pp. A1, A12.


Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (March 28, 2002).*

Wilder, Billy

views updated May 11 2018


Nationality: Born Samuel Wilder in Sucha, Austria (now part of Poland), 22 June 1906; became U.S. citizen, 1934. Family: Married Audrey Young. Military Service: Served in U.S. Army as colonel in Psychological Warfare Division of the Occupational Government, Berlin, 1945. Career: Journalist in Vienna, then in Berlin, from 1926; collaborated with Robert and Kurt Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, and Eugen Schüfftan on Menschen am Sonntag, 1929; scriptwriter, mainly for UFA studios, 1929–33; moved to Paris, co-directed Mauvaise graine, first directorial effort, then moved to Hollywood, 1933; hired by script department at Columbia, then Twentieth Century-Fox; hired by Paramount, began collaboration with Charles Brackett on Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, 1937; directed first American film, The Major and the Minor, 1942; began making films as independent producer/director with The Seven Year Itch, 1955; began collaboration with writer I. A. L. Diamond on Love in the Afternoon, 1957; directed The Front Page for Universal, 1974. Awards: Oscars for Best Direction and Best Screenplay (with Charles Brackett), and Best Direction Award, New York Film Critics, for The Lost Weekend, 1945; Oscar for Best Story and Screenplay (with Charles Brackett), for Sunset Boulevard, 1950; Oscars for Best Direction and Best Screenplay (with I. A. L. Diamond), Best Direction Award and Best Writing Award (with Diamond), New York Film Critics, for The Apartment, 1960; American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, 1985; Irving G. Thalberg Award, 1988; Kennedy Center Award, 1990; National Medal of Arts, 1993. Address: c/o Equitable Investment Corporation, P.O. Box 93877, Hollywood, CA 90093, U.S.A.

Films as Director:


Mauvaise graine (co-d)


The Major and the Minor (+ co-sc)


Five Graves to Cairo (+ co-sc)


Double Indemnity (+ co-sc)


The Lost Weekend (+ co-sc)


The Emperor Waltz (+ co-sc); Foreign Affair (+ co-sc)


Sunset Boulevard (+ co-sc)


Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival) (+ co-pr, co-sc)


Stalag 17 (+ pr, co-sc)


Sabrina (+ pr, co-sc)


The Seven Year Itch (+ co-pr, co-sc)


The Spirit of St. Louis (+ co-sc); Love in the Afternoon (+ co-sc, pr)


Witness for the Prosecution (+ co-sc)


Some Like It Hot (+ co-sc, pr)


The Apartment (+ co-sc, pr)


One, Two, Three (+ co-sc, pr)


Irma La Douce (+ co-sc, pr)


Kiss Me, Stupid (+ co-sc, pr)


The Fortune Cookie (+ co-sc, pr)


The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (+ co-sc, pr)


Avanti! (+ co-sc, pr)


The Front Page (+ co-sc)


Fedora (+ co-pr, co-sc)


Buddy Buddy (+ co-sc)

Other Films:

(in Germany)


Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (Siodmak) (co-sc); Der Teufelsreporter (co-sc)


Seitensprünge (story)


Ihre Hoheit befiehlt (co-sc); Der falsche Ehemann (co-sc); Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives) (sc); DerMann der seinen Mörder sucht (Looking for His Murderer) (Siodmak) (co-sc)


Es war einmal ein Walzer (co-sc); Ein blonder Traum (co-sc); Scampolo, ein Kind der Strasse (co-sc); Das Blaue vonHimmel (co-sc)


Madame wünscht keine Kinder (co-sc); Was Frauen träumen (co-sc)

(in the United States)


Adorable (Dieterle) (co-story, based on Ihre Hoheit befiehlt)


Music in the Air (co-sc); One Exciting Adventure (co-story)


Lottery Lover (co-sc)


Champagne Waltz (Sutherland) (co-story)


Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (Lubitsch) (co-sc)


Midnight (Leisen) (co-sc); What a Life (co-sc); Ninotchka (Lubitsch) (co-sc)


Arise My Love (Leisen) (co-sc)


Hold Back the Dawn (Leisen) (co-sc); Ball of Fire (Hawks) (co-sc)


By WILDER: book—

Conversations with Wilder, with Cameron Crowe, New York, 1999.

By WILDER: articles—

"Wilder in Paris," with John Gillett, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1956.

"One Head Is Better than Two," in Films and Filming (London), February 1957.

"The Old Dependables," with Colin Young, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1959.

Interview with Jean Domarchi and Jean Douchet in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), August 1962.

"Meet Whiplash Wilder," with Charles Higham, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1967.

Interview with Robert Mundy and Michael Wallington in Cinema (London), October 1969.

"Billy Wilder: Broadcast to Kuala Lampur," with Vanessa Brown, in Action (Los Angeles), November/December 1970.

Interview with Michel Ciment in Positif (Paris), January 1974.

"In the Picture: The Front Page," with Joseph McBride, in Sight andSound (London), Autumn 1974.

Interview with Gene Phillips in Film/Literature Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Winter 1975.

"Wilder Bewildered," an interview with Gilbert Adair, in Sight andSound (London), Winter 1976/77.

"Going for Extra Innings," an interview with J. McBride and T. McCarthy, in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1979.

Interview with C. Columbus in American Film (Washington D.C.), March 1986.

"Billy Wilder: Sunset Boulevard's Creator Talks of the Town," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1994.

"Saul Bass and Billy Wilder: in Conversation," with Pat Kirkham, in Sight and Sound (London), June 1995.

"Irony," an interview with Film Comment (New York), November-December 1995.

"Billy's Excellent Adventure," an interview with Paul Diamond, in Fade In (Beverly Hills), vol. 2, no. 1, 1996.

"El cine de los noventa," an interview with Fernando Trueba, in ElAmante Cine, June 1996.

On WILDER: books—

Madsen, Axel, Billy Wilder, Bloomington, Indiana, 1969.

Wood, Tom, The Bright Side of Billy Wilder, Primarily, New York, 1970.

Corliss, Richard, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the AmericanCinema, New York, 1975.

Seidman, Steve, The Film Career of Billy Wilder, Boston, 1977.

Zolotow, Maurice, Billy Wilder in Hollywood, New York, 1977.

Dick, Bernard F., Billy Wilder, Boston, 1980.

Giannetti, Louis, Masters of the American Cinema, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1981.

Jacob, Jerome, Billy Wilder, Paris, 1988.

Seidl, Claudius, Billy Wilder: Seine Filme, sein Leben, Munich, 1988.

Sikov, Ed, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, New York, 1999.

On WILDER: articles—

Lightman, Herb, "Old Master, New Tricks," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), September 1950.

McVay, Douglas, "The Eye of the Cynic," in Films and Filming (London), January 1960.

Higham, Charles, "Cast a Cold Eye: The Films of Billy Wilder," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1963.

Sarris, Andrew, "Fallen Idols," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1963.

"The Films of Billy Wilder," in Film Comment (New York), Summer 1965.

Mundy, Robert, "Wilder Reappraised," in Cinema (London), October 1969.

McBride, Joseph, and Michael Wilmington, "The Private Life of Billy Wilder," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1970.

Ciment, Michel, "Sept Réflexions sur Billy Wilder," in Positif (Paris), May 1971.

Farber, Stephen, "The Films of Billy Wilder," in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1971.

Onosko, Tom, "Billy Wilder," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), Winter 1971.

"Dialogue on Film: Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond," in AmericanFilm (Washington, D.C.), July/August 1976.

Sarris, Andrew, "Billy Wilder: Closet Romanticist," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1976.

Fedora Issue of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 November 1978.

Poague, Lee, "Some Versions of Billy Wilder," in Cinemonkey (Portland), no. 1, 1979.

Morris, G., "The Private Films of Billy Wilder," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1979.

Allen, T., "Bracketting Wilder," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1982.

Billy Wilder Issue of Filmcritica (Florence), November/December 1982.

"Dossier Billy Wilder," in Positif (Paris), July/August 1983.

Billy Wilder Section of Positif (Paris), September 1983.

Gallagher, Brian, "Sexual Warfare and Homoeroticism in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 15, no. 4, 1987.

Willett, R., "Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1945–1948): 'The Trials and Tribulations of Berlin,"' in Historical Journal of Film,Radio and Television (Abingdon, Oxon), March 1987.

Canby, V., "Critic's Notebook: The Wonders of Wilder, the Movies' Master Wit," in New York Times, 10 May 1991.

Brown, G., "Something Wilder," in Village Voice, 14 May 1991.

Sarris, Andrew, "Why Billy Wilder Belongs in the Pantheon," in Film Comment, July/August 1991.

Freeman, David, "Sunset Boulevard Revisited: Annals of Hollywood," in New Yorker, 21 June 1993.

Sragow, Michael, "The Wilder Bunch," in Gentleman's Quarterly, October 1994.

Naremore, James, "Making and Remaking Double Indemnity," in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1996.

Silverman, Stephen M., "Billy Wilder and Stanley Donen," in Filmsin Review (New York), March-April 1996.

Bart, P., "Hollywood's Wilder Moments," in Variety (New York), 22/28 April 1996.

Wenk, Michael, "Some Like It Wilder," in Film-Dienst (Cologne), 18 June 1996.

Roberts, J., "Billy Wilder's Double Indemnities," in Variety's OnProduction (Los Angeles), no. 3, 1997.

* * *

During the course of his directorial career, Billy Wilder succeeded in offending just about everybody. He offended the public, who shunned several of his movies as decisively as they flocked to others; he offended the press with Ace in the Hole, the U.S. Congress with A Foreign Affair, the Hollywood establishment with Sunset Boulevard ("This Wilder should be horsewhipped!" fumed Louis B. Mayer), and religious leaders with Kiss Me, Stupid; he offended the critics, both those who found him too cynical and those who found him not cynical enough. And he himself, in the end, seems to have taken offence at the lukewarm reception of his last two films, and retired into morose silence.

Still, if Wilder gave offence, it was never less than intentional. "Bad taste," the tweaking or flouting of social taboos, is a key tactic throughout his work. His first film as director, The Major and the Minor, hints slyly at paedophilia, and several other Wilder movies toy with offbeat sexual permutations: transvestism in Some Like It Hot, spouse-swapping in Kiss Me, Stupid, an ageing woman buying herself a young man in Sunset Boulevard, the reverse in Love in the Afternoon. Even when depicting straightforward romantic love, as inThe Emperor Waltz, Wilder cannot resist counterpointing it with the eager ruttings of a pair of dogs.

He also relishes emphasising the more squalid of human motives. Stalag 17 mocks prison-camp mythology by making a mercenary fixer the only hero on offer, and Double Indemnity replays The Postman Always Rings Twice with greed replacing honest lust. In The Apartment Jack Lemmon avidly demeans himself to achieve professional advancement (symbolised by the key to a lavatory door), and virtually everybody in Ace in the Hole, perhaps the most acerbic film ever made in Hollywood, furthers personal ends at the expense of a poor dupe dying trapped in an underground crevice. Wilder presents a disillusioned world, one (as Joan Didion put it) "seen at dawn through a hangover, a world of cheap double entendres and stale smoke . . . the true country of despair."

Themes of impersonation and deception, especially emotional deception, pervade Wilder's work. People disguise themselves as others, or feign passions they do not feel, to gain some ulterior end. Frequently, though—all too frequently, perhaps—the counterfeit turns genuine, masquerade love conveniently developing into the real thing. For all his much-flaunted cynicism, Wilder often seems to lose the courage of his own disenchantment, resorting to unconvincing changes of heart to bring about a slick last-reel resolution. Some critics have seen this as blatant opportunism. "Billy Wilder," Andrew Sarris remarked, "is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism." Others have detected a sentimental undertow, one which surfaces in the unexpectedly mellow, almost benign late films like Avanti! and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. But although, by comparison with a true moral subversive like Buñuel, Wilder can seem shallow and even facile, the best of his work retains a wit and astringent bite that sets it refreshingly off from the pieties of the Hollywood mainstream. When it comes to black comedy, he ranks at least the equal of his mentor, Lubitsch, whose audacity in wringing laughs out of concentration camps (To Be or Not to Be) is matched by Wilder's in pivoting Some Like It Hot around the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

The consistency of Wilder's sardonic vision allows him to operate with assurance across genre boundaries. Sunset Boulevard—"full of exactness, cleverness, mastery and pleasure, a gnawing, haunting and ruthless film with a dank smell of corrosive delusion hanging over it," wrote Axel Madsen—has yet to be surpassed among Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies. In its cold fatality, Double Indemnity qualifies as archetypal noir, yet the same sense of characters trapped helplessly in the rat-runs of their own nature underlies both the erotic farce of The Seven Year Itch and the autumnal melancholy of Sherlock Holmes. Acclamation, though, falls beyond Wilder's scope: his Lindbergh film, The Spirit of St. Louis, is respectful, impersonal, and dull.

By his own admission, Wilder became a director only to protect his scripts, and his shooting style is essentially functional. But though short on intricate camerawork and stunning compositions, his films are by no means visually drab. Several of them contain scenes that lodge indelibly in the mind: Swanson as the deranged Norma Desmond, regally descending her final staircase; Jack Lemmon dwarfed by the monstrous perspectives of a vast open-plan office; Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) trudging the parched length of Third Avenue in search of an open pawn-shop; Lemmon again, tangoing deliriously with Joe E. Brown, in full drag with a rose between his teeth. No filmmaker capable of creating images as potent—and as cinematic—as these can readily be written off.

—Philip Kemp

Billy Wilder

views updated May 14 2018

Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder (born 1906) has been honored repeatedly as one of Hollywood's finest directors, writers, and producers. He created more than 50 films, encompassing such well-known comedies as The Apartment and Some Like It Hot and award-winning dramas including Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend. While Wilder retired from filmmaking in the early 1980s, many of his films continue to be popular among filmgoers and are regarded as classics by critics and the film community.

Billy Wilder was born Samuel Wilder in Sucha, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Poland), on June 22, 1906. His mother, Eugenia, had spent several years in the United States. Hollywood legend says that she nicknamed her son after Buffalo Bill. His father, Max, who operated cafes and hotels, often drifted from job to job and had financial problems. Young Billy spent much of his time playing billiards and observing the hotel and cafe patrons. He became very interested in the films of Ernst Lubitsch.

After spending several months at the University of Vienna studying law, Wilder left and became a reporter. Although he was quite a success at this job, one of his assignments failed when Sigmund Freud refused to be interviewed. In 1926 Wilder moved to Berlin and wrote film scenarios; to help make extra money after the death of his father, he also worked as a dance partner for hire at a local hotel. By 1933 Wilder had fled to Paris because his Jewish heritage and leftist politics put him at increasing risk in Germany. He had some success there in selling scenarios and had already directed a film when he was offered a minor contract in Hollywood. Wilder left Europe and lost touch with his family; it was not until after World War II ended that he would discover their fate.

Found Long-term Writing Partner

Wilder knew little or no English, had little money, and had no home when he arrived in Hollywood; another Hollywood legend says that he lived in the ladies' room of a hotel. He was befriended by actor Peter Lorre and eventually found regular work, first at Twentieth Century Fox. One of his earliest film credits was as a writer for Music in the Air (1934), which featured the young actress Gloria Swanson; many years later she would become the star of Wilder's great film Sunset Boulevard. Wilder then went to Paramount Studios, where he was able to work under his role model, Ernst Lubitsch, who then headed production.

At Paramount Wilder was assigned to co-write a script for Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1936) with Charles Brackett, a law school graduate and former drama critic. The two men, according to New Yorker writer David Freeman, were complete opposites, often screaming at each other during work sessions and threatening to break up the team. However, Bluebeard marked the beginning of a long working relationship between Brackett and Wilder. They wrote 13 screenplays together, including the scripts for Lubitsch's hit comedy Ninotchka (1939), for which Wilder received his first Academy Award nomination (Best Writing, Screenplay).

Turned to Directing

As Wilder became a more successful scriptwriter, he also began to direct the resulting films, perhaps because that way he could protect the integrity of what he had written. Again according to Freeman, director Wilder frequently shot a film before he had finished writing the script and improvised scenes along the way, thus making it much more difficult to replace him. The Wilder-Brackett team carried on (with Wilder directing, Brackett producing, and both writing the scripts) until they finally dissolved their partnership after completing work on Sunset Boulevard in 1950.

High points of Wilder's early films include Double Indemnity (1942) and The Lost Weekend (1945). In Double Indemnity, a classic of the film genre called film noir, Barbara Stanwyck and insurance agent Fred MacMurray murder her husband to get the proceeds of an insurance policy. Brackett so much disliked the story that detective author Raymond Chandler had to replace him as scriptwriter. Brackett returned to cowrite The Lost Weekend, which starred Ray Milland as an alcoholic who hits bottom. For this film, Wilder won his first two Academy Awards: Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay. The film also was named Best Picture and Milland Best Actor. However, around this time Wilder's marriage to his first wife, Judith, fell apart. After an affair with actress Doris Dowling, he married another actress, Audrey Young. Both women had appeared in The Lost Weekend, but Young's footage was edited out of the final version.

After completing The Lost Weekend, Wilder accepted an appointment to the Army's Psychological Warfare Division in Germany. His difficult task was to try to determine which members of the German film and theater industry during World War II would be acceptable to help rebuild it. Freeman tells how Wilder had to interview one ex-Nazi SS officer who had played Jesus Christ in a prewar play and wanted to do so again. Wilder reportedly said that the actor could play the role only if real nails were used during the crucifixion. While in Germany, Wilder finally had discovered the fate of his family: his mother, grandmother, and stepfather all had died at Auschwitz.

The experience in Germany certainly affected two of Wilder's later films, both set in Germany. A Foreign Affair (1948), on its surface a comedy about a romantic triangle in postwar Berlin, won Wilder an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay. However, the film was withdrawn from circulation after being criticized in Congress for being vulgar and joking about the war's aftermath. Stalag 17 (1953) starred William Holden as a con artist in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, and won Wilder another Academy Award nomination, this time for best director.

String of Hits 1950-1960

In 1950 Wilder and Brackett co-wrote and Wilder directed Sunset Boulevard, which is widely regarded as the greatest of Wilder's films, as well as one of the best depictions of the Hollywood film industry. The story of aging film star Norma Desmond (played by aging film star Gloria Swanson) is told by her lover, a young screenwriter played by William Holden, who is shown drowned in a swimming pool as the film begins. Some film executives were furious at Wilder for his sarcastic and dark portrait of Hollywood, summarized in Desmond's classic line, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." But Sunset Boulevard was a huge success; it was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, and Wilder won Oscars for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. However, this film also marked the end of the Wilder-Brackett writing team. In his future films Wilder first worked independently and then teamed up in 1956 with I.A.L. Diamond, with whom he collaborated until Diamond's death in 1988.

After the success of Sunset Boulevard, Wilder created a string of hit films during the 1950s. These included the original Sabrina (1954), a romantic comedy starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and Wilder regular William Holden; The Seven Year Itch (1955), another comedy perhaps best remembered for the scene in which Marilyn Monroe's dress is blown over her head by the draft from a subway grate; and Witness for the Prosecution (1958), a courtroom drama based on an Agatha Christie play and starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power.

Some Like It Hot (1959) tackled two unlikely subjects for a comedy of the time: mob violence and cross-dressing. Wilder was discouraged from making the film by many of his friends; according to Maurice Zolotow in Billy Wilder in Hollywood, producer David O. Selznick said bluntly that, "Blood and jokes do not mix." However, the final product was a great success. Band musicians Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon witness a mob massacre in the late 1920s and hide, dressed as women, in a traveling all-woman band whose vocalist is ukulele-playing Marilyn Monroe. Curtis, re-disguised as a wealthy playboy, becomes involved with Monroe, while Joe E. Brown, an aged and slightly daft millionaire, pursues Lemmon (in female disguise). Forty years later, the American Film Institute selected Some Like It Hot as the funniest American film ever made.

In The Apartment (1960), Wilder again called on Jack Lemmon, teaming him with an actress who had not yet become a major star, Shirley MacLaine. Lemmon is a clerk who lends his apartment to executives in his firm for secret meetings with their girlfriends. MacLaine is an elevator operator who becomes suicidal after being rejected by one of the executives. Despite its subject matter (once again, shocking for a film of the time), The Apartment was enormously popular. Wilder won Oscars for Best Director, Best Picture, and (with cowriter I.A.L. Diamond) Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.

Received Many Honors after Retirement

Through the 1960s and 1970s, Wilder worked on several more films, although none was as successful as his previous ones. They included: One Two Three (1961); Irma La Douce, which once again paired Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon (1963); The Fortune Cookie (1966); The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970); and The Front Page (1974). Wilder directed his last film, Buddy Buddy, in 1981; it was not a critical or commercial hit. He consistently denied that he had retired and continued to meet with his longtime collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, to discuss new ideas for films, but none moved beyond the discussion stage. Wilder told New York Times reporter Michiko Kakutani in 1996 that the only film of recent years that he had found "stimulating" was Forrest Gump.

Even though he no longer released new material, Wilder's existing body of films continued to be acknowledged as among Hollywood's finest and wittiest work. In 1982 he was honored at a gala event by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. During a pre-event interview, he told the New York Times what makes a film successful: "The basic point is to bring them in and keep them awake. The picture where it starts at 8, and at midnight I look at my watch and it's 8:15-that's the kind of picture I hate." The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1988, in recognition of his long and outstanding filmmaking career. And, in 1993, Andrew Lloyd Webber created a hit Broadway musical based on Sunset Boulevard. In January 2000 Wilder, then ninety-three, appeared at an event held in his honor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in preparation for a retrospective show of his films.

The American Film Institute lists four of Wilder's films among its top 100 films of all time: Sunset Boulevard; Some Like It Hot; Double Indemnity; and The Apartment. In Conversations with Wilder, fellow filmmaker Cameron Crowe summarized Wilder's body of work: "Billy Wilder's work is a treasure trove of flesh-and-blood individuals, all wonderfully alive. In his canon of work are fall-down-laughing comedies, stinging character studies, social satire, true suspense, aching romance, the best in life, the sad and the giddy, the ironic and harrowing all have equal weight in his work."


Crowe, Cameron, Conversations with Wilder, Random House, 1999.

Sikov, Ed, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, Hyperion, 1998.

Wood, Tom, The Bright Side of Billy Wilder, Primarily, Doubleday, 1970.

Zolotow, Maurice, Billy Wilder in Hollywood, Putnam's, 1977.


New York Times, May 4, 1982; May 10, 1991.

New York Times Magazine, July 28, 1996.

New Yorker, June 21, 1993.

Variety, April 22, 1996; January 17, 2000.


Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,http://www.oscars.org (November 7, 2000).

AFI's 100 YEARS, 100 MOVIES (America's Greatest Movies), http://www.filmsite.org/afi100films.html (November 7, 2000).

"Billy Wilder," Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com(November 3, 2000).

"The Top 100," American Film Institute Online,http://www.afionline.org/100laughs/list.asp (November 6, 2000). □

Wilder, Billy

views updated May 23 2018


WILDER, BILLY (1906–2002), U.S. film director and writer. Born in Vienna, Wilder began as a newspaperman, and got his start in the film industry in Berlin by writing scripts. He left Germany in 1933 and reached Hollywood in 1934. At Paramount studios he collaborated with Charles Brackett, a former drama critic for The New Yorker, and together they wrote 14 successful films, including Ninotchka (1939); Ball of Fire (1941); Double Indemnity (1944); The Lost Weekend (1945); A Foreign Affair (1948); The Emperor Waltz (1948); and Sunset Boulevard (1950). After they had parted in 1950, Wilder wrote successes such as Stalag 17 (1953); Sabrina (1954); The Seven Year Itch (1955); Love in the Afternoon (1957); and Witness for the Prosecution (1958). Wilder, whose films were characterized by novel situations and swift dialogue, teamed with I.A.L. Diamond to make Some Like it Hot (1959); The Apartment (1960); Irma la Douce (1961); The Fortune Cookie (1966); and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). Many of these he also produced and directed.

Other Wilder films include The Spirit of St. Louis (1957); One, Two, Three (1961); Kiss Me, Stupid (1964); Avanti! (1972); The Front Page (1974); Fedora (1978); and Buddy Buddy (wrote, 1981).

For more than a quarter of a century, Wilder was one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood. His many accomplishments and accolades include six Oscars – two for direction, three for screenwriting, and one for producing. In 1986 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. In 1988 he received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, given to "a creative producer who has been responsible for a consistently high quality of motion picture production."

add. bibliography:

T. Wood, The Bright Side of Billy Wilder, Primarily (1970); M. Zolotow, Billy Wilder in Hollywood (1977); C. Crowe, Conversations with Wilder (1999); E. Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (1999); R. Horton (ed), Billy Wilder: Interviews (2001); C. Chandler, Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, a Personal Biography (2002).

[Stewart Kampel /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]

Wilder, Billy

views updated Jun 08 2018

Wilder, Billy (1906–2002) US film director and screenwriter, b. Germany. His creative partnership with Charles Brackett began with comedy scripts, such as Ninotchka (1939). Double Indemnity (1944) is a classic film noir. Wilder won Academy Awards for best director, best picture, and shared the best screenplay prize with Brackett for The Lost Weekend (1945). Their last collaboration, Sunset Boulevard (1950), also earned them a best screenplay Oscar. Wilder's solo career proved just as successful with films such as The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like it Hot (1959). Wilder won further Academy Awards for best picture and best director for The Apartment (1960).