Billy Wilder

From New World Encyclopedia

Billy Wilder
Birth name: Samuel Wilder
Date of birth: June 22 1906(1906-06-22)
Birth location: Sucha, Galicia, Austria-Hungary (now Sucha Beskidzka, Poland)
Date of death: March 27 2002 (age 95)
Death location: Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
Academy Awards: Best Director
1945 The Lost Weekend
1960 The Apartment
Best Picture
1960 The Apartment
Best Adapted Screenplay
1945 The Lost Weekend
Best Original Screenplay
1950 Sunset Blvd.
1960 The Apartment
Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award
1988 Lifetime achievement
Spouse: Judith Coppicus (1936-1946)
Audrey Young (1949-2002)

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

Billy Wilder is sometimes confused with director William Wyler. This confusion is understandable, as both were German-speaking Jews with similar backgrounds and names. However, their output as directors was quite different, with Wyler preferring to direct epics and heavy dramas and Wilder noted for his comedies and film noir-type dramas.

Life and career


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


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

Hollywood career

After arriving in Hollywood, in 1933, Wilder shared an apartment with fellow émigré Peter Lorre, and continued his career as a screenwriter. He did not know English in the beginning, and later on he said: "My English is a mixture between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Archbishop Desmond Tutu."

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

Billy Wilder was the Editors Supervisor in the 1945 U.S. Army Signal Corps documentary/propaganda film, Death Mills.

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

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

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

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

From the mid-1950s on, Wilder made mostly comedies.[1] Among the classics Wilder produced in this period are two more Marilyn Monroe vehicles, the farces The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959), as well as satires such as The Apartment (1960) again with Jack Lemmon, and the romantic comedy Sabrina (1954)—Humphrey Bogart's last star turn.

Wilder's humor was harsh and unsentimental—some call it cynical—and sometimes sardonic. In Love in the Afternoon (1957), a young and innocent Audrey Hepburn who doesn't want to be young or innocent wins playboy Gary Cooper by pretending to be a married woman in search of extramarital amusement. Even Wilder's warmest comedy, The Apartment, features an attempted suicide on Christmas Eve.

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

Directorial style

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

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

Wilder mentored Jack Lemmon and was the first director to pair him with Walter Matthau, in The Fortune Cookie (1966). Wilder had great respect for Lemmon, calling him the hardest working actor he had ever met.

Wilder's films often lacked any discernible political tone or sympathies, which was not unintentional. He was less interested in current political fashions than in human nature and the issues that confronted ordinary people. He was not affected by the Hollywood blacklist, and had little sympathy for those who were. Of the blacklisted "Hollywood Ten," Wilder famously quipped, "Of the ten, two had talent, and the rest were just unfriendly." In fact, Wilder reveled in poking fun at those who took politics too seriously. In Ball of Fire, his burlesque queen Sugarpuss points at her sore throat and complains "Pink? It's as red as the Daily Worker and twice as sore." Later, she gives the overbearing and unsmiling housemaid the name "Franco."

Later life

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

Billy Wilder died in 2002, of pneumonia at the age of 95 after battling health problems, including cancer, in Los Angeles, California, and was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, Los Angeles, California. He died the same day as Milton Berle and Dudley Moore. The next day, the top-ranking French newspaper, Le Monde, titled its first-page obituary, "Billy Wilder is dead. Nobody is perfect." This was a reference to the famous closing line of his film Some Like it Hot.

Wilder's legacy

Billy Wilder has been called a Hollywood cynic who made comedies—a cynic because his work was unsentimental and unsparing of the sensibilities of his characters. But all this was in the context of either film comedy or film noir; he made both.

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.

Billy Wilder was a key player in the American cinema throughout the period after World War II. He helped bridge the transition between the studio system and the rise of independent producer-directors. He was still active into the "New Hollywood" era. He was a 1930s screenwriter who became a contract director in the 1940s. By 1950, he had come to be regarded as a superb director. In the 1950s, he and his co-screenwriters were known in the front office and fan magazines for making money, and indulging the sensibilities of audiences as well as pleasing the critics. Although he met with a critical downturn in the 1960s, by the mid-1970s his reputation had risen, leading to renewed critical praise and awards. Influential American film critic Andrew Sarris had not included Wilder in his pantheon in the first (1968) edition of his seminal work, The American Cinema; Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. But in the revised edition of 1996, Sarris admitted that he had been wrong about Wilder and elevated him to that lofty status.

Along with Woody Allen, Wilder leads the list of films on the American Film Institute's list of 100 funniest American films with 5 films written and holds the honor of holding the top spot with Some Like it Hot. Also on the list are The Apartment and The Seven Year Itch, which he directed, and Ball of Fire and Ninotchka, which he co-wrote. The AFI has ranked four of Wilder's films among their top 100 American films of the twentieth century. These are: Sunset Boulevard (no. 12), Some Like It Hot (14), Double Indemnity (38), and The Apartment (93).

Wilder said, "I just made pictures I would have liked to see."

Billy Wilder's twelve Academy Award nominations for screenwriting was a record until 1997, when Woody Allen received a thirteenth nomination for Deconstructing Harry. Wilder is one of only four people who have won three Academy Awards for producing, directing, and writing the same film, (The Apartment).

Wilder has also had a significant influence on some other directors. Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba said in his acceptance speech for the 1993 Best Non-English Speaking Film Oscar, "I would like to believe in God in order to thank him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder… so, thank you Mr. Wilder." According to Trueba, Wilder called him the day after and told him: "Fernando, it's God."


Academy Awards

Year Award Work
1946 Best Screenplay The Lost Weekend
1946 Best Director The Lost Weekend
1951 Best Original Screenplay Sunset Blvd.
1961 Best Original Screenplay The Apartment
1961 Best Director The Apartment
1961 Best Picture The Apartment
1988 Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award Lifetime Achievement
1940 Best Screenplay Ninotchka
1942 Best Screenplay Hold Back the Dawn
1942 Best Original Story Ball of Fire
1945 Best Screenplay Double Indemnity
1945 Best Director Double Indemnity
1949 Best Screenplay A Foreign Affair
1951 Best Director Sunset Blvd.
1952 Best Story and Screenplay Ace in the Hole
1954 Best Director Stalag 17
1955 Best Screenplay Sabrina
1955 Best Director Sabrina
1958 Best Director Witness for the Prosecution
1960 Best Screenplay Some Like It Hot
1960 Best Director Some Like It Hot
1967 Best Original Screenplay The Fortune Cookie
Preceded by:
Leo McCarey
for Going My Way
Academy Award for Best Director
for The Lost Weekend
Succeeded by:
William Wyler
for The Best Years of Our Lives
Preceded by:
William Wyler
for Ben-Hur
Academy Award for Best Director
for The Apartment
Succeeded by:
Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
for West Side Story


  1. David A Cook. A History of Narrative: Film Fourth Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004). ISBN 0393978680

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Richard Armstrong. Billy Wilder, American Film Realist. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000. ISBN 0786408219
  • Chandler, Charlotte. Nobody's Perfect. Billy Wilder. A Personal Biography. New York: Schuster & Schuster, 2002. ISBN 0743217098
  • Crowe, Cameron. Conversations with Wilder. New York: Knopf, 2001. ISBN 0375709673
  • Hopp, Glenn. Billy Wilder. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2001.
  • Horton, Robert. Billy Wilder Interviews. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. ISBN 1578064449
  • Lally, Kevin. Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder. New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1996. ISBN 0805031197
  • Sikov, Ed. On Sunset Boulevard. The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. New York: Hyperion, 1999. ISBN 0786861940
  • Wood, Tom. The Bright Side of Billy Wilder, Primarily. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.
  • Zolotow, Maurice. Billy Wilder in Hollywood. Pompton Plains, NJ: Limelight Editions, 2004. ISBN 0879100702

External links

All links retrieved October 31, 2023.


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