Billy Wilder (1906-2002)

Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder was a film-making genius, one of the greatest writer/directors Hollywood ever produced. In a long Hollywood career he was the prime mover behind some of the most memorable images and dialogue in movie history, whether it be Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate in that famously billowing white dress, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as cross-dressing musicians in 'Some Like It Hot' in 1959, or Fred MacMurray's convincing portrayal of the insurance salesman turned killer in 'Double Indemnity' in 1944. He was even responsible for making Greta Garbo laugh in her first comedy, 'Ninotchka', in 1939.

Search Amazon for Billy Wilder

He received eight Academy Award nominations as Best Director (second only to William Wyler who had twelve), winning the Oscar twice. He was also nominated an amazing twelve times for Best Screenplay awards, winning three. He directed 14 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances and three actors, Ray Milland, William Holden and Walter Matthau won Oscars for their performances in a Wilder film. In 1961 Wilder joined an elite group of directors who have won three Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay - for the same film - 'The Apartment' (1960). His Oscar record was only surpassed in 1997, fittingly, by that other great writer/director Woody Allen.

Wilder's films were characterized by their tight plots, smart characters, and clever dialogue. Unusually, perhaps for a director so associated with comedy, Wilder consistently pushed the limits of movie censorship with his adult choice of subject matter that included adultery ('Double Indemnity'), alcoholism ('The Lost Weekend'), and the "toyboy", kept man ('Sunset Boulevard').

He wrote the number one movie in the American Film Institute's 100 Funniest Movies: 'Some Like It Hot' (1959) and he has four other entries: 'The Apartment' (1960) at #20, 'The Seven Year Itch' (1955) at #51, 'Ninotchka' (1939) at #52 and 'Ball of Fire' (1941) at #92.


Billy Wilder was born Samuel Wilder on 22 June 1906 in Austria-Hungary (now Poland) and was nicknamed "Billie" by his mother out of her fascination with U.S. culture. Wilder later changed that to the more westernised "Billy" after his arrival in America in 1933.

Wilder attended school in Vienna after the family moved there and later began studying at the University of Vienna but dropped out in 1925, when his interest in American culture got him into journalism. In 1926 he interviewed band leader Paul Whiteman and accompanied him on the Berlin leg of Whiteman's tour. He began working for the city's largest tabloid and developed an interest in movies, breaking into films as a screenwriter in 1929. He wrote scripts for many German films but in the wake of Adolf Hitler's rise to power the Jewish Wilder moved to Paris, where he made his directorial debut with 'Mauvaise Graine' in 1934.

His movie ambitions meant an inevitable move to America. When he arrived in The USA in 1933 he spoke no English but thanks to contacts such as Peter Lorre (with whom he shared an apartment), he was quick to study both the language and form of the movies there, and was able to break into American films.

He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1934 and within a few years he became a well known and successful screenwriter with such titles as Joe May's 'Music in the Air' in 1934 and A. Edward Sullivan's 'Champagne Waltz' in 1937.

Wilder always preferred to write with a partner, perhaps because he was not a native English speaker. His first American partner was Charles Brackett with whom he penned a string of classic comedies including 'Ninotchka' in 1939 and 'Ball of Fire' in 1941. He was then promoted to writer and director for a script he had written with Brackett,'The Major and the Minor' in 1942.

Teaming up with crime writer Raymond Chandler to adapt James M. Cain's novella gave Wilder his first classic, the film noir 'Double Indemnity' in 1944. This landmark film established such noirish conventions as the use of atmospheric 'venetian blind' lighting and voice-over narration.

Towards the end of the Second World War Wilder was commissioned by the United States Department of War to direct a propaganda documentary film, 'Death Mills' , or 'Die Todesmühlen', which was intended for German audiences to educate them about the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. Whilst travelling in Europe for the film, Wilder made the grim discovery that his mother, grandmother, and stepfather had perished in the Auchswitz concentration camp. It was a subject he never spoke about.

For the rest of the 1940's Wilder rode a streak of hits and acclaim, including 'The Lost Weekend' in 1945 and the much celebrated 'Sunset Boulevard' in 1950, which marked his final collaboration with Brackett.

Latterly, Wilder's comedy became more cynical, his dramatic interludes more intense, and his artistic confidence heightened with the ability to write, produce, and direct titles of his own creation. Out of the gates in this new chapter was a tragedy that missed an audience 'Ace in the Hole' in 1951, the beloved 'Sabrina' in 1954, 'The Seven Year Itch' in 1955, and his first writing collaboration with the other important partner of his career, I.A.L. Diamond, 'Love in the Afternoon', in 1957.

Wilder's Heyday

With the exception of 'Witness for the Prosecution' in 1957, Diamond and Wilder co-wrote all the remaining projects of their careers. At the height of their powers, they created the sublime comedies 'Some Like It Hot' in 1959 and 'The Apartment' the following year. With the latter, Wilder gained entry to an elite group of directors who have won Oscars for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Screenplay for the same film. As younger names took over Hollywood in the 1970's, veteran talents such as Wilder were often overlooked, but out of this waning period still came 'Avanti!' in 1972 and 'The Front Page' in 1974.

In his later years Wilder received many Achievement Awards. In 1986 he received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award and two years later the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. In 1993, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

Billy Wilder's long and fruitful life came to an end when he died of pneumonia in March 2002, aged 95. He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, Los Angeles, California. Both Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe are buried in the same cemetery.

Billy Wilder Academy Awards

Six Wins:
Best Director ... The Lost Weekend (1945)
Best Writing, Screenplay ... The Lost Weekend (1945) (Shared with Charles Brackett)
Best Writing, Story and Screenplay ... Sunset Boulevard (1950) (Shared with Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Best Director ... The Apartment (1960)
Best Picture ... The Apartment (1960)
Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen ... The Apartment (1960) (Shared with I.A.L. Diamond

Fifteen Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Writing, Screenplay ... Ninotchka (1939) (Shared with Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch)
Best Writing, Screenplay ... Hold Back the Dawn (1941) (Shared with Charles Brackett)
Best Writing, Original Story ... Ball of Fire (1941) (Shared with Thomas Monroe)
Best Director ... Double Indemnity (1944)
Best Writing, Screenplay ... Double Indemnity (1944) (Shared with Raymond Chandler)
Best Writing, Screenplay ... A Foreign Affair (1948) (Shared with Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen)
Best Director ... Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Best Writing, Story and Screenplay ... Ace in the Hole (1951) (Shared with Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman)
Best Director ... Stalag 17 (1953)
Best Director ... Sabrina (1954)
Best Writing, Screenplay ... Sabrina (1954) (Shared with Samuel A. Taylor, Ernest Lehman
Best Director ... Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Best Director ... Some Like It Hot (1959)
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium ... Some Like It Hot (1959) (Shared with I.A.L. Diamond)
Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen ... Meet Whiplash Willie (1966) (Shared with I.A.L. Diamond)

One Honorary Award:
Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award (1988)

Billy Wilder Filmography as Director

Mauvaise Graine
Five Graves to Cairo
The Lost Weekend
Death Mills (Director only)
The Emperor Waltz
A Foreign Affair
Ace in the Hole