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Billy Wilder
(1906 - 19 )Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film

Occupation: Director, screenwriter,Also: producer/ Birth Name: Samuel Wilder/Born: June 22, 1906, Vienna, Austria/Education: University of Vienna (law)


Billy Wilder's work as a director in Hollywood runs an erratic, colorful course. Early in his directorial career, Wilder proved adept at turning out major films in established genres, including farce (THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, 1942), film noir (DOUBLE INDEMNITY, 1944) and the social problem film (THE LOST WEEKEND, 1945). With experience, Wilder created a variation on the Lubitsch comedy of manners and seduction in films such as SABRINA (1954) and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (1957). And finally, beginning with the vastly underrated A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948), Wilder developed a strain of harsh black-comic expression in such films as THE BIG CARNIVAL/ACE IN THE HOLE and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), a strain which found its apotheosis in works that were critically despised on their initial release: ONE, TWO, THREE (1961) and the disastrous KISS ME, STUPID (1964).

After leaving law school in his native Vienna and working as a tabloid journalist, Wilder drifted into screenwriting. From 1929 to 1933, he wrote screenplays for a number of important German films in which he began to develop the tightly woven, intricate narrative structures, marked by incredible reversals, paradoxes and inversions, that would characterize his best American work. Important in this regard is his work on two 1931 films. EMIL AND THE DETECTIVE/EMIL UND DIE DETEKTIVE utilized the streets of a large city as a psychological labyrinth, prefiguring the complex use of physical settings in A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948) and THE APARTMENT (1960). The script for Robert Siodmak's DER MANN, DER SEINEN MORDER SUCHT (which inspired two American films under the title D.O.A.) is successfully built around a seemingly impossible premise: a man solves his own murder. Wilder's American films often begin with characters in similar narrative cul-de-sacs. In THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, the heroine is forced to play a person half her own age; the musicians-on-the-run in SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) are forced to live in drag; Sefton, the American prisoner-of-war at the center of STALAG 17 (1953), is accused of being a collaborator.

In 1933, after co-directing a film in France, Wilder arrived in Hollywood, part of the large emigré influx of German and Austrian film talent. During the 1930s, Wilder roomed for a time with Peter Lorre and apprenticed under Ernst Lubitsch. In 1938 he and screenwriter Charles Brackett formed a writing tandem that quickly became one of Hollywood's hottest teams. Their writing credits included BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE (1938), MIDNIGHT (1939), NINOTCHKA (1939) and BALL OF FIRE (1941). Even after he began directing with THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, Wilder continued to write his own screenplays, mostly with Brackett producing, in a relationship that lasted until 1950. Films such as DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE LOST WEEKEND, and SUNSET BLVD. (1950) won Wilder a reputation as a cynic, but also notable was the bleak A FOREIGN AFFAIR, a film that Wilder, a colonel during WWII, chose to direct in recently captured Berlin; it brilliantly captured the bewildering moral climate of the late 1940s.

SUNSET BLVD. (1950) marked the end of Wilder's years with Brackett, and for the next seven years he wrote scripts with several co-authors. Interestingly, SUNSET BLVD. also marks the apogee of Wilder's career as a visual stylist. None of his later films match his early work for its chiaroscuro lighting or self-conscious use of camera angles. Beginning with THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, however, Wilder utilized highly symbolic art direction and set design as a way of exaggerating his characters' psychological predicaments; in particular, THE APARTMENT and IRMA LA DOUCE (1963) represent one of the most significant director-designer collaborations in the history of the American cinema.

In 1957, Wilder began writing with I.A.L. Diamond, who shared many of Wilder's thematic interests, such as the use of interlocking acts of deception practiced by large ensembles of characters (THE APARTMENT, THE FORTUNE COOKIE, 1966) and the tangled connections of sex and economics (THE APARTMENT, IRMA LA DOUCE, KISS ME, STUPID).

Wilder's career reached its zenith in the early 1960s. Writing, directing and producing his own films for release by the Mirisch Corporation through United Artists, he reaped a healthy share of the profits of such blockbusters as SOME LIKE IT HOT and IRMA LA DOUCE; he also enjoyed virtually total control over his films. A series of setbacks began with KISS ME, STUPID, a film which was castigated by critics and moral guardians such as Cardinal Spellman for its dry, unflinching sexual humor. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970) was drastically cut and failed to earn back its cost. The 70s saw Wilder struggling with a remake of THE FRONT PAGE (1974) and the misbegotten FEDORA (1978). Wilder's most recent film, with his frequent stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, was the farcical BUDDY BUDDY (1981).

If the later years of his career were less than successful, the consolations have been many; seven Academy Awards for writing, directing and producing; the Cannes festival Palme d'Or for THE LOST WEEKEND; the Irving Thalberg Award; the Life Achievement Awards of the Directors Guild and the American Film Institute. Billy Wilder has brought to the screen an outsider's sharp eye for American absurdity and cruelty, and a master scenarist's skill at rendering those absurdities within a dozen variations, some bitter, some sweet, but all with intelligence, clarity and even affection.

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