Billy Wilder - Director

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.

Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder

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); Der Mann 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 von Himmel (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 du Cinéma (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 and Sound (London), Autumn 1974.

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

"Wilder Bewildered," an interview with Gilbert Adair, in Sight and Sound (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 El Amante 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 American Cinema , 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 American Film (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 Films in 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 On Production (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 in The 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

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