|Billy Wilder: I'm a Writer But Then Nobody's Perfect|
Billy Wilder (22 June 1906 – 27 March 2002) was an Austro-Hungarian born American filmmaker, screenwriter, producer, artist, and journalist, 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. Wilder is one of only five people to have won Academy Awards as producer, director, and writer for the same film with The Apartment.
Wilder became a screenwriter in the late 1920s while living in Berlin. After the rise of Nazi Party, Wilder, who was Jewish, left for Paris, where he made his directorial debut. He relocated to Hollywood in 1933, and in 1939 he had a hit when he co-wrote the screenplay to the screwball comedy Ninotchka. Wilder established his directorial reputation after helming Double Indemnity (1944), a film noir he co-wrote with mystery novelist Raymond Chandler. Wilder earned the Best Director and Best Screenplay Academy Awards for the adaptation of a Charles R. Jackson story The Lost Weekend, about alcoholism. In 1950, Wilder co-wrote and directed the critically acclaimed Sunset Boulevard.
From the mid-1950s on, Wilder made mostly comedies. Among the classics Wilder created in this period are the farces The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959), satires such as The Apartment (1960), and the drama comedy Sabrina (1954). He directed fourteen different actors in Oscar-nominated performances. Wilder was recognized with the American Film Institute (AFI) Life Achievement Award in 1986. In 1988, Wilder was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. In 1993, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. Wilder has attained a significant place in the history of Hollywood censorship for his role in expanding the range of acceptable subject matter.
Billy Wilder with Elizabeth Taylor after Receiving 3 Oscars for The Apartment in 1960
Born Samuel Wilder to a Jewish family 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). His parents had a successful and well-known cake shop in Sucha Beskidzka's train station and unsuccessfully tried to persuade their son to join the family business. Soon the family moved to Vienna, where Wilder attended school. Instead of attending 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). He wrote the screenplay for the 1931 film adaptation of a novel by Erich Kästner, Emil and the Detectives. After the rise of Adolf Hitler, Wilder, a Jew, left for Paris, where he made his directorial debut with the 1934 film Mauvaise Graine. He relocated to Hollywood prior to its release. As Austrian Wilder-biographer Andreas Hutter found out in 2011 in Polish and Israeli archives, his mother, grandmother, and stepfather did not perish in the Auschwitz concentration camp as assumed and passed on for decades: Mother Gitla Siedlisker was murdered in 1943 in the Plaszow concentration camp (known from Schindler's List), stepfather Bernard (Berl) Siedlisker died in 1942 in the Belzec concentration camp, grandmother Balbina Baldinger in 1943 in the ghetto of Nowy Targ.
After arriving in Hollywood in 1933, Wilder continued his career as a screenwriter. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1934. Wilder's first significant success was Ninotchka in 1939, a collaboration with fellow German immigrant Ernst Lubitsch. 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 (although their collaboration on Bluebeard's Eighth Wife and Midnight had been well received). 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.
He had a major impact his third film as director with Double Indemnity (1944), a film noir, nominated for Best Director and Screenplay, which was co-written with mystery novelist Raymond Chandler; the two men though 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. While the book was highly popular with the reading public, it had been considered unfilmable under the Hays Code, because adultery was central to its plot. Double Indemnity is credited by some as the first true film noir, combining the stylistic elements of Citizen Kane with the narrative elements of The Maltese Falcon (1941). Wilder was the Editors Supervisor in the 1945 US Army Signal Corps documentary/propaganda film Death Mills. 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 (1945), the first major American film to make a serious examination of alcoholism, another difficult theme under the Production Code.
In 1950, Wilder co-wrote and directed the dark and cynical and critically acclaimed Sunset Boulevard, which paired rising star William Holden with Gloria Swanson. Swanson played Norma Desmond, a reclusive silent film star who dreams of a comeback; Holden is an aspiring screenwriter who becomes a kept man. In 1951, Wilder followed Sunset Boulevard with Ace in the Hole, a tale of media exploitation of a caving 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 adaptations of Broadway plays, the prisoner of war 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 the mid 1950s, Wilder became interested in doing a film with one of the classic slapstick comedy acts of the Hollywood Golden Age. He first considered, and rejected, a project to star Laurel and Hardy. He then held discussions with Groucho Marx concerning a new Marx Brothers comedy, tentatively titled "A Day at the U.N." This project was abandoned when Chico Marx died in 1961. From the mid-1950s onwards, Wilder made mostly comedies. Among the classics Wilder created in this period are the farces The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959), satires such as The Apartment (1960), and the romantic comedy Sabrina (1954). Wilder's humor is sometimes sardonic. In Love in the Afternoon (1957), a young and innocent Audrey Hepburn does not wish to be young or innocent with playboy Gary Cooper, and pretends to be a married woman in search of extramarital amusement. The film was Wilder's first collaboration with writer-producer I. A. L. Diamond, an association that continued until the end of both men's careers. In 1959, United Artists released Wilder's Prohibition-era farce Some Like It Hot without a Production Code seal of approval, withheld due to the film's unabashed sexual comedy, including a central cross-dressing theme. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play musicians who disguise themselves as women to escape pursuit by a Chicago gang. Curtis's character courts a singer played by Marilyn Monroe, while Lemmon is wooed by Joe E. Brown—setting up the film's final joke in which Lemmon reveals that his character is a man and Brown blandly replies "Well, nobody's perfect".
The film's box-office success, record-breaking for a comedy, is widely considered to be one of several death blows to the Hays code. 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 apparently lesser films but now of cult status such as Irma la Douce and Kiss Me, Stupid. Wilder gained his last Oscar nomination for his screenplay The Fortune Cookie (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 (1978) and Buddy Buddy (1981) failed to impress critics or the public.
After that Wilder never ceased to complain that Hollywood was making a big mistake by not giving him any films to direct. He did so at film festivals, in interviews, on television, and whenever he had the opportunity. He often hinted that he was being discriminated against, due to his age. His complaining did not help: for whatever reason, the studios were unwilling to hire him. One "consolation" which Wilder had in his later years, was the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical version of Sunset Boulevard. The musical itself had an uneven success and is generally considered to be one of the least of Webber's musicals.
Wilder's directorial choices reflected his belief in the primacy of writing. He avoided the exuberant cinematography of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles 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. Despite his conservative directorial style, his subject matter often pushed the boundaries of mainstream entertainment. Once a subject was chosen, he would begin to visualize in terms of specific artists. His belief was that no matter how talented the actor, none was without limitations and the end result would be better if you bent the script to their personality rather than force a performance beyond their limitations. Wilder 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 likeable; Wilder refused). Wilder sometimes cast against type for major parts such as Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and The Apartment. MacMurray had become Hollywood's highest-paid actor portraying a decent, thoughtful character in light comedies, melodramas, and musicals; Wilder cast him as a womanizing schemer. 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 coaxed a very effective, and in some ways memorable performance out of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.
In total, he directed fourteen different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, William Holden in Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard, Nancy Olson in Sunset Boulevard, Robert Strauss in Stalag 17, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester in Witness for the Prosecution, Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Jack Kruschen and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment and Irma la Douce and Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie. Milland, Holden and Matthau won Oscars for their performances in Wilder films. 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. Lemmon starred in seven of Wilder's films.
Billy 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". 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". Wilder was recognized with the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1986. In 1988, Wilder was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. In 1993, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Wilder became well known for owning one of the finest and most extensive art collections in Hollywood, mainly collecting modern art. As he described it in the mid 80's, "It's a sickness. I don't know how to stop myself. Call it bulimia if you want – or curiosity or passion. I have some Impressionists, some Picassos from every period, some mobiles by Calder. I also collect tiny Japanese trees, glass paperweights and Chinese vases. Name an object and I collect it."  A few years before he died, Wilder agreed to a sale of most of the collection at an auction, netting a very large sum of money. He said that he was not selling the art to make money, but that he had enjoyed it as much as he could; he wanted others to have a chance to own it.
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 near Jack Lemmon. Marilyn Monroe's crypt is located in the same cemetery. Wilder died the same day as two other comedy legends: Milton Berle and Dudley Moore. The next day, French newspaper Le Monde titled its first-page obituary, "Billy Wilder dies. Nobody's perfect", quoting the final gag line in Some Like It Hot.
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