October 8th, 2006
Billy Wilder
About Billy Wilder

From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, Billy Wilder dominated Hollywood’s Golden Age. With over fifty films and six Academy Awards to his credit, he is one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest directors, producers and screenwriters. His films range from stark melodrama, like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), to antic farce, such as THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955) and SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), to satiric comedy, like A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948) and THE APARTMENT (1960). Billy Wilder has had a powerful creative influence on both the experimental and traditional film industries in America.

He was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906 in Sucha, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Max Wilder, who died in 1926, ran a chain of railway cafes. His mother Eugenia had spent several years in the United States in her youth. She nicknamed her younger son “Billy” because of her fascination with legendary American hero, Buffalo Bill. Wilder briefly studied law in Vienna before obtaining a newspaper job writing interviews, crime and sports stories, and hard-hitting personal profiles. In 1926, Wilder’s interests led him to a publicity job with the American jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman in Berlin. He remained in Berlin writing for the city’s largest tabloid.

In 1929 Wilder had his first break working on the German film MENSCHEN AM SONTAG (People on Sunday). He remained in Germany co-writing and directing films until the rise of the Nazis forced him to move to France, and ultimately to the United States. Wilder arrived in Hollywood in 1934 with virtually no money and little knowledge of English. He worked on and off until 1938, when he began a long and fruitful collaboration with Charles Brackett. Their partnership, which lasted twelve years, produced a succession of box office hits including HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941), DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE LOST WEEKEND, and SUNSET BOULEVARD. DOUBLE INDEMNITY, co-written with Raymond Chandler was a tense and thrilling film noir, while SUNSET BOULEVARD investigated the bizarre and tragic life of a once famous silent movie star. Both proved Wilder’s ability to create successful and artistic cinema.

The 1950s saw Wilder produce several films alone including STALAG 17 (1953) and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, before teaming up with the writer/producer I.A.L. Diamond in 1957. The two would collaborate for over twenty years, producing such major hits as WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1954), SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE APARTMENT. Wilder’s career was one of the most various and successful in the business. While he often wrote and directed penetrating films about the shallowness of modern life, he was capable of creating equally successful comedies. Often running into criticism for his presentation of taboo topics such as alcoholism and prostitution, the high quality of the films redeemed him in the eyes of both the public and the industry. Of the many great stars he directed, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Stewart and Jack Lemmon are only a few.

The late 1960s and 1970s, however, were not as kind to Wilder. His brand of cynicism, irony and satire were out of step with this generation’s view of peace, love, revolution and individual experimentation. Nonetheless, in 1964 the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a sixteen-film, thirty-five-year, retrospective of Wilder’s work. Similar showings were later held in Paris, Berlin and Los Angeles. He has received many awards and tributes including the National Medal of Honor (awarded by President Clinton). Today, Wilder’s films remain an important part of American culture, and he is viewed as one of Hollywood’s greatest successes.

  • filmmessages,com

    I am a HUGE fan of Billy Wilder. If he indeed was the subject of an American Masters episode, I regret having missed it. PLEASE e-mail when the episode is replayed.

  • Reader

    Billy Wilder is my second-favorite auteur. (Woody Allen is my #1 favorite.) What an amazingly talented man — to be able to produce, direct and and/or write such brilliant movies is the very definition of genius. My grandma liked “The Lost Weekend”; she really admired Ray Milland’s performance, and thought he was very nice looking. (But he wasn’t her all-time favorite; Fredric March was, both for his great acting ability and because she thought he had an extremely handsome face.) I watched “Weekend” and was so pleased to see that some of the movie was actually shot on the streets of NYC — this was quite rare for that time period. My favorite BW movies are: “The Apartment,” which I’ve seen a couple of times, and “Sunset Boulevard,” which I’ve seen about six times and love very, very much. It’s a shame that the majority of young people aren’t interested in black & white movies, and just aren’t basically interested in anything that happened before they were born, or even later than that. (A young person once told me that she wasn’t interested in anything before her “age of awareness,” which to her was when she was seven years old.) Que lastima, quelle dommage, what a pity.

  • Jim Simon

    I am a hugh Billy Wilder fan. I know that American Masters aired Billy Wilder : The human Comedy on Feb 4, 1998. I understand that this show has never been released on DVD.

    Is it at all possible to get a copy of this show? If not, will it ever been showned again?

  • is there a DVD or VHS

    I saw a sort of biography of Billy Wilder . I think on PBS servera years ago. Showed him in his office talking
    about scripts, etc.That is the one I.m interested in.

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