THE MAESTRO: 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, to antic farce, such as The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot, to satiric comedy, like A Foreign Affair and The Apartment. Billy Wilder has had a powerful creative influence on both the experimental and traditional film industries in America.

He was born Samuel Wilder (1906) in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His mother had spent several years in the United States in her youth. She nicknamed her younger son “Billy” because of her fascination with 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.


In 1929, while working in Berlin, Wilder joined with future film directors Fred Zinnemann, Robert Sidomak (The Killers), and Edgar G. Ulmer to make a short film, Menschen Am Sonntag (People on Sunday). After Hitler's rise to power in 1934, Wilder fled his homeland. Once in Hollywood, Wilder and roommate Peter Lorre, quickly learned English and joined the other German expatriates in staking their territory in the film industry.

As a filmmaker, Wilder was well acquainted with the shadowy, brooding style of German Expressionism. He put these two qualities together to create a landmark film noir - Double Indemnity (1944). By the end of the decade, Wilder painted a portrait of Hollywood stardom gone awry in Sunset Boulevard (1950). At the same time, he created first-rate entertainments such as his adaptation of Agatha Christie's courtroom drama, Witness for the Prosecution starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power.

Each of these films is an undisputed classic today, but even at the time, his films were lauded. Six of his screenplays were nominated for Oscars between 1941-1950. Three of his eight Best Director nominations came during this period.


By the end of the '50s, as censorship guidelines were easing, Wilder's projects became more daring. Sex was central to Wilder's world and Hollywood celebrated his candor. He directed Marilyn Monroe in two of her most sensuous roles, The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959). After working with Monroe, Wilder's scripts became even more poignant. In The Apartment (1960), Wilder took an incisive look at corrupt businessmen exploiting their employees for sexual favors. In Irma La Douce (1963), the world of a Parisian prostitute was lovingly painted in Technicolor tones. And with Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), Wilder finally stepped over the line with the story of a struggling composer willing to offer his wife to sell a song.

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.

Today, Wilder’s films remain an important part of American culture, and he is viewed as one of Hollywood’s greatest successes.

SOURCES: PBS, Turner Movie Classic Movies