Billy Wilder was born in Poland to Austrian Jewish parents in the first decade of the 20th century. He moved to Germany where he studied journalism and got involved in screenwriting. Fleeing from Germany with the rise of Hitler, he came to America and became a citizen in 1939 while beginning work in Hollywood as a screenwriter writing such movies as Ninotchka starring Greta Garbo.
He liked to work with a writing partner and developed a working relationship with Charles Brackett with whom he co-wrote every movie from his first directorial effort The Major and the Minor to that favorite of Bergman, Sunset Blvd. in 1950. They broke off their partnership allowing Wilder to find I.A.L. Diamond by 1957 with whom he co-wrote everything from Love in the Afternoon to Wilder’s final film in 1981 Buddy Buddy.
Unlike some of his contemporaries like Alfred Hitchcock, Wilder not only received popular acknowledgements of his art, but he was also rewarded handsomely by the Academy over his career. He won six Oscars (and a special lifetime achievement Oscar), including three for a single movie (The Apartment).
However, like many of his contemporaries, the seismic changes that wrecked Hollywood’s old order in the 60s and 70s left Wilder behind. Funding became much harder, and even the man who made studios buckets of cash with Some Like It Hot ended up with a string of financial flops and minor successes that gave the money men pause. He even included a small soliloquy from William Holden’s character in Fedora about how Hollywood was then dominated by the young guys with beards (Scorsese, Lucas, de Palma, and Spielberg, in particular). His frustration became palpable in the movies themselves.
His final effort was an unfunny comedy titled Buddy Buddy starring the dynamic comedic pair of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon that he first brought together in The Fortune Cookie, pulled together purely through Lemmon and Matthau’s star power. It was a sad end to a great career.
The Height of His Power
Wilder made several films that had an indelible effect on the world of popular cinema. Double Indemnity pretty much wholesale created film noir on its own. It owed certain elements to things that came before it (most notably John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon), but it’s combination of voiceover, venetian blind lighting scheme, and cynical look at the world and relationships created a model that Hollywood continues to ape to this very day.
However, it was the dual release of Some Like it Hot in 1959 and The Apartment in 1960 that represents the height of his creative output and popular appeal. Some Like It Hot made $40 million on a $3 million budget, and The Apartment made $25 million on a $3 million budget. Wilder was nominated for the big awards at the Oscars for Some Like it Hot, but he won Best Picture (as producer), Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (along with I.A.L. Diamond) for The Apartment.
America loved Billy Wilder then. His next film, One, Two, Three was terribly timed as a manic Cold War comedy set in Berlin that was in the middle of production when the Berlin Wall started production. However, audiences still loved him so much that they even made his next film, the overlong Irma la Douce a smash hit, but his popularity quickly began to wane. However, for a time, Billy Wilder was one of the kings of Hollywood.
Right. Why talk about Billy Wilder? Is it because he won Oscars that I talk about him? Is it because Bergman liked one of his movies?
No, I choose to write about him this week because I love him as a filmmaker.
He was never a flashy director. He never let the visuals dominate the stories or feel like the point. The vast majority of his films are based on previous material and most of that was based on plays. Dialogue and character have the most prominence in his films, and he uses visuals purely as support to his characters. The long and dehumanizing office space in The Apartment is a great piece of artistry, but it’s there to create a sense of the main characters isolation and general unimportance to the world around him.
His most common motif was about deception. The way I define it is to say that characters are always wearing masks. The only time this becomes close to literal is in a couple of his comedies (The Major and the Minor and Some Like It Hot) when characters have to change either their age or sex in order to get out of situations. He used this comedically but also dramatically. William Holden becomes another person in order to appease Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd, giving up what he really wants in order to become her boy toy.
Billy Wilder had a fantastic balance of cynic and romantic within him, and I think he was at his best when he managed to balance them within the same picture (The Apartment) or he gave into one side or the other so completely (Ace in the Hole).
I love his ability to tell a story while pushing certain envelopes and getting great performances from his actors. I love his sense of irony that’s almost as present as his cynicism. I love how he can approach the same thing across different movies and come to almost completely different conclusions like the cynical self-interested man being the villain in Ace in the Hole but the hero in Stalag 17. I love his take on Hollywood as something that will ultimately kill you as in Sunset Blvd. I love his ability to make something almost dreamlike and purely innocent as Sabrina or The Emperor Waltz.
Wilder was one of those filmmakers who could seemingly make any kind of movie. He had a musical. He created film noir. He made sex comedies. He made buddy comedies. He made dramatic war pictures. He made romances. He was never pigeonholed into one genre or type of story, and he was very good at it. He also made Marilyn Monroe the sexiest she had ever been on screen.