Best known for being one of the most brilliant and versatile filmmakers of Hollywood’s golden age. He is perhaps as equally renowned for his comedies — The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960) — as he is for his classic excursions into film noir, such as Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Though he was born Samuel in 1906 in what is now Poland, his mother nicknamed him Billy because she loved America and thought that name sounded more American. Though he planned on becoming a lawyer, Billy Wilder ended up as a journalist and screenwriter in Berlin. Hitler’s steady rise to power pushed him first to Paris and then to Hollywood, fulfilling the destiny his mother set for him.
Arriving in 1934 knowing very little English, his pal and roommate Peter Lorre showed him the ropes. Five years later, Billy Wilder’s co-screenplay for Ernst Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka” lost out to “Gone With the Wind” in arguably Hollywoods biggest year ever. Latching on to Lubitsch, Wilder maintains he learned how to direct from talking with Ernst, and even moved in with his mentor after Lubitsch had a heart attack. Wilder kept a sign in his office, “How would Lubitsch do it?”
Though Wilder is recognized as one of the all-time great American directors, he was just as much if not more one of the all-time great American screenwriters. It is no accident that his first Academy Award nomination was as a writer. It’s almost impossible to believe, after hearing Melvyn Douglas deliver his lines in “Ninotchka”, that English was his second language.
Wilder must have felt that he and his co-authors had mastered the language quite well. As a director, he very rarely allowed any deviation from his scripts. In spite of this, his actors loved him. Jack Lemmon, William Holden, Audrey Hepburn, Fred MacMurray and even Marilyn Monroe were all in multiple Wilder pictures.
Wilder had the Oscars to back up his dictum, too. He was nominated eight times for an Academy Award for directing, and he won twice. However, he was nominated twelve times for screenwriting and won three times. Wilder is one of only five people to have won three Academy Awards in the same year. His year was 1960, when he won Screenwriter, Director and Best Picture Oscars for “The Apartment“. It is no wonder that it’s his favorite.
Wilders mother and grandmother were killed in Nazi concentration camps — his mother at Auschwitz. He wanted his last picture to be “Schindler’s List“. Partly because he was in his eighties, though, he gave his blessing to Steven Spielberg directing it. Though he maintained he would have made a different picture (of course), he applauded the film, which he saw at its first public screening.
Like most writers-turned-directors, Wilder confessed that he became a director to keep other people from messing up his written work. That is the system, of course, and it worked well for Billy Wilder. Still, though, to truly appreciate Wilder the director, a true fan should watch, listen to, or even read Wilder the writer.
— Nate Lee