Samuel "Billy" Wilder (June 22, 1906 March 27, 2002) was an Austrian-American director, screenwriter, and producer, regarded as one of the greatest and most versatile filmmakers of The Golden Age of Hollywood.
He was born in Sucha, Galicia, now part of Poland, but at that time, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the early '30s, he worked as a screenwriter for German films under the name "Billie Wilder", but after Hitler came to power, he emigrated to the United States because of his Jewish ancestry. He continued his career as a screenwriter there, further changing his name to "Billy Wilder". He directed his first American movie, The Major and the Minor, in 1942, and followed it with a string of critical and commercial hits until the '60s. Wilder equally excelled in dark, cynical noir dramas and satirical or lightly romantic comedies. Always identifying as a writer first, he co-wrote all of his films and won six Academy Awards: two for Best Director, three for Best Writing, and one for Best Picture.
Billy Wilder's More Important Films Include:
As writer only:
- Midnight (1939) — A Screwball Comedy retelling of Cinderella, with Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore, and Mary Astor. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.
- Ninotchka (1939) — Romantic comedy about a love affair between a Soviet diplomat (Greta Garbo) and a French aristocrat; one of the first American films to portray the Soviet Union. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
- Ball of Fire (1941) — Screwball comedy about a mobster's girlfriend hiding from the law with an Oblivious to Love English professor. Directed by Howard Hawks.
- Hold Back the Dawn (1941) — Romance about a Citizenship Marriage. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.
- The Major and the Minor (1942) — As noted, his directorial debut in America. Stars Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland.
- Five Graves to Cairo (1943) — WWII spy thriller with a heavy dose of propaganda.
- Double Indemnity (1944) — The quintessential Film Noir, starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Co-written with Raymond Chandler.
- The Lost Weekend (1945) — The first Hollywood movie that portrayed alcoholism dramatically, starring Ray Milland. Won Best Picture.
- A Foreign Affair (1948) — A Romantic Comedy set in post-WWII Berlin, starring Jean Arthur, and Marlene Dietrich.
- Sunset Boulevard (1950) — A dark, cynical take on the film industry and fame, starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson.
- Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival) (1951) — A brutally cynical movie about journalism, starring Kirk Douglas.
- Stalag 17 (1953) — A comedy-drama about POWs in World War II, starring William Holden.
- Sabrina (1954) — A light romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.
- The Seven Year Itch (1955) — A romantic comedy with Marilyn Monroe, source of the iconic image.
- Witness for the Prosecution (1957) - A courtroom drama starring Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich, based on Agatha Christie's play, famous for its Twist Ending.
- Love in the Afternoon (1957) — A romantic comedy with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper. Wilder's first of eleven collaborations with screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond.
- Some Like It Hot (1959) — A classic comedy, again starring Marilyn Monroe, with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
- The Apartment (1960) — A comedy-drama with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, about the then-scandalous subject of adultery. Won Best Picture.
- One, Two, Three (1961) — A comedy set in West Berlin, satirizing both communism and capitalism, starring James Cagney.
- Irma la Douce (1963) — A romantic comedy set in France, featuring a classic "boy meets girl" scenario, except the girl (Shirley MacLaine) is a prostitute, and the boy (Jack Lemmon) creates an alter ego to stop her from continuing prostituting herself, and gets arrested when he "kills off" the alter ego.
- Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) — A daring Sex Comedy starring Dean Martin, who Adam Wests himself as a lecherous singer who gets stranded in a small town and tangles with a pair of amateur songwriters.
- The Fortune Cookie (1966) — A legal satire with Jack Lemmon as a somewhat reluctant fraud and Walter Matthau (AA Best Supporting Actor) as his opportunistic lawyer.
- The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) — A combination Affectionate Parody and deconstruction of the Sherlock Holmes character.
- The Front Page (1974) — The Remake of the 1931 Screwball Comedy about newspaper reporters.
Tropes associated with Billy Wilder's work include:
- Creator In-Joke: For some reason he liked the name Sheldrake, using it as the surname for the producer in Sunset Boulevard (played by Fred Clark), the boss in The Apartment (played by Fred MacMurray), and the small-town dentist in Kiss Me, Stupid (played by Mel Blanc).
- Deadpan Snarker: He wrote these to perfection.
- Deliberately Monochrome: Preferred shooting in black-and-white and continued to do so long after color became available, and then fashionable. The last black-and-white Best Picture winner before Schindler's List was his own The Apartment, and his last black-and-white movie was released in 1966.
- Genre Roulette: Billy could go from light, breezy comedy to cold, cynical drama in an instant.
- The Mentor: Ernst Lubitsch was this to him, giving him his first jobs and Wilder had a sign in his office, "What Would Lubitsch Do?", for when he had writer's block. Later in life, he was this to many filmmakers, most notably Cameron Crowe, who published a whole book of his conversations with Wilder.
- Mood Whiplash: Used primarily in his comedy-dramas.
- Playing Against Type: He had a knack for casting actors in roles different from usual and succeeding, with family-friendly Fred MacMurray playing hard-boiled detectives and philanderers, tough guy Humphrey Bogart playing opposite Audrey Hepburn in a romantic comedy, and the often dramatic James Cagney as the lead of a silly Cold War farce.
- Production Posse: He had a regular stable of actors and crew members at his aid, including:
- Jack Lemmon (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Irma la Douce, The Fortune Cookie, The Front Page, Buddy Buddy)
- Walter Matthau (The Fortune Cookie, The Front Page, Buddy Buddy)
- Marilyn Monroe (The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot)
- Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon)
- William Holden (Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Sabrina)
- Marlene Dietrich (A Foreign Affair, Witness for the Prosecution)
- Fred MacMurray (Double Indemnity, The Apartment)
- Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment, Irma la Douce)
- When it came to screenwriting, he went with Charles Brackett and I. A. L. Diamond, winning Oscars with both.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Usually a cold-hearted cynic but definitely had some shades of optimism.
- Screwball Comedy: One of the latter-day masters of the genre.